I desire to go travelling. Belonging to the Granti tribe makes this incredibly difficult. Sometimes, I casually plan an escape in my mind but haven’t acted upon it yet. Walking to the nearest town, which is about 15 miles away, you see that the inhabitants wear unusual items on their bodies. No natural materials such as bark or fur. They stare at me and I stare back, not for too long though. I hate the ones who look for a prolonged period, slightly frowning as if they are annoyed at you for doing something wrong.
This journey takes place because my tribe has a deal with a shopkeeper. In exchange for milk, we give chickoos, a tangy fruit. We turn up when the milk from our livestock is in short supply. I wish I could talk to the vendor. Possibly her name is Narlia, as that is the word she once used when she pointed at herself. We use gestures and eye contact to communicate seeing as neither party knows how to speak each other’s language. I once copied what she always says when I leave her shop and her face really lit up. I wanted to say, “Oykeera!” which symbolises the feeling of great happiness, however I felt dreadfully guilty straight away. My tribe are extremely proud of their separateness and way of living. Apart from this produce exchange, which occurs purely for survival reasons, any further integration is regarded as a serious threat.
Over the next few days, I spend hours in the lake because the heat is scorching. Hordes of us are there. The water is thrillingly refreshing. Faces are covered in smudged patches of yellow, red and orange because the water ruins the pattern of our tiny painted dots. One afternoon, I try to spot Aragi but then I remember he wouldn’t be here. He was having his knees hit by one of the Guarders. They are just people higher up in the ranks who throw about their authority, supposedly making sure everything is in order and a perfect way to avoid the day-to-day chores. I heard that Aragi had been trying on a new outfit he was designing, for the next occasion. His mistake was putting it on. You do not wear anything at all in the tribe unless it’s for a special reason, for example the trip to town. This demonstrates that we are not afraid of who we are. Dressing up is only for when added decoration is accepted. When I manage to identify him, his knees are completely covered in bruises – dirty, merged colours of green and yellow. Although I’d seen this before, it still shocked me. We don’t speak. I notice the hurt in his eyes as he tries to mask his slight hobble, just about managing to keep up with the group going out to hunt.
I run into the undergrowth, brushing large, scratchy leaves along the way. I find a watei tree and briefly sit by it. Usually, I would systematically bash at it with a stick for the glorious sap. I like to close my eyes, basking in its flavour. Not today. I couldn’t let myself enjoy it after seeing what had happened to Aragi. I probably spent too much time out because when I reach my home, a majestic, purple sunset fills the sky.
The annual Heenkain ceremony is nearing. Male Guarders must choose a new woman whom they believe is wise enough to join them in their duties. The older members of the tribe and those not looking after the young ones, sit around the selected female who stands in the centre. My thoughts have been plagued with conflicting views ever since the first ceremony I saw. On this occasion, the woman is called Meiree; she has a composed yet subtly pained expression. In advance, she had been decorated with turquoise paint and clothed in beautiful orange leaf. An opaque, wooden cage stands roughly two metres away from her. The whole crowd starts to clap and hiss in sync. Next, she bends her knees and positions one of her arms towards the box structure. I soon learnt it had to be the weaker of the two. The cage is opened by a Guarder and at a crazed speed, an enormous, thick, charcoal black snake charges towards the bare flesh.
I release a petrified, silent scream despite the number of times I have been a witness. It had to be silent. I continue the chanting as everyone is watching everyone. The serpent raises its head and the giant fangs bite the arm with nasty precision.
Clap, clap, hiss. Clap, clap, hiss.
The Guarder who brought the cage deftly grabs the never-ending black mass with a wooden tool, forcing it back into its temporary home. Meiree’s innocent blood spreads rapidly, forming a miniature contaminated river delta.
Clap, clap, hiss. Clap, clap, hiss.
Her knees abruptly give way as her face contorts. Horrifyingly, her entire body writhes back and forth across the dusty ground, shaking uncontrollably. You could hear the bashes as she hits her head. Shrill, hysterical screams emerge, one after the other. Eventually everyone departs, leaving the pitiful, struggling being behind. The physical torture lasts for days. Only did it become evident to me that Meiree survived the lethal snake poison when I saw her on one of my typical walks. I glimpsed the huge scarred indents on her skin – a marker for all female Guarders…
I approach the vast circle surrounding a woman and settle next to some friends. My mind triggers the debates once again: why don’t the men endure the slithering body? Why the risk of death? But it is a part of our culture, a display of strength and courage. Perhaps a powerful moment for the tribe.
The cage is brought out. Suddenly, I leap up and race towards the middle. After years of watching, it seems I finally have the ability to master my conscience. I let my instinct dictate. It was never the Guarders who were stopping me. People are yelling and simultaneously frantically signalling for me to come back. Men are striding towards the centre point. I decide to shout above the raucous noise and address the vast mass, “Please, everyone listen to me! We need to question this ceremony. It is a cruel, violent method to allow such marvellous women to become a Guarder. Unbelievably, we have all seen numerous deaths. Deaths of women not men. Deaths of women not men. Deaths of women not men. The sorrow does not cease! Where is the equality? Can you see it?”
Image courtesy of Isaac Quesada.