By Malia Guyer-Stevens '16
As an anthropology graduate student at Yale Mirka Prazak knew she wanted to focus on two things: farming, and Africa. So after her first year of school she decided to travel to Uganda to begin fieldwork that incorporated these two subjects. Rather quickly though she ended up turning around and heading back to school, as it was the early 80’s and Uganda was falling into civil war.
“Within a month I knew that I couldn't do it. I couldn’t stay there, it was too harrowing,” she said, and that she thought the violence and unhappiness would soon make her crazy.
On her return to Yale she was asked by a fellow student, a man from Kenya, how she had liked her time in Uganda. After explaining her dilemma, her classmate had an idea: one that would guide the direction her life would take right up until the present.
“He said ‘you know you should go study my people. Nobody ever studied them’ ” Mirka recalls. “Them” refers the Kuria people living in Kenya and Tanzania. That was her introduction to the Kuria, the people she would spend the better part of the next thirty years living among and studying.
"It was sort of serendipitous," she says with a laugh. "But it has worked really well.”
Today, as a professor and the head of anthropology at Bennington College, Mirka has just returned from her sabbatical where she has pulled together the last ten years of research into a manuscript that will be published sometime later this year. The book, called “Making the Mark: Gender Identity and Genital Cutting,” will be published by the Ohio University Press. It specifically discusses the rituals of transformation that include genital circumcision - one aspect of the Kuria culture that she has studied over the years.
“It really focuses on these initiation rituals that the Kuria people in Kenya and Tanzania undergo in their individual progression through the life cycle,” she explains. “It’s like an adolescent rite of passage where they undergo genital cutting as a part of a much larger system or constellation of rituals that actually change their status within the community.”
These coming of age rituals are focused on the community as a whole, not just the individual, she goes on to explain. Through the ritual the status of the adolescent is transformed from a child “to a potential ancestor.” This moment of time not only shifts the child’s position up in society, but with it their whole community goes through a transformation where the parents become elders, and the grandparents become senior elders.
Mirka believes it is important for Western cultures to understand the social importance of initiation, and that the physical operation is only one piece of it, and a very quick piece at that. This body mutilation, especially when it comes to young women, is regarded by our culture as a horrific event, and we often don’t see the perspective of the cultures that include circumcision in their sacred practices.
“I wanted the Kuria perspective on this to be what the book is about,” said Mirka. However, she adds, “there isn’t one Kuria perspective. There are in fact many because the controversy from the west has of course made its way back there, and there are non-governmental organizations who are active in opposing this practice.”
She says that this has led to her being very conscious of how she wrote her book, and how it could be received, as she did not want to “add fuel to the fire.” Adding, “I really wanted to write a book that was very even-handed in its presentation.”
Her sabbatical allowed for her to take time away from teaching and advising, to put in as much work as possible into the writing of the book. However, she says that being able to incorporate what she was studying into her classes here at Bennington has been a big benefit.
“Especially for this specific book, it has been really good to be able to talk about this issue in classes,” she said. “I have gotten a lot of perspective from talking about what the Kuria people do. Our students have ideas about this too. I think most of us have very western ideas, but then when I bring up other perspectives on [circumcision] people start to understand it in a different way, and it forces me to also understand it more widely.”
While she hadn’t set out to look at this particular issue of circumcision, she became compelled to present a non-western view of it as it became a bigger issue here.
“I was compelled to present other people’s view of it, because the western view was so negative and so specific and focused on that operation,” Mirka said. “I think it’s worth knowing about, understanding it in a way we don’t.”
This last winter she was able to return to Kenya, partly with the intent of finding the subjects of the photographs she will be using to get their signed permission. However, most of all she was interested in letting the people she had studied read the manuscript before it was published as a book.
“It’s one of those things anthropologists never do,” Mirka said. “They sort of characterize the people or a series of events, but they never really let the people themselves weigh in on that characterization.”
The responses she got was positive, she added, saying “they were happy that in writing the book I have shown something they are very proud of and that’s a very important part of their cultural heritage.”