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She dines with kings and dances with stars

WEDNESDAY LIFE
By Dann Okoth | May 1st 2015
Nice Nailantei Lengete, a young woman from a little known village of Nomaiyidhat in Loitokitok in Kajiado County washed her hands clean and ate with kings—literally. Lengete or “Ambassador Nice” as she is popularly known—has dined with the high and mighty—and wallowed in Hollywood celebrity status—thanks to her efforts to bring positive change to a community. Since 1998 Nice has been doing little things in her own little ways to emancipate young Maasai girls and women besieged by harmful cultural practices, including Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).  [ PHOTO BY STANDARD]

Kenya: If a child washes his hands clean, he can eat with kings.

This African proverb famously used by Chinua Achebe in his novel, Things Fall Apart, loosely means one can succeed in life if they make positive changes.

This could describe Nice Nailantei Lengete.

The young woman from Nomaiyidhat village in Loitokitok, Kajiado County, washed her hands clean and now eats with kings. She has dined with the high and mighty as well as enjoyed Hollywood celebrity status, thanks to her efforts to bring positive change to her community.

Since 1998, Lengete, or Ambassador Nice, as she is popularly known, has been doing little things in her own little way to emancipate young Maasai girls and women besieged by harmful cultural practices, including female genital mutilation (FGM).

But it was not until late 2012 that Nice was thrust into the global limelight after she was invited to give a talk at the powerful TEDx conference in the Netherlands.

TED is a platform for ideas worth spreading. Started in 1984 as a conference where technology, entertainment and design converged, TED today shares ideas from a broad spectrum - from science and business to global issues - in more than 100 languages.

Meanwhile, the independent TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world.

Nice’s speech that night on the plight of young Maasai girls wowed the audience at the Amsterdam Theatre and immediately set her on the path to glamour and glory.

Last year, Nice graced the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) event in New York where she was one of the key speakers. The event was attendant by US President Barack Obama, former President Bill Clinton and other global dignitaries.

The CGI was established by Clinton in 2005, with a mission to inspire, connect and empower a community of global leaders to forge solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.

CGI helps its members, which include organisations from public and private sectors, and civil society maximise their efforts to alleviate poverty, create a cleaner environment and increase access to healthcare and education.

“Meeting and dining with President Obama and Clinton at the event was the high point of my life,” says Nice. “Who would have imagined just a few years back that this poor village girl from the heart of Maasailand could come this close to the seat of the most powerful nation on earth?” she wondered aloud.

Clinton presented Nice with a certificate of merit at the event, catapulting her to a new height of global activism.

Yet the foregoing hardly begins to tell the story of the 24-year-old’s life. Hers is a story of a bitter struggle to change a tradition from a very early age; a courageous yet treacherous feat that pitted her against her own family, clan and community.

She spent cold nights in trees to escape the knife in efforts to defy clan and family pressure to bow to a lingering but dangerous custom so she could pursue an education.

When Nice was just eight years old, her parents died in quick succession, leaving her and her 14-year-old sister behind.

“We went to my grandfather’s home because we were too young to take care of ourselves,” she says.

But that is when the clan came calling. “They circled us like vultures ready to pounce,” Nice recalls dramatically.

“Led by my uncle, they came to demand our drafting into among a group of more than 1,000 girls to be circumcised that April. But we had a plan; my sister and I escaped the night before and climbed a tall tree where we spent the night,” she says.

The girls waited till the ceremony was over just after the break of dawn and escaped to their aunt’s homestead 50km away. Nice and her sister were missed at the ceremony; so their uncle and the village elders were not amused.

“My uncle traced us to my aunt’s place where he gave us a thorough beating before forcefully taking us back home. It was a horrible experience.”

Come December of the same year, Nice and her sister were again lined up for circumcision. Again, they hatched a plan to escape.

“I was determined not be to be circumcised. I knew the procedure was painful and I also knew girls were not supposed to cry otherwise they would be labelled cowards and not fine a man willing to marry them. I knew I would cry.

“But that was just one of the problems. I had seen a girl bleed to death after being circumcised in my village. I also knew the next step after being circumcised was to be married off. I did not want this, I wanted to go to school,” she says.

Nice escaped again to the same tree to avoid the cut. This time her sister would not go with her. “She had had enough and decided to accept the community’s wishes although grudgingly,” Nice says.

“My sister urged me to escape, promising not to tell anyone. It was like she sacrificed herself for me. To date, I consider it one of the most selfless acts I have ever seen. As expected, she was married off soon after the cut.”

Instead of escaping to her aunt’s, this time, Nice hatched a cleverer plot.

“I went back to my grandfather crying and pleaded with him to spare me. I told him I didn’t want to be circumcised, drop out of school and get married,” she says.

Seeing his granddaughter’s agony, the old man, who had gone to school, called the elders to a meeting and explained to them that his granddaughter could not be circumcised.

“The elders were not impressed. They accused my grandfather of subverting the Maasai culture but he stood his ground.”

Nice then faced another challenge; a community’s wrath.

“Everyone, including other students at school saw me as a traitor. I was ridiculed and looked down upon. To them, I was an alien.”

But she did not give up.

After completing her secondary school education, she became a peer educator with the Nomadic Youth and Reproductive Project run by Amref Kenya. The programme was looking for girls to train as change agents on sexual and reproductive health rights.

“After the training I wondered how I would pass the message on to my community. Here I was, bearing the message the community particularly did not want hear. Add to that the fact that a woman in the Maasai culture is supposed to be seen and not heard.”

But she was not about to be discouraged. She approached the elders and challenged them to give her an audience.

“I knew I could not talk to the elders but I told them I had a message for the morans. After two years of prodding, the community elders summoned the morans and ordered them to listen to me.”

She did not introduce the issue of FGM right away but chose instead to focus on early marriage, the risk of HIV and Aids due to multiple or shared sexual partners, which is common among morans.

“Eventually, four morans understood the message. They stopped viewing me as a woman but as one of their own and carried my message forward to other morans. Soon, it was the morans leading the crusade against FGM and campaigning for alternative rites of passage.”

The turning point in her campaign came in 2011, when she single-handedly saved 17 girls from the circumciser’s knife.

“They were among a group of 24 girls who were supposed go under the knife in December. We carted away the 17 girls to a safe house and all proceeded to school and completed Form Four. The rest, unfortunately, were married off,” she says.

Due to this effort, Amref Kenya appointed Nice the official ambassador for the campaign against FGM.

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