ARROR, Kenya — She is so shy that she can only whisper her story, hiding her mouth behind a clenched fist, never meeting anyone's eye.
Dorcas Chelagat, at 13, is one of the most powerless members of her tribe, a child whose value is equal to the dowry price of a few goats and blankets. But shyness sometimes conceals a well of strength.
She tells of her journey with 22 other children who defied their elders and parents, who ignored the risk of ridicule, curses and beatings and turned their backs on their homes. The girls, ages 12 to 16, trekked six hours across snake-infested hills in the darkness, hiding whenever anyone approached, keeping silent all the way. They were determined to escape the ritual of female genital mutilation still practiced almost universally in their Kenyan valley.
Their action in December was so bold that it frightened the grown-ups. Some parents feared dark repercussions. Would they be cursed? To the tribal elders, it was the greatest threat to unity and tradition they had ever seen.
But the Kenyan government, which has outlawed female genital mutilation, quickly sent the girls home to face the certainty of the ritual, forcing those who dared to run away again.
The village of Arror, 110 miles from Eldoret in western Kenya, is nestled in a lush green valley beneath a spectacular mountain. Echoing with bird calls and burbling brooks, the hamlet of 1,200 people seems a world of idyllic tranquillity. Circular mud huts are scattered along narrow trails where women of the Marakwet tribe, wearing cheerful scarves and pretty glass beads and carrying machetes in straw bags, loiter to chat.
Beneath the surface, however, is a world of brutal conformity, oaths of secrecy, dark curses and a suffocating fear so powerful that many mothers feel unable to protect their daughters from the agonizing ritual they suffered as girls.
In the Marakwet community and many other tribes, there is no route to maturity for girls except through genital mutilation.
Some mothers push their daughters into it, promising them gifts. But the most avid supporters are fathers and the tribe's elderly men and women.
"My mother said it was good for me to do it," Dorcas recalled. "She said, 'You'll be a mature person. You'll have a chance to feast with other women.' She said the family goats would be slaughtered for the feast. She said once I was initiated I'd be free to be married, because an uncircumcised girl could not marry."
The first cut, made during an annual public ceremony, is small and symbolic, said Jacob Kibor, a Marakwet pastor who has campaigned long against the practice. Then the girls are taken to a seclusion hut where the major operation takes place, using a knife or blade and no anesthetic to remove the external sexual organs, including all or part of the clitoris and labia.
"Girls are supposed to remain stoic," Kibor said. "But there's only so much a person can take." If a girl does shame her family and scream, the women in the seclusion hut sing loudly to cover it up.
The girls are sworn to an oath of secrecy. Joseph Chebii, who sent his daughter to face the ritual long ago, is still convinced it is a worthy tradition that causes no pain.
"It's not painful. It's nothing," he said scornfully as he hoed a rocky patch of ground.
A World Health Organization paper in 2000 estimated that 2 million girls were at risk of genital mutilation annually, most of them in 28 African countries. It estimated the prevalence at 38% in Kenya, with the highest numbers in rural areas.
The paper said that the initial bleeding and shock could kill and that women often suffered severe lifelong complications in silence.
Ask villagers the reasons for the ritual, beyond initiation into adulthood, and they reply simply that it's always been done.
The ritual is practiced in various forms by other tribes in Kenya and other African countries. In some cultures it is seen as a way of preventing female promiscuity; in others it is seen as aesthetically pleasing.
All the Marakwet elders look forward to the ritual. Each December, goats are killed, there is feasting, a celebration and traditionally brewed beer. When the girls ran off, the whole tribal sense of unity and meaning was threatened. There was shock and anger. A group of villagers went to district officials, claiming they had no plans to make the girls undergo the ritual.
"The elders really like it because there's celebration and feasting. How can they feast, if there's no girls to be circumcised?" said Susana Cheboi, 45, the mother of Belinda, one of the runaways. "I was circumcised when I was a very little girl. I experienced a lot of pain, and I vowed I would not let my daughters go through it."
In 1992, Cheboi tried to save her daughters from it.
"I went and told the elders I did not want my daughters to be circumcised. But they came in the night and took my eldest daughter and my second daughter away and had both of them circumcised," she said.
"I cried a lot."