May 6, 2016

By Grace Wandia, Kenya Program Director; May 2016

From the ages of 14 to 30 years of age, the men in the Masai community are known as Morans (Warriors). These young men are sent into the bush to learn their tribal customs, and to develop endurance and strength, traits that the Masai Warriors are known for the world over.

Among the Morans, stands Lelien Kanunga, a ‘Warrior Among Warriors.’  With all the training Lelien acquired in the bush, including the art of killing a lion single handedly, Lelien pushes the envelope on ‘heroic’ beyond the most daring and unimaginable limits.

lelien01Lelien moves through the Masai community in strong defiance against an old and deeply rooted practice- the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). As a Moran, Lelien speaks as a powerhouse in support of the Masai female- something basically unheard of in the ancient, patriarchal community of the Masai.

Lelien has little education. He dropped out of school in Grade 3 to herd his family’s cows and goats. Lelien was an ordinary Masai boy, living an ordinary life in his community.

In 2008, however, AMREF went to Lelien’s village to talk to the community about HIV/AIDS. Lelien was chosen and trained as a peer educator due to his easy-going nature and eagerness to learn.  After the training, Lelien began speaking to his fellow-Morans on the need to restrain against having many sexual partners so as to avoid getting infected with HIV/AIDS. Typically, as long as he can pay a dowry to the family, the Masai Moran is entitled to bed any Masai female ‘as long as she is cut.’

lelien02In 2009, after watching a small girl from his community bleed to death after being ‘cut,’ Lelien, against all odds, began advocating for the eradication of FGM.  Lelien began his crusade during the ‘Olpul,’ a ceremony where the Masai Moran take their herds to the forest to graze for one month while discussing matters pertaining to their lives and to their community. Lelien bravely spoke to his peers about the previously ‘unheard of’ need for them to speak out against ‘the cut’ by marring uncircumcised females.

Lelien’s suggestion stood against the tide of long-held culture and tradition and almost earned him expulsion from the group.  Despite the dire amount of resistance he faced, however, Lelien stood his ground.

Today, Lelien continues to take every opportunity to speak to the Masai about the need to eradicate FGM. Lelien takes his message to local churches, schools and traditional gatherings.

After enduring untold challenges and resistance, Lelien has become a voice of reason among the cultural elders. The elders hold a status of significance in the Masai community. Some of them are, slowly, beginning to see the sense in Lelien’s words. Lelien’s message to the older men is a message of longer-term thinking and economics. “Rather than settling for five (5) cows as a price for their daughters once the girls are cut,” Lelien reasons with the elders, “why not spare their daughters the cut (which basically makes them ‘fair sexual gain’ thereafter imprisoned to a life of child-bearing and toil) and rather,” Lelien continues, “allow the girls to go to school?’ Once the girls graduate, Lelien persuades, their daughters will be in a better position to elevate their family’s standard of living and thus the standard of living for the community at large.

lelien03Currently, Moran is the leader of approximately 750 Moran Warriors who are trained under his tutelage and care.  Lelien takes the opportunity to speak out to this group of younger Warriors against the detrimental, often deadly, practice of FMG. The perspective of the older men is often very difficult to change; the younger men are more receptive.

Despite the tremendous opposition Lelien faces, his passion and commitment is beginning to bear fruit. One of the first girls Lelien rescued from FGM has recently graduated from Law School, another recently graduated from Nursing School. These are outstanding achievements.

grace-and-lelianLelien uses a motorbike to reach the various villages and to present his wife, who is uncut, as an example that a Moran can marry an uncircumcised girl and bear children. Lelien and his wife have 3 children together.

Daring to speak out on a subject which carries the risk of being either killed or maimed for life, Lelien, has instead, been raised up as a Chief of Morans, a great title which commands a lot of respect.

Lelien is 31 years of age.


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