Nice Nailantei, 27, made many a Kenyan proud when she featured in the 2018 list of 100 most influential people in the world assembled annually by TIME magazine. She was in steering company of global luminaries also recognised, such as media mogul Oprah Winfrey, US president Donald Trump, Prince Harry and Megan Merkel, as well as pop stars Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna. She was the only Kenyan in the coveted list, thanks to breaking cultural barriers and, in a patriarchal community, standing up for herself and consequently 16,000 other girls and counting. She spoke to HARRIET JAMES
As the earth awaits rain after a long period of drought, all eyes are on her as she rises to deliver her acceptance speech. Never in her life had she imagined that her campaigns to end female genital mutilation (FGM) and early child marriages could receive such accolade, making her, at such a young age, rub shoulders with the high and mighty in the world.
Adorned in Maasai regalia, 27-year-old Nice Nailantei Leng’ete, brought the crowd at the TIME 100 Gala held in New York, US on April 24 to their feet with her speech that was laced with humour and grace.
She was listed in the 2018 TIME’s 100 Most Influential People, a prestigious annual list published by the American news magazine, that acknowledges the great things extraordinary people do in their quest to transform the world.
Kenyans too celebrated when they heard Nailantei had made it to the list, which also featured Prince Harry and Megan Merkel, US President Donald Trump, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who at 37, is the youngest female head of government in the world, Black Panther lead actor Chadwick Boseman, South African comedian Trevor Noah, as well as pop stars Jennifer Lopez and Rihanna among others.
“This is about the countless girls, women, boys, men, and elders all over Kenya and Africa who are working to bring female genital mutilation and child marriage to an end,” said Nailantei, as she led the dignitaries to a toast.
Yet, behind all the accolades is an inspiring story of a painful struggle of a young girl to free herself from the jaws of FGM and early marriage, and in her freedom, see young Maasai girls liberated from the same outdated practices, and go to school.
Nailantei’s journey began in Kajiado’s remote village of Noomayianat, nestled in the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. The harsh realities of life hit her hard in 1998, when she was just eight years old. Her parents, whom she was close to, passed on, and together with her elder sister, Elizabeth Soila, they were sent to live with their grandfather.
Around the tender age of eight years, the Maasai community performs FGM to young girls to mark their coming of age, as they shed the last vestiges of childhood and are regarded as adults in their society.
Nailantei recalls how she and her elder sister managed to flee from her uncle and clan, who strictly adhered to the traditional culture, and desired nothing but to have them go through the cut. “I saw pain. I saw death. Since I was seven years old, I used to attend these ceremonies in my community. I watched my friends drop out of school and get married. I wanted to continue my education,” she says.
According to The World Health Organization (WHO), FGM, also known as Female Genital Cutting (FGC), refers to all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
For over three decades, there has been a global campaign to end the harmful practice, but the desired change is yet to be attained, especially in countries such as Mali, Chad and Sierra Leone.
The results are mixed within countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, where certain tribes still adhere to the practice.
At this age, a Maasai girl is deemed to not only be at the cusp of womanhood and ripe for circumcision, but also, after undergoing the cut, they would be wives to older men. The thought of forfeiting education and being forced to get hitched to an old man who was not of her choice sent chills down her spine.
So scared was she that on the eve of her planned circumcision, she and her sister escaped, spending the night on a tall tree until the whole circumcision event was over.
The next morning, the two ran 50 kilometres away to their aunt’s homestead for refuge. Their traditionalist uncle went ballistic and forcefully took them back home after giving them a thorough beating.
“It was a horrible experience. Come December of the same year, my sister and I were again lined up for circumcision,” she recounts. Nailantei had made up her mind that she would not undergo the cut.
The circumcision procedures are very painful, and she had witnessed one girl bleed to death after the cut. Besides, she knew she would shed not just a tear, but river of tears, something that was prohibited.
She didn’t want to be labelled a coward and not marriageable for the tears. So, she devised a plan to escape for the second time. This time, her elder sister would not go with her.
Soila would remain behind, undergo the gruesome experience and cover up for her little sister. “My sister urged me to escape, promising not to tell anyone. It was like she sacrificed herself for me,” she narrates.
To date, Nailantei, currently a project officer at Amref Health Africa, deems this decision as one of the most selfless acts any human being has ever done to her.
The second is what her grandfather endured when she went back to him, pleading to be taken back to school. It was for this reason, she says, that she had to thank them during the TIME 100 gala at the Lincoln Center, which was filled with top names from across the fields of politics, business, sports and arts.
“So, once more, join me in raising a toast to my grandfather, to my sister, and to all the strong people out there who are fighting to make sure that every young girl can become the woman of her dreams,” she told the audience.
