First Published at Daily Nation >>> Blood on the floor, worse on the bed.
Hello dear reader. My name is Irene Chelegat. I am aged 20 and the story I want to tell you is based on my personal experiences, first, as a woman and, second, as a wife.
It is a story that I hope will change the lives of my peers for the better, a story that I have been yearning to tell for a long time.
I come from Kapenguria, a timid dusty town 430 kilometres to the north-west of Nairobi.
I call the town timid because, over the years, I have watched it cow into submission as the scorching sun battles for supremacy with dry winds that lick life out of anything that stands in their way.
And the hills that surround my little town have for centuries stood and watched in disturbing muteness, like witnesses to a crime, as the place loses the battle with the elements.
Beneath that timidity, however, lies something more sinister and heart-wrenching. And I am the very personification of the effects of that sinister monster. It has been labelled “culture” and “tradition” by its proponents, dressed up to look and sound nice — sort of like painting the walls of a prison — but deep within it remains, at least to me, the lowest that a people can stoop.
My reasons for that evaluation are four: One, I was 13 when I got married; two, I was 13 when I was circumcised; three, I was 13 when I lost my baby through obstructed labour; and, four, I was 13 when I was divorced.
Yes, by the time the average Kenyan girl of my age was preparing for her Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examination, I had been married and divorced, and left with scars that I have struggled with ever since. It is easy, then, to see why I may sound a little bitter about the timidity of Kapenguria.
It all began in 2007, when I was a Standard Four pupil at Chepararia Primary School. I had just entered teenage and was beginning to notice changes in my body when a 24-year-old man asked me to be his girlfriend.
He had pursued me for a while, but since I was in school most of the time, we could only meet during the holidays, when he would visit and bring me gifts. After a short while, I was hooked.
When we eventually got intimate, I thought it was part of the normal friendship between boys and girls.
After all, other girls reported having similar experiences during the holidays. After some time, however, I noticed I was growing round and plump, but I did not think much of it. It was only after I heard my boyfriend telling his friends that I was pregnant that I realised what was happening.
Then aged 13, I had no idea what being pregnant was, but at least I now understood why my skin was dry, why I felt sleepy in the afternoons and had bouts of nausea.
Most importantly, I understood that I was not sick, but that a baby was growing inside me.
Consequently, I dropped out of school and moved in with my boyfriend. He did not have a steady job but managed to provide for us.
I did not go for any antenatal visits, but towards the eighth month, he took me to a clinic in a place called Seger.
The doctor insisted that I visit the clinic daily for check-ups, but I never went back.
My boyfriend, now pressured by the turn of events, said he would marry me, but on condition that I agreed to be circumcised. You see, my community considers uncircumcised girls children, and therefore does allow children to give birth to children. So, to be a woman and a mother, I had to undergo the cut.
I had been told about the pain involved, but my boyfriend insisted it was the only ticket to marriage. Since I did not want to shame my husband-to-be or my family, I agreed to undergo the procedure.
Turns out the man had done his homework well and knew not only who would cut me, but how much we would have to pay for the procedure as well.
Circumcision is a two-day affair here. The first day is marked by traditional dances and rituals. In the early morning cold, we sang traditional folk songs as red ochre was applied on our faces.
There were older women around to take us through the steps of becoming a woman. Then the 81 of us made a timid file into a hut.
From the mood and the terse talks, you could tell that it was a solemn occasion. Most of my fellow initiates were between 18 and 19 years. I was among the youngest, but that did not matter since we would all walk out as women.
Two of the initiates were as heavily pregnant as I was. I had the privilege, or so I thought, of being the first under the knife. The circumciser, an old woman, had a razor in one hand and a spear in the other. The spear, we had been warned, was to stab anyone who showed any fear during the procedure. She charged Sh500 for the honour.
She came up to me, her eyes glistening with excitement, pulled my face close to hers and asked if I had willingly chosen this path. Of course I had not, I wanted to tell her, but there was no backing out now. My marriage, honour and respect were at stake, and so I nodded my response.
I knew what was expected of me at this point, so I immediately lay on my back and arched my legs. She smeared some warm ash on me and the next minute… I felt as if ants were clawing and sawing and pinching their way up my back.
Chop. Chop. Slice. Each cut accompanied by such searing pain that I can’t put it into words. Rivulets of blood dripped down my thighs to the ground, but at least I was inching closer to being a woman. This was worth every drop of blood, right?
When she was done, she bound my legs at the ankles and thighs with a sisal rope. As I continued bleeding, some women lifted me and placed me on the dewy grass outside the hut. I was numb from the pain, but that was just day one. The next day she would work on what was left of my “childish” parts. I could not move or walk or go to the toilet as the pain wracked my body.
The second cut was even worse. The pain felt like a thousand daggers on my flesh. She cut everything out and stitched it all up again. I looked and felt like — how do I put this — a knee. All flat. No bumps. Nothing there. It was all gone.
Unlike others, my wound took time to heal and when it did three weeks later, there was barely any opening, making urinating extremely painful for me. Then, as fate would have it, I went into labour shortly after the wound healed.
The labour brought with it a fresh bout of pain that was beyond what I had imagined. My waters just broke unexpectedly, and for hours I did not go to the hospital. Eventually, my husband took me back to the clinic in Seger, where they said there was no passage for the baby, so I had to undergo an emergency operation.
I was transferred to Ortum Mission hospital, north of Kitale, where they could save my life and, hopefully, that of my child. I was tired and weak, and each contraction took a little life out of me.
By the time doctors performed a Caesarian Section on me, the baby had already died, possibly from the exhaustion.
To make matters worse, when I came to, I realised I could not contain my urine or stool. I panicked and asked the doctor what was happening: “You are torn,” he replied, meaning I had developed a condition known as fistula.
I was in hospital for six months. My husband one day came to visit me with a flask of tea. He offered me a cup and when I drank it, I wet my bed almost immediately.
Ignorant of what fistula is, he said I was cursed and broke the news that he was leaving me for greener pastures. He accused me of being unfaithful and called some old men who told me that I would recover if I named the men I had cheated on my husband with.
And so, while I was still aged 13, my husband remarried. He now has two wives, both of them my age mates. And, most importantly, circumcised.
I was alone and destitute when my maternal aunt, who had been taking care of me since my mum died in 2004, came for me — here is where I get to tell you that I do not know my biological father.
At home, I could not leave the house because of the stench I was releasing. I was scared of eating or drinking anything. For six years I endured shame, and my self-esteem hit rock bottom.
Then one day I went back to Ortum Hospital for assistance and was referred to Moi Referral and Teaching Hospital in Eldoret.
It was here that I met officers of the Sentinelles, a programme in West Pokot that intervenes in matters of FGM and early marriages, and which later introduced me to the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref).
During my stay at Moi Referral I discovered that my case was not unique. I saw hundreds of women with fistula. In fact, some cases were worse than mine. I was not cursed, after all!
I underwent five reconstructive surgeries to repair the damage. It is now six months since my last operation in October last year and I am healed.
My life is repaired, literally. But many other girls follow in my footsteps. My people should know that by subjecting their daughters and sisters to the cut, they are not making them full women, but instead churning out broken women who believe they are cursed and useless.
Female Genital Mutilation gives women a life of pain, misery and fistula, and I hope the government, through the Anti-FGM board led by Linah Jebii Kilimo, will go to the heart of timid Kapenguria and stop the cut.
Irene spoke to the Daily Nation’s Eunice Kilonzo. Email the writer at email@example.com. Share your reactions at firstname.lastname@example.org.