MASINKI, TANZANIA — The girls erupt from the roadside bushes, their brilliant kangas swirling behind them as they beeline for the idling pickup truck.
They clamber into the back, wide-eyed and out of breath.
School is out, and girls like Dorika are fleeing their families to save their lives.
The cutting season has begun.
The December rains mark not only the end of the school term but the start of the four-week period when girls in Tanzania’s northern Mara region are forced to undergo female genital mutilation (FGM).
“My mother threatened to bind my arms and legs and have me cut by force if I refused,” Dorika says.
She is just 12-years-old, and her delicate frame trembles visibly at the prospect of returning home in January.
Dorika has heard the stories of young girls bleeding to death, their cursed bodies dumped in the bush where the wild things are.
But these stories are sadly steeped in reality.
Five girls in Machochwe village died during last year’s cutting season – and those are just the ones that have been reported.
And although she was only six at the time, Dorika can still remember the day her older sister Ghati underwent FGM.
“I was so scared, there was blood everywhere,” she whispers. “I can’t understand why my family would want to do this to me as well.”
Despite FGM being illegal in Tanzania, the life-threatening procedure is still practiced annually by the Kurya and Mungurimi tribes on girls aged as young as nine.
But getting cut is not only a mandatory rite of passage into womanhood – it is an indicator to men in the village the girl is now ready to get married.
Although Tanzania does not rank among the countries with the highest rates of child marriage, with four out of 10 girls being wed before their eighteenth birthdays, it is still clearly a significant problem.
But this national average masks more disturbing regional trends in the vast East African country.
Here, in the Mara region, more than 55% of girls are forced into child marriages – although it is suspected the actual figure is masked by the remoteness of many rural communities, and widespread reports of corrupt police and court officials burying cases for bribes from family members.
It is largely the lure of lucrative dowries of livestock for poverty-stricken parents that perpetuates the two inextricably linked practices of FGM and child marriage.
With her father dead, life for Dorika’s family is perpetually hand to mouth as her mother struggles to make about a dollar a day tilling other people’s land.
So daughters can be a boon for poor, rural households – cash cows that can boost a family’s financial position at the expense of a girl’s schooling and well-being.
And in a patriarchal society like Tanzania’s, education is commonly viewed as a privilege set aside for the male heirs.
Daughters are sadly often seen as a short-term investment – a chip that can be cashed in down the line to help pay for a son’s education.
Dorika says she had already been earmarked for a marriage to an older man but – before he would pay the dowry – he dictated that she must be cut.
Men in the Kurya and Mungurimi tribes are brought up to believe that msagani – or unmutilated girls – are unclean and unfit for marriage.
A family who fails to cut their daughters not only risks losing the dowry, but social ostracisation by their neighbours and village leaders.
With just days to go until the end of the school term and the start of this year’s cutting season, Ghati told her younger sister she did not want her to share the same fate.
Dorika was told of a local activist called Johan who could help her escape.
She had heard rumours of a safe house that offered sanctuary to girls like her but until now had not dared to believe them.
The following day Dorika waited until her mother had gone to the fields to dig before she left, with nothing but the clothes on her back.
She hid at Johan’s house with other girls for two days before he could arrange for the pickup truck to transport them to the safe house in nearby Mugumu.
Funded by donations to the Anglican Church, construction on the safe house was barely completed in time for the cutting season in December 2014.
The safe house offers girls not only sanctuary during the four-week cutting season but, with two classrooms, a momentary return to normality.
In addition safe house staff have now also performed community outreach in 18 villages – many of which are areas where girls have fled from.
Villagers are informed about the knock-on effects of FGM and child marriage, and this outreach work is also key in recruiting grassroot activists like Johan who end up being the eyes and ears on the ground.
But the safe house has become a victim of its own success and its resources are at breaking point.
What began this season as a trickle of girls, rapidly became a flood.
Designed with only 40 occupants in mind, more than 160 girls like Dorika have fled to Mugumu this month.
Over the past few days, dozens have arrived by bus and even on foot.
Initially there aren’t enough beds, and the girls sleep three or four to a bed.
At nights the classrooms transform into makeshift dormitories with the overflow of girls sleeping under mosquito nets on the floor, sandwiched between the school desks.
A shortage of clothes and sanitary towels are another ongoing concern for the safe house staff.
“We don’t have a big budget, and yet the girls keep coming, coming, coming,” says coordinator Rhobi Samwelly.
But, being a survivor of FGM herself, she feels unable to turn any of them away.
She was only 13 when she was pushed into FGM by her parents.
“I thought about running away,” she says. “But where could I go, how would I get food, where would I sleep?”
And if ever there was a poster child for why a safe house was needed here, or what impact it has made in two short seasons, it’s Mama Mary.
Forced to undergo FGM aged just 11, she was married to an abusive older husband at 13.
Starting from their wedding night, Mama Mary was subjected to a decade of sickening physical and sexual violence – all for the price of 10 cows.
In 1998 Tanzania’s Sexual Offences Special Provisions Act criminalised the rape and sexual exploitation of minors – but failed to outlaw marital rape and instances of underage sex where the minor is a spouse.
“I think he beat me harder than any other woman has been beaten,” Mama says revealing a gap where three teeth were knocked out by her husband.
And besides, she was his property – he had paid for her, he could do what he liked with her.
Mama Mary begged her husband to end the violence.
“I will only stop beating you when our first daughter undergoes FGM,” he told her. “Then the dowry I paid for you will be repaid”.
With only a hint of bitterness, Mama Mary laments the fact there was not a safe house there years ago she could have fled to.
“They learn about computers and tailoring,” she says wistfully. “Things that could have given a better life for me and my kids.”
