(The Root) — To hear 22-year-old Nice Nailantei Leng’ete answer questions from across a table, you have to lean in. She’s that quiet. When she’s chronicling her globally praised work to end female genital mutilation among Kenya’s Masai people, she chooses her words deliberately. (Just one example: She prefers the lesser-used phrase “female genital cutting” because it doesn’t put those who embrace the practice on the defensive.)
Instead of filling lapses in conversation with chatter, she just sits, with an expression that’s a cross between an inquisitive stare and a patient smile.
Leng’ete is bundled in a red trench coat during our interview as she battles an oncoming cold and the aggressive air conditioning of a Washington, D.C., hotel lobby. Makeup-free, slightly slouched and flanked by members of her organization’s communications team, she appears more like a teenager trotted out to visit with company than an activist ready to recruit allies for her cause. She could be confused with a freshman at nearby Howard University — a kid whose biggest battles are with housing assignments and final exams.
Looks are deceiving.
‘When I Grow Up, I Want to Change This’
Her story — you can find it in materials from AMREF, the health NGO she works for, and in the narrative that grounds her TEDx Talks and remarks at the Clinton Global Initiative — is about the singular cultural savvy, insight and bravery it took to save herself from the deeply entrenched, violent practices of a patriarchal society, and then go on and to do the same for hundreds of other girls.
That story starts when, as an 8-year-old orphan in Kajiado, Kenya, while on a break from boarding school, Leng’ete literally ran away from a circumcision arranged by her uncle for her and her cousins. She made it to her grandfather’s home and managed to convince him, an influential elder in her Masai community, to exempt her from the painful and dangerous procedure.
That act of self-protection would mark the beginning of her advocacy.
But how did it even occur to her, as a child, that there was another way? Although every woman she knew in her village had been “cut,” she had classmates from other communities who hadn’t. Plus, she was terrified of both the physical pain and of what her future would look like on the other side of the ceremony.
“I just told my grandfather I’m not ready for it because I knew I was young, and I knew I was going to cry. I knew once you are circumcised, it means leaving school and being married off,” she says.
Against all odds, the pleas were effective and Leng’ete avoided the procedure. Thanks to her boarding school’s geographically diverse group of students, she was largely shielded from the social shame that comes with being uncircumcised in communities where the practice is expected and required for marriage. But she was haunted by what she’d narrowly escaped.
“At that time I was young, but I still wanted to help other girls,” she says. “In my village, I saw girls leaving school after they were cut. And I saw some dying. I was like, when I grow up I want to change this.”.