Charlotte Bourdillon

Charlotte Bourdillon (Kakenya Center for Excellence – KCE): In the summer of 2009, Charlotte worked with an indigenous women's weaving group in Temuco, Chile. She received her B.A. in Community Health and International Relations from Tufts University in 2010. Prior to her AP fellowship, Charlotte also worked with a health and community-led development initiative in Haiti, called RESPE:Ayiti. Charlotte also interned at Physicians for Human Rights in Cambridge, MA. After her fellowship Charlotte wrote: “I can look at so many deliverables that I am proud of; things I am especially happy to have been able to achieve in the low-resource area I was working in."

Tapping into tribalism?

26 Jun

There are several common reasons people present for why FGM is “bad”: girls tend to get less education because they leave school to get married too early; it is dangerous (especially because of HIV); it is frowned upon by the church; it is outdated. But another simultaneously fascinating and slightly disturbing trend is poking its head. I routinely hear things such as the following:

“We are falling behind others because our women are not educated.” (re: the fact that FGM traditionally also signals a girl will leave school)

“We are holding ourselves back. How can we keep up with other tribes if we are wasting our women?”

“Our boys are marrying women from other tribes because they are more sexual.”

“Our educated boys want to marry educated women so they are marrying outside of the tribe.”

One woman I interviewed, anti-FGM trainer Hellen Rotich, told me that one of the ways she conveys the importance of rejecting FGM to men is by pointing out:

“Our daughters are going things that others are not going through, and maybe it is outdated. I was giving various examples of other communities you know like in Kenya, the Luyas, the Luos, the women they don’t go through that, it has been their culture, that way for their women. So I was telling them you see they’re so more educated, they’re the ones taking care of us in hospitals and now that we’re educating [our men], they end up coming up with other tribes’ women because they want people who have gotten education. So that is letting down our community because our girls will remain not married because now the educated boys will want educated girls.”

Essentially, tribalism seems to be not only part of the dialogue about FGM, but one of the most powerful tools for fighting it. It is persuasive. It brings people into the discussion by capitalizing on issues that people already care about, i.e. the status of the tribe and pride in being Maasai. Then it frames the continued practice of female cutting as something that threatens the tribe and the community’s power.

This trend is particularly interesting because it seems to be a “homegrown” argument against FGM. There is always the concern that the West is putting words in the mouths of those who practice FGM, creating false and outsider arguments against the practice. I would have difficulty believing that the “drop cutting because to keep up with other tribes” argument originated with NGOs. Thus, in a way, this sort of indigenous reasoning against FGM is a little comforting in that it proves that FGM criticism isn’t entirely based on foreign pressure.

But it is also worrying. Tribalism continues to produce a somewhat volatile political environment here in Kenya. Although the Maasai aren’t particularly implicated in the ongoing incidents of violence and hate speech here in Kenya, tribalism among any tribe propagates the same mental framework of us versus other along tribal lines.

Yet it seems to be the most compelling reason to several people as to why the community ought to shed this oppressive and abusive tradition. And to its credit, this argument recognizes the wisdom in other tribe’s choices to eschew the practice and to place more value in women and in educating girls.

I asked a friend of mine who works in politics and development here what he thought of this. He was truly nonchalant about his response; “tribalism is always going to be a part of development [here].” He was referring to the fact that in this part of the world (i.e. the rural, Kenyan part), people have no “others” to compare themselves to other than other tribes, who occasionally meld into the otherwise tribally demarcated communities. People in this area have no real basis of comparison to say “we should be more like the developed world” or more like “that educated person” because they are not really exposed to many highly educated people or outsiders (and surprisingly foreign TV is almost non-existant in the area I am working). Therefore, forcing people to recognize the value in a different tribe’s successful professional female workforce is the most persuasive way to convey the idea that “there is a better way.”

Do you know of any other instances in which an argument against a negative traditional practice is also negative or dangerous itself? In such situations, which is trump?

Posted By Charlotte Bourdillon

Posted Jun 26th, 2011


  • Patrick Bourdillon

    June 26, 2011


    We are all tribal to a degree. Doing what can be done to rduce the negative practice trumps any negative effects of reinforcing tribalism.
    This amazing series on FGM is educational for those of us reading it. I hope you can find a way to share it with a wider audience.

  • […] secondary school, they can help reduce poverty by being qualified to earn a living of their own. One recent report even indicates that young Maasai men are looking outside the tribe to seek an educated wife who can […]

  • sara mccracken

    August 26, 2011


    I have been rereading many of your posts and this one stands out as being exceptionally hopeful to me. Of course we must not ram our choices down the throats of other peoples as we have tried to so often in the past.
    The work you and others are doing in the region must have helped stimulate this dialogue among the tribal leaders. It is to be hoped that their pride in their tribe and the desire not to fall behind in prosperity and” importance ” will move the tribe forwards away from FGM and child marriage.

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