Helena’s Story


My name is “helena”.

I am a 32 year old Kenyan woman from a Masaai tribe, currently living in the United States and working as a nanny. I am lucky because I am uncircumcised and unmarried. Most girls from my tribe are forced into marriage and ritual circumcision–which has been illegal for over a decade–by the age of 12 or 13. My grandmother was able to protect me until I was 16. At that time I left home under cover of darkness after a family friend secretly offered to shelter me in a safe house located within my own tribe. I remained secretly in contact with my mother and I still felt my father’s love, but he was pressured to follow the tribal elders. I spent six years in the safe house, finishing school. The head master of the school I attended and some of the teachers were supportive. I came from a family of 16 daughters (my father had 3 wives), and eight had been circumcised. I fled from forced marriage and circumcision because I wanted to become somebody. I started helping other girls escape in 2007 and have helped one girl as young as 10 years old. I am still trying to help my younger sisters to escape.

To many young girls, these rituals are seen as a rite of passage, and they cause girls to drop out of school at an early age. Most of them begin making tribal beaded jewelry at age 8 and many start carrying water at age 9. It can take an hour each direction (up to 5-10 kilometers, depending on the region) to fetch water each day. The girls are also responsible to gather wood for cooking.

If it is your turn to do these things, you cannot go to school.

The men mainly mind the cattle herds. The cattle are used as currency to trade for their wives. One wife is worth eight to ten cows, depending on social status within the tribe, and one man may have up to nine or ten wives. When a girl is traded for marriage, she can only take with her some cups and plates for the kitchen. She must build her own shelter for dwelling, with the help of her mother-in-law.

Things have been changing for women in my tribe, in the Mara region. In 2005, the women started a co-op which now earns some money, but it can be hard for women to keep control over the money, so more progress is needed.