伦盖特逃离割礼以及她的积极行动，是这本重要回忆录的核心，然而，她太令人注目，单从这些成就的角度，并不能完整地了解她。她的回忆录，还有其他著名活动家的回忆录——让人不仅想到马拉拉·尤萨夫扎伊（Malala Yousafzai）的《我叫马拉拉》以及纳迪娅·穆拉德（Nadia Murad）的《最后一位女孩》——的核心失误在于，这些作品把太多的注意力放在各种事件上，而没有放在这些伟大的女性为生存而战的过程上。我想弄明白，她们的毅力时如何培养的。
《野生无花果树林的女孩：为拯救妹妹、我自己和全世界成千上万的女孩而战（The Girls in the Wild Fig Tree: How I Fought to Save Myself, My Sister, and Thousands of Girls Worldwide
）》尼斯·伦盖特（Nice Leng’ete）、伊丽莎白·巴特勒（Elizabeth Butler）合著
Surviving childhood is a highly underrated skill. I survived mine and view myself as a hero. But a real hero looks like Nice Leng’ete, the Kenyan antifemale-genital-mutilation activist whose response to her childhood was to improve the experience for others.
At the age of 3 or 4, while she was growing up in a small Maasai town near the border of Kenya and Tanzania, Leng’ete accompanied her mother to observe a 14-year-old girl get “the cut.” “Everyone was still in the early morning light,” she writes in her elegant and inspiring memoir, “The Girls in the Wild Fig Tree.” “Then an older woman, a midwife from a nearby town, stepped forward and slashed the girl between the legs with a razor. Blood sprayed across the woman’s hands and the cowskin. She cut again and again. ‘Get it all, get it by the root,’ women chanted.” A few days after the ceremony, the girl developed a fever, and a few days after that she died. “‘Someone had placed a curse on the family,’ people said.” Life went on as before.
In the Maasai community, female genital mutilation means removing the entire exterior of the clitoris. The practice is banned in Kenya, but Leng’ete’s Maasai elders spoke of the cut in terms of identity and cultural ideals of womanhood. Without it, they said, women can’t marry or have children — which means men can’t, either. “Their families are shamed,” Leng’ete writes, “and the girls are outcasts.” Before she came along, every female member of her family had undergone the procedure.
By the time she was 6, Leng’ete knew she didn’t want to be like them. This didn’t just make her an oddity in her community, it placed her life at risk. But, as she observes, it was the tradition that deserved to die. Leng’ete’s memoir starts in the most dangerous place in the world for many women — at home. A psychologist recently told Observer magazine that “how someone comes out of an incident depends on what they took into it.” This might explain Leng’ete’s response to the challenges she would later face: Hers was a happy home with parents who doted on and nurtured her. They nicknamed her “Karembo,” meaning “beautiful.” Her mother woke up at dawn to ensure her children went to school with clean clothes and full bellies. Her father, a revered community leader, inspired her passion for activism. He died when Leng’ete was 7, and Leng’ete’s mother followed shortly after.
When my mother died, I was older, a teenager, and I had the time and space to grieve for her. To be permitted that process, I now know, was a luxury, and it’s one that Leng’ete, a mere child at the time she was orphaned, didn’t have. Instead, a parade of characters, the likes of which many will encounter only as stereotypes in films, emerged to terrorize the child. There’s a greedy uncle, who usurps her inheritance, and her guardian’s cruel new wife, who physically and verbally abuses her. “Most of the time I said nothing,” Leng’ete writes. “I did my work. I cried silently, and only when I was alone. If no one saw me, no one hit me. I was already small. I did everything I could to shrink to nothing.”
By the time she was 8, Leng’ete’s life might have ended for all intents and purposes — instead, by dint of iron will, it starts anew. One final beating persuades her to ask to go to boarding school. She has by then become an expert at running — she even runs away from the cut, becoming the only girl in her community to avoid mutilation.
Leng’ete completes her education, goes to college and while still in her late teens is spotted by a project officer at the African Medical and Research Foundation (Amref). He sees her encouraging girls in her town to run from the cut, and from the life prescribed for them as Maasai women. He is impressed by her persuasiveness. A risk to life is also a risk to living, Homi Bhabha has said, and Leng’ete convincingly articulated the cost of submission.
“They could see my life,” she writes. “They could see that I was the first girl in our village to go to college, and that, even without the cut, I was healthy and happy.” In three years, Leng’ete, with some help, ended female genital mutilation in her town. The project officer hired her to become a youth leader and teach girls and boys about health. Now, herself an Amref project officer and global ambassador, she has helped save 17,000 girls across Kenya. The enormity of this achievement can’t be overstated: Women have been killed for doing less. And activists all over the world are struggling to end female genital mutilation. In Mali, nine out of 10 girls have been subject to the practice. In India, a survey by Sahiyo, an activist group, found that 80 percent of women in the small Dawoodi Bohra community have similarly suffered.
Leng’ete’s escape, and her activism, are the centerpiece of this important memoir, but she’s far too compelling to be viewed through the lens of such achievements alone. The misstep at the heart of this and other notable activist memoirs — Malala Yousafzai’s “I Am Malala” and Nadia Murad’s “The Last Girl” come to mind — is that they focus too much on events and too little on how these magnificent women fought to survive. I wonder how they developed their resilience.
Leng’ete offers a hint when she recalls the Maasai fables her grandmother sang to her when she was a child. Like real life, those stories were full of menacing characters who would destroy you given the slightest opportunity — the jealous woman, the greedy man. In the end, though, if you were clever and persistent, you survived and were rewarded.
The Girls in the Wild Fig Tree: How I Fought to Save Myself, My Sister, and Thousands of Girls Worldwide
By Nice Leng’ete with Elizabeth Butler-
A 18, New York Times, September 22, 2021