Soila would end up getting married soon after the cut as expected. As for Nailantei, on seeing her agony, her grandfather Philip Lampat Sing’aro, a respectable village elder, called the wazees and explained his intention of taking his adamant granddaughter to school.
The elders were not impressed, and accused mzee Sing’aro of subverting the Maasai culture, but he was not deterred. Nailantei would later join high school at the age of 15, but was labelled a traitor, even by fellow students. “They saw me as an alien, but I did not give up,” she adds.
After completing her secondary school education, she became a peer educator with the Nomadic Youth and Reproductive Project run by Amref Health Africa, an organisation renowned for its work to end FGM in Kenya and other countries in Africa.
The programme was in need of Maasai girls who would train and eventually become change agents on sexual and reproductive health rights. But another challenge loomed, as she wondered how she would conduct the campaign in a patriarchal society, where women were not permitted to speak before elders.
“Trying to change culture is not easy, so the key word is patience; it is change that takes time – not days or weeks, but years. Men were the hardest to convince – even the younger ones, because in my community, girls are circumcised to be married by these young men.“
“They felt that we were taking their wives from them, but now, we have young men who are marrying uncircumcised girls, and who are standing up to speak in the community. They are our champions. Convincing the cultural elders too was not an easy task because they are like the government.
They take time to make decisions. For girls, it is not easy either; sometimes they have to run away from their families and it’s hard to be separated,” explains Nailantei, adding that nonetheless, she was not about to throw in the towel just yet. She approached the elders and challenged them to give her audience and, slowly, they embraced her message for change.
The turning point of all her efforts came in 2011, when she managed to rescue 17 girls from the circumciser’s knife. “These were among a group of 24 girls who were meant to be circumcised that year in December.
We managed to save 17 of them, who proceeded to school and have now completed Form Four. Unfortunately, the rest underwent the cut and were married off,” regrets Nailantei.
Her efforts did not go unrewarded as Amref appointed her the official ambassador for FGM campaigns. “Working with Amref Health Africa, so far 16,000 girls have avoided the cut in Kenya and Tanzania (most of them in Kenya).
This is through Alternative Rites of Passage that celebrate the transition to womanhood without FGM. The cut is being replaced with education,” she explains. The transition from girl to woman in Maasai, and some other nomadic tribes in East Africa, often takes place through a multi-day ritual in which the girls are dressed in their finest clothes and adorned with their most beautiful jewellery.
They sing traditional songs that everyone has practised, and the mothers give them life lessons in the privacy of their huts. In 2009, with the blessings of the community elders, Nailantei organised the first ever three-day alternative rites ceremony where young Maasai girls who participated learnt about sexual and reproductive health, self-confidence and human rights.
The elders, mothers and fathers are also encouraged to invest in the girls and help them stay in school. Because of its success, many other communities are now working with her to create community-led alternative rites of passage ceremonies for their own girls.
It was not until late 2012 that Nailantei was thrust into the global limelight after she was invited to give a talk at the influential TEDx conference in the Netherlands. Her moving speech on the plight of young Maasai girls wowed the audience at the Amsterdam Theatre, which opened doors for more glory.
Last year, she had the privilege of gracing the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) event in New York, where she was one of the key speakers. In attendance were former US presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton amongst other respected dignitaries. At the end of it all, the activist received a certificate of merit by President Clinton, and this further thrust her to a new dimension of global activism.
For instance, in 2015, she received the Inspirational Woman of the Year award and was singled out as an innovative change maker dedicated to advancing gender equality. She became a recipient of the 2016 Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, and in February 2018, she was chosen as a Women Deliver Young Leader – one of only 300 young people from around the world.
In March 2018, just before she received a phone call that she was in the TIME 100 list, the anti-FGM campaigner had received another award dubbed The Annemarie Madison Prize.
Jaha Dukureh, a Gambian anti-FGM crusader, recommended her for the coveted TIME 100 honour, penning a brief write-up to accompany the announcement in the magazine.
“The first day the list was announced many people called me from my family, county governor and other politicians. They were happy as it was the fruits of our collective efforts; the support of the political leaders, our community, my family, and everyone we are working with.
The award has enabled me get more support to end FGM and child marriage,” beams Nailantei, who was the first woman in her community to be given a black talking stick by elders, and continues to spread her message well beyond our borders.
She jetted back into the country last month to a grand welcome at her home village in Oloitokitok, with the area Member of Parliament Katoo ole Metito as the chief guest at the gathering. Leaders present underlined their commitment to fight FGM as well as allot more funds for girl child education.