Driven by Quaker values and working in Africa, Moria Sloan '11 tackles the tragic practice of FGM/C.
This article originally appeared as part of Quaker Values in College in Vol.87/No.3 of the Alumni Magazine.
By Moria Sloan ’11
Plastic chairs scraped the floor as the men sat down, relieved to escape the city’s oppressive heat. The classroom-like space in Kampala, Uganda, was big enough to fit more, but the 15 of us gathered in just half of the room, close enough to hear what each of the others had to say. The men were asylum seekers from Rwanda, and were sharing stories with me about the challenges they faced and their hopes for the future. They spoke of growing businesses and finishing their education, but were trapped by cycles of poverty and marginalization in a city rife with inequality. What’s more, the porous national boundaries meant to delineate asylum provide little protection: For years, these men and their families have been unable to access emergency health services, rent an apartment, or celebrate holidays without fearing persecution.
As they spoke, I tried to imprint their words and expressions in my mind, hoping to remember it all. In one moment I have no trouble recalling, Charles*, a younger man in a button-up shirt, looked at me and said that he had killed people during the ’93–’94 Rwandan genocide. He was unambiguous, and spoke for many others in the room as well. They were part of the Hutu ethnic majority; they had either bought into the propaganda or participated in the massacre of neighbors, fearing they would be killed if they didn’t.
I tried to swallow the truth, but a strong cocktail of shock, resentment, and sorrow rushed through my head. It caught like a stone in my throat.
Those few hours were at the heart of my capstone project at Middlebury College, research aimed at understanding the plight of urban refugees as they cope within a system designed for temporary, camp-based asylum.
I had studied Rwandan history, genocide, ethnic differences, and peace processes, but as I searched for words to respond to the young man’s confession, the statistics and theories I had learned were absent from my mind. My textbooks had comfortably sheltered me from confronting, face-to-face, the perpetrators of genocide and the fallouts of reconciliation. Yet Charles’s confession filled me with a sense of humility. I was humbled by his trust and honesty; I realized I knew little more than a drop in the bucket of the young man’s story—I had never walked a mile in his shoes, or seen what he had seen.
As is often the case with formal education, the content of lectures and essays alone could not have prepared me for that focus group discussion, or the many other interviews I had with refugees. Yet many of my classes at Sidwell Friends pushed education beyond textbooks, demonstrating Quaker values that prepared me to confront truth and learning with humility, and challenges with empathy.
I did not fully realize this when I was at SFS. So, while I enjoyed discussing Gandalf’s merits and dilemmas from The Lord of the Rings in Mr. Patwardhan’s fantasy literature class, the real value of the exercise was beyond me. Gandalf, the character who embodied integrity, showed us Middle Earth through his eyes. What Mr. Patwardhan knew, and encouraged his students to discover, is that imagination and empathy are extensions of one another, and both are necessary instruments for achieving social change.
Fast forward four years and two graduations; from Middlebury, Vermont, I moved to Nairobi, Kenya, to join an organization focused on achieving social change. We primarily focus on humanitarian and development programs with and for older women and men.
Working at HelpAge International, I have become involved in issues of women’s sexual/reproductive health and gender-based violence. Throughout parts of the East African region, a troubling reality facing women is the cultural practice of female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C). Usually seen as a means of maintaining a girl’s purity and marriageability or as a rite of passage into womanhood, FGM/C can cause severe pain, hemorrhage, recurring infections, lasting trauma, and significant complications during childbirth. The practice varies greatly throughout the region, but where the most severe forms are practiced, maternal health outcomes are desperately grim: In parts of northern Kenya, for example, 3,795 mothers die for every 100,000 live births. (For comparison, in the United States the maternal mortality rate is 14 deaths per 100,000 live births.)
Even in our work, we are sheltered from the poverty and inequality of access that also drives the health outcomes of these desperately poor women. I felt this in a Nairobi coffee shop, as I listened to Abdul speaking solemnly and matter-of-factly of his village, where everyone knows a mother who died giving birth. Abdul leads a community-based women’s organization in northern Kenya, and is committed to improving the lives of women and children through sustainable, community-led change. Though access to health services is extremely limited, simply introducing ambulances and the like, he said, “doesn’t address the underlying issue, that nearly all women have undergone infibulation [the most severe form of FGM/C].”
As I worked with Abdul to design a program that would engage the custodians of culture, particularly the elders in his community, to improve maternal health and envision a different future for their granddaughters, I was reminded of a quote from one of my most admired contemporary leaders of social justice. In a 2012 TED talk, Bryan Stevenson, an American lawyer and advocate for criminal justice reform, said, “Our visions of technology and design . . . have to be married with visions of humanity, compassion, and justice.” Be it about race and criminality in the United States or gender roles and expectations in Kenya, it is impossible to achieve transformative social change through technology or infrastructure alone. Without humility, empathy, imagination, and compassion, we will continue to rely on ambulances—impersonal technology that arrives only once an issue becomes a crisis—to solve local and global injustices.
Thus, I believe that, as the demands and structures of education shift from century to century, the lasting value of Quaker education is that it aims to do more than explain core subjects and promote the fundamentals of equality and peace. When teachers use literature, like The Lord of the Rings, to allow students to directly experience Gandalf’s sense of justice and forgiveness; when they teach about reconstruction through the poems of freed slaves, they not only demonstrate those values, they instill the morals that will allow students to become ethical movers and shakers, to help marry technology and design with equality and peace. It inspires me to envision our world, and to strive for one that is more peaceful . . . and ultimately, more hopeful.
*Names of individuals in Kenya and Uganda have been changed to protect their identities
Moria Sloan is still working in Nairobi with HelpAge International on issues of gender equality, access to health care, and protection in emergencies for older women and men, including older refugees. The program she and Abdul designed to address FGM/C in northern Kenya was recently submitted to potential donors, and they are currently awaiting approval of funding.