Her husband may now be in jail but life is still hard for Mama Mary.
With three young kids, her only income is from making charcoal which she sells in town for a dollar a bag.
“I think of ending things, but I can’t leave my children behind,” she says. “I am just hoping God will help me so I can have a normal life like other people.”
It’s now late December and Sophia Mchomvu is making the journey that Dorika is yet unwilling to take – a return to her village of Masinki.
Although the cutting season is almost at an end many of those at the safe house are reluctant to return home.
They have heard stories of Maasai girls who last year returned home from another safe house in nearby Tarime – only to be cut upon their arrival.
As a precaution social workers like Mchomvu first visit each girl’s parents to educate them about the dangers of FGM, and encourage them to allow their daughters to return to school rather than forcing them to marry young.
Only once parents sign a legal affidavit are their daughters allowed to return home.
Regular follow-up visits are undertaken and parents taken to the police in cases where the agreement has been broken.
The hope is that these mothers and fathers will in turn become ambassadors and educate other potential parental perpetrators in the community.
As Mchomvu’s vehicle pulls into Masinki, it’s easy to see how FGM and child marriage can flourish here largely undetected.
The remote village is set deep in the lush Mara hills and is hours away by car from Mugumu.
The social worker is welcomed into the adobe hut that is Dorika’s family home.
There’s no delicate way to start the proceedings so Mchomvu begins by telling Nyasuma Teri – Dorika’s mother – that her daughter is well and at the safe house.
“But she knows that getting cut is part of tradition,” Nyasuma says, raising her voice. “Everybody gets cut here, she shouldn’t have run away.”
“What will I tell our traditional leaders if she doesn’t?”
Mchomvu tries repeatedly to educate Dorika’s mother about the health risks associated with FGM, and the impact early marriage can have on a girl’s life.
But she is fighting a losing battle – Nyasuma is having none of it.
“Getting circumcised was one of the happiest days of my life,” she says. “I was so happy as I waited in line, and I felt like I was reaching a life goal”.
“If Dorika showed up right now I would have her cut, even if it meant binding her arms and legs to do it”.
A seasoned negotiator, Mchomvu pauses a moment before responding.
“We won’t let her come home until you agree not to circumcise her,” she explains. “In the meantime at the safe house she’ll continue with her studies.”
Mchomvu attempts to explain the myopic lure of the dowry – that, in the long term, an educated girl is a girl that can earn many times the value of any bride price.
“You can raise and feed her at your safe house for as long as you like,” says Nyasuma. “But as soon as she comes home, she will be cut.”
Afterwards Mchomvu is surprisingly optimistic about Dorika’s chances of being able to return home soon.
“That was a pretty standard reaction,” she says. “On the first meeting many of the parents don’t even offer me a chair to sit on, or even let me in the hut”.
But despite the best efforts of the safe house, Mchomvu says the adoption of new tactics by communities will make future defection, and detection, harder.
“The next village over from here has apparently starting cutting girls as young as five,” she says.
Mchomvu explains this has the dual purpose of cutting girls who are not yet on an activist’s watchlist, but also targets those girls have yet to be educated about the pernicious effects of FGM and child marriage in the classroom.
“And villages are also no longer holding big and elaborate circumcision celebrations,” she adds. “Now the ngariba – or female circumciser – visits family homes under the cover of night to do her work.”
And there are also now reports of parents accepting dowry payments through their mobile phones.
Such advancements in African mobile banking means activists like Johan can no longer rely on visual tip-offs that a child marriage is pending – namely the sudden appearance of cattle in a family’s compound.
Samwelly ultimately lays blame at the door of key stakeholders.
“Many leaders have forgotten their duties and responsibilities in making sure communities are following the laws of the country,” says Samwelly. “The laws are there, but no one is following them.”
But while FGM was criminalised in 1998, when it comes to child marriage, Tanzania is a country of contradictions.
The 1971 Marriage Act sets the minimum age of marriage for girls at 15 with parental consent – but a girl of 14 can we wed where judicial approval is given.
And while the 2009 Child Act does not expressly outlaw child marriage, it does define a child as a person under the age of 18, stating that a parent should “protect the child from neglect, discrimination, violence, abuse, exposure to physical and moral hazards and oppression”.
This legal grey area is further obfuscated by the Local Customary Law of 1963 which allows Tanzania’s many ethnic groups to adhere to their customs and traditions.
The Tanzanian government has long made noises about a constitutional review process to address these conflicting laws in an effort to curtail early child marriages.
And yet the recent presidential election campaign, in addition to a lack of consensus in community surveys, have served to stall any political momentum on the issue.
But Samwelly says that legislative reform aside, enforcing any laws – existing or future – at a grassroots level is the biggest hurdle.
Local politicians regularly refuse to publicly speak out about FGM or child marriage, fearful that they will lose potential votes.
Instances of teachers taking bribes to look the other way when parents withdraw their daughters from school for marriage are commonplace.
Parents have even tried to bribe safe house staff, including Mchomvu, to rubber stamp their daughter’s early return.
“Sometimes we will even hear that a village chairperson who facilitated one of our education campaigns, has had their daughter cut,” says Samwelly.
“So what do you think other villagers will do if the chairperson himself doesn’t listen to the education?”
And the month of December is a prosperous time for village leaders – they get a cut of an ngariba’s commission.
A former ngariba says she charged parents $6 per circumcision – a dollar of which went into the leaders’ pockets.
It is therefore of little surprise that many village leaders are reluctant to stamp out FGM in their communities.
But for now at least, Dorika is safe.
Her schooling continues, and she’s made new friends.
Slowly she’s rediscovering what it means to be a child again.