Updated: Dec 20, 2021
“You are seen as role models. From you, they will have that motivation,” Abdirisack Jaldesa, the governor of Oloitoktok said to us, “In the future they will want to be you.”
We are not sure how true this is or how much we could help our friends in Africa, but we are sure this experience in Africa has shaped us.
In July 2017, we, a group of 14 Chinese volunteers, arrived in Oloitoktok, Kenya. During this visit, we researched and learnt about the traditional practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), brought funds to help an anti-FGM NGO rent a new rehabitation center and interacted with local children via teaching. More importantly, we will share this unique story with people in China.
This is our first trip to Africa, through a platform called China House, which connects young Chinese with different projects in Africa. We signed up for this program because we are passionate about women empowerment and eager to learn about what we could do as global citizens.
FGM in eastern Kenya
FGM is the ritual practice of removing some or all of the external female genitalia from girls generally between 5 and 15 years of age and is usually carried out by circumcisers using blades, not doctors, in unsafe and non-sterilized manners. This practice may cause problems and diseases such as infections, difficulty in urinating, chronic pain as well as childbirth complications.
In Kenya, FGM is banned by law since 2011. However, according to Soila Sayialel, co-founder of Maasai Girls Lifetime Dream Foundation (MAGRIAF), some Kenyan tribes still keep high FGM rates nowadays, and the rate is still about 78% among Maasai girls. In Maasai culture, she explains, females were traditionally required to undergo FGM in order to get married.
After a five-hour-long and bumpy bus ride, we arrived in Oloitoktok, Kenya. Together with staff members of MAGRIAF, we met a girl who recently almost underwent FGM.
Our bus took us to the village till where it couldn’t move further because of the narrow road. We were surrounded by trees and crops. We kept walking on the dirt road for about 15 minutes till we reached a house built with branches and clay, black plastic to cover holes on the walls waving in the wind. We were told the father of this family, 75 years old, was blind, and the mother had mental issues. They have four daughters and no boys. The mother was away from home when we arrived. Sayialel believed she was out begging for food.
Then, the 15-year-old girl who escaped FGM, Nice Lasola, walked out to greet us. She wore a gray sweater and appeared shy. She spoke Maa, the Maasai language, and barely spoke English, which was her favorite subject at school. Her teacher from school, Grace Koruta, helped translating. We learned that she had heard from her parents they were planning to cut her, so she ran to her school, which was about two kilometers away in distance, and reported to the head teacher. The head teacher then came to talk to the parents, resulting in the parents agreeing not to have Nice circumcised.
We moved inside the house and sat down close to Nice on wooden benches.
We learned that Nice was the second born of the family. Her older sister was circumcised two years ago and married off when she was 17. She has one child now.
Inside Nice’s house
The teacher kept on explaining that Maasai families tended to see daughters as properties that could be traded for cows and goats. However, we heard that the older sister’s “price” was only promised but not yet paid.
As we could see, the family was in poverty and could not support the daughters’ education. The co-founders of MAGRIAF, Sayialel and Sari believed leaving Nice with her parents could not be a long-term solution to her problems, as the parents might try to send her faraway for circumcision, such as Tanzania, where restrictions are less strict and monitoring groups are less effective. They said they would arrange for Nice to move to a rescue center soon and look for funds to pay for her education.
Prior to this trip, we raised approximately $7,500. Using this money, we rented a new house for three years and equip all the facilities, and also paid for tuition and living expenses of the 5 new resident girls for the next one year. Soon it will be the new home for more than five girls, including Nice.
Can Chinese Be Of Help to End FGM in Africa?
We prepared and taught classes at Inkisanjani Primary School, where 92% of students come from local Maasai tribe. We visited families of Maasai girls who ran away from home to escape FGM. We also wrote about our experiences and published stories to raise public awareness of this challenge and to raise funds for anti-FGM organizations like MAGRIAF.
The house we rented for MAGRIAF
As China becomes more influential in Africa, we believe Chinese could help with social issues in Africa.
Based on a 2017 report titled “The Closest Look Yet At Chinese Economic Engagement In Africa” by McKinsey&Company, China-Africa trade has been growing constantly at about 20% per year since the turn of the millennium; China’s foreign direct investment to Africa has been increasing at a rate of roughly 40% over the past decade.
Decorating the new house for MAGRIAF
It seems to us that traditionally, Chinese in Africa tended to be business-oriented. But we believe people like us are the new trend: young Chinese coming to Africa for development projects. We know that China House held another program this summer that sent several young Chinese volunteers to a Kenyan slum to learn about its issues. We also know people who already volunteered or plan to volunteer in Africa. For example, an 18-year-old friend told us that we outsiders could not act as if we were saviors; we had to go to the actual place to learn about the real issue and then try to help. She expressed her desire to volunteer in Africa during future school breaks.
Maybe short-term volunteers cannot provide much help, but fund-raising can. We have witnessed how Chinese funds could be raised to support issues like anti-FGM and development of Maasai villages. Before our trip, we already started a campaign to ask for donations to Maasai girls. We received 851 pieces of donation material, including office stationary, hygienic products, clothes and other items from China, and a few donations from Chinese communities in Kenya, including 11 mobile phones from a Chinese tech company named TECNO.
Donations from China
We will keep the campaign going to raise more funds and goods for our African friends. Another good example is that we know a Chinese high school student who volunteered in Kenya for two months last year, during which he shared his experience with the locals on how to manage personal finances and start small businesses. He felt strongly connected to Kenyan youth. After he left, he founded an organization to raise funds for African orphans. So far, he has raised over $6,000 to help over 50 African orphans pay for school fees. He is looking to expand his organization and looking for new ways to reduce poverty in Africa.
We also heard that Chinese companies in Kenya are interested in launching Corporate Social Responsibility programs. And we are writing a proposal to pitch them.
“White Savior” is not Our Goal
We know the story of “white savior”. In the past, some people came to Africa pretending they were saviors while they were ignorant and reckless. We keep it in mind. Indeed, we feel we are here to learn.
Meeting Emmram was an example. During a career path class that we taught at the local school, we asked students about their future dreams. Then, 16-year-old Emmram stoop up slowly. Firmly, he said: “I want to be the president.” He said there were problems in Kenya, such as poverty, corruption, FGM and water shortage, and he wanted to become the president to solve those problems. We will share this story with our young Chinese fellows and encourage them to start planning for the future early.
Compared to westerners, we Chinese are newcomers and know little about Africa. And Africa knows little about us. However, maybe there is more chance for a different future for such a new relationship.