In the first episode of a series about the extraordinary lives of women in three communities, Kate Humble spent three weeks in the heartland of the Kuria people in Kenya, a polygamous society of about half a million in number, that practices the unusual tradition of woman-on-woman marriage (nyumba mboke).
Mosenda, the husband of the household with whom Humble stayed, had four wives. ("How do you have the time?" asked Humble. "They’re on a rota," he quipped.) We then met the two wives of Paulina, his first wife. They were half her age: Lillian is nearly 30; Faith is 21. Humble discovered that the women were essentially replacement daughters-in-law, bought for wives who don’t have a son, or who lose a son, as in Paulina’s case, to help in the house and bear heirs.
Mboke wives also don’t have a choice. Faith fell pregnant while unmarried, and Lillian’s parents forced her into the marriage, receiving 14 cows in return. I could’ve watched a whole hour on this but Humble had a pretty big subject to tackle next.
Female genital mutilation, a life-threatening practice that can include removal of the clitoris or even reduction of the entrance to the vagina to girls around the age of 13, was outlawed in Kenya in 2011. It is, however, still carried out in secret. There are few more horrifying plights on Earth than that of young girls having their genitals cut at the jurisdiction and commercial gain of older men in positions of power. It was – needless-to-say – bleak, but there were heroes and there was hope.
Susan Thomas, a local anti-FGM activist and surely one of the bravest people in the world, took to the streets to loudly campaign against the practice. She also rescued girls at risk of circumcision and took them to a safe house. In a heart rate-raising scene, Humble accompanied her on a dangerous trip to save a girl and take her to safety. Another hero was Peter Murimi, a journalist and film-maker from the Kuari people, who’d been fighting against FGM for years and, during another tense and moving movement, broke down in frustrated tears when the police were cowed by pro-FGM groups to avoid a confrontation rather than save girls who are being cut.
The elders, Humble discovered, are the real problem. Through Peter, she managed to get a sit-down audience to question their perspective on FGM. If they stop female circumcision their god, Eresa, will be angry and kill them, she was told. It’s also lucrative. One elder receives £3.80 for each girl who is cut, and while Humble was there 350 girls were cut in one night.
Humble’s journalistic style was robust and hard-hitting but empathetic. Her emotional response was central to the narrative. When Susan described being mutilated in a steady, matter-of-fact way, Humble shuddered and reached out her hand to touch her arm and she wiped away tears more than once. This felt appropriate and didn’t jar, because she’s a likable presenter and the subject warranted it.
Somehow, the episode ended on an uplifting note. At a baby-naming ceremony we saw the wives, most of whom had been cut, dancing, singing, smiling and laughing. A woman boldly wore an anti-FGM skirt. Lillian spoke openly about her ambitions for her daughter – to be educated, stay alive and not have a life like hers. Thanks to people like Susan Thomas, there is hope. I learned more in an hour about FGM, its history, its place in modern life and its human victims, than I have over the last few years. This was a deeply intelligent, sensitive and informative documentary.