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Antonia Sophia Waskowiak, center, helped establish an intercultural exchange program between Kuria East and Samburu in Kenya. The program focused on ending harmful cultural practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriages.

The mutual desire to experience other cultures and places has created fast friends of two women — one living in Los Lunas and the other, a German, working and living in Kenya.

Growing up with a military father, Carole Roberts was accustomed to being on the move, the perpetual new kid, learning the ropes.

“I’ve always been interested in knowing more about people in other countries and cultures, to have a chance to really learn about each other as people, as we truly are,” Roberts said.

When she and her husband settled in Los Lunas, Roberts learned about being a host family for foreign exchange students through her church. While they hosted many students, Roberts also coordinated the visits of many foreign students with local families.

One of those students was Antonia Sophia Waskowiak, from Marburg Germany, who spent her junior year at Los Lunas High School.

“I’ve always liked to go places and experience other cultures,” Waskowiak said.

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Antonia Sophia Waskowiak, a German exchange student who spent a year at Los Lunas High School, visits with Carole Roberts recently, the woman who coordinated Waskowiak’s year in New Mexico.

During her time in New Mexico, she got to experience things she only knew from American movies, such as Prom and letter jackets.

After returning to Germany to finish high school, Waskowiak decided to volunteer for what’s called an attachment, in Kenya.

“I didn’t know that this work camp would determine my life,” she said during a recent visit with Roberts.

During her first four-month visit to Kenya in 2011, Waskowiak learned many things she said.

“I got to learn the values of life and I realized not every person can access them, like they should,” she said.

Living in the community of Kurian East, Waskowiak first came to learn about the tradition of female genital mutilation.

“This was the first time I’d heard about FGM,” she said. “It is very deeply embedded in the culture.”

During her attachment, Waskowiak helped build a school — the Bena Academy — which served children who would otherwise not have access to education.

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While in Kenya, Antonia Sophia Waskowiak helped build and now operates Bena Academy, at bottom, a school that offers educational opportunities to children who would otherwise be denied.

After she finished her volunteer stint in the work camp, Waskowiak knew she had to continue working in the community, educating girls and their families about the dangers of FGM.

“It really caught me. I couldn’t sit down and watch how others are suppressed, mutilated, married as children and abused,” she said.

She began by learning about and understanding why it was practiced. Essentially, the cutting marks a girl’s transition from childhood to being a woman, which means she can be married, often to a much older man.

“For them, it is very normal. It’s not done in a hospital, it’s not sterile. There is no anesthesia,” Waskowiak said. “To cut, they use a razor blade, a piece of broken glass, maybe a knife.”

The crude cuttings often become infected, and because it is a rural community, a girl walking home can bleed to death, Waskowiak said.

For the people in Kurian, FGM happens during the “cutting season” every two years in December.

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During the traditional “cutting season” in Kuria East, Zinduka offers alternative ceremonies, that celebrate a girl’s transition in to womanhood.

“It is not done out of bad intentions, but a deep ritual tradition. It is the societal norm,” Waskowiak said. “You can’t grow up as a woman and be an adult if you don’t do female genital mutilation.”

To combat FGM and educate the community, Waskowiak created Zinduka which means “to arise” in Swhahili, which she speaks, along with French, German and English.

Zinduka’s goal is to properly support, educate and empower girls and the adult community in Kenya.

While the practice was banned in 2011, Waskowiak said some communities began cutting girls at younger and younger ages. While most girls are cut when they enter puberty, at 13 or 14 years old, after the law changed, some tribes began cutting all girls, some as young as 6 and 8.

“To make a true change, we have to have the support of the girl’s family, and community as a whole,” she said.

For the last two cutting “seasons” in 2016 and 2018, Waskowiak has set up rescue camps for girls at the Benda Academy. Between the two seasons, nearly 300 girls in the community have been saved from FGM.

The girls stay at the camp for four weeks, receiving educational support about the detriments of the procedure as well as classroom lessons.

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A student at the Bena Academy practices writing during a break.

“We educate them about the effects of FGM, children’s rights and that it is a violation of human rights,” she said.

While at the camp, at the end of the season, the girls go through an alternative rite of passage, celebrating their next step to adulthood.

In 2018, many parents brought presents to the girls, the traditional new clothes and shoes they would have been given after being cut.

“That was so amazing. The Kurian don’t give gifts. This is the only occasion,” Waskowiak said. “So for them to bring gifts to the alternative ceremony means they’ve embraced it.”

Eight years after going to Kenya, Waskowiak, who is a paramedic, is moving forward in her fight against FGM. She came back to New Mexico to visit Roberts, but only after a stop in South Carolina to talk to organizers and funders about starting a U.S. Zinduka chapter.

“After many conversations with Kenyan girls, who were frequently mutilated, I decided that first work camp was not my only fight against the cruel tradition,” Waskowiak said. “Even if I can only keep one girl (safe), I’ve already won.”

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The Bena Academy is often used for lessons aimed at the adults in the community, to help them understand why cultural practices, such as child marriage and female genital mutilation, are harmful and should be stopped.

In August, Waskowiak will begin studying community development in Nairobi to continue to fully support Zinduka.

Female genital mutilation has been intensively practiced in Kuria East, Kenya. The percentage of cut girls among the Kurian tribe has been reduced by 12 percent, from 96 percent to 84 as of 2016, the most recent year statistics are available, according to Zinduka’s website.

Worldwide there are more than 200 million girls and women survivors of FGM, 5 percent of who are Kenyans.

For more information about and to support Zinduka’s mission, visit zinduka-ev.com/english/.

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