Last Saturday wasn’t supposed to be Rhobi Samwelly’s evening, and she made sure of that as she made her way to a seat reserved for her at a neatly packed Julius Nyerere International Convention Centre in city centre without much fanfare.
Wearing a grey blazer that matched her skirt, she hardly stood out among the crowd who was waiting patiently to see and hear about courageous women. Saturday evening, 45-year-old Rhobi Samwelly was just fine being one of the nominees of Malkia wa Nguvu [Powerful Queen] award ceremony, one of its kind platform that celebrates Tanzanian sheroes every year.
But when the room-lights finally went down at around 3.52pm in the afternoon, all eyes were on the screen that began with the scene of a girl running, terrified, in tears, exhaling heavily not knowing where to go, whom to go to. The scene that followed was specks of blood on the floor with a girl screaming. The 11-minute documentary told the story – in painstaking detail of how young girls run away from their homes in Northern Tanzania to escape the horrors of illegal practise of female genital mutilation (FGM). But the then young Rhobi [12-year-old] was a victim of FGM.
Upon completion of her standard seven exams, dubbed ‘cutting season’, Rhobi who comes from Mara region, during her school holidays in December had to face the difficult choice of submitting to being cut that was planned by her mother or risk her life. In the documentary, she says, “I asked my mother, do you want me to die like my friend Sabina? She responded saying Sabina died because she did not have a good circumciser,” Rhobi says.
Rhobi thought if she involved her aunt, she would help her escape the horrific terrors of FGM but she was wrong. “My aunt in fact said we will celebrate, eat meat and be merry after the circumcision is over,” Rhobi adds.
The day arrived when Rhobi and 15 other girls were planned to be cut. In presence where two circumcisers; one of them who would cut only Rhobi, and the other one would cut the 15 girls. But when Rhobi was cut, she bled to a near death. She was unconscious for more than five hours; Her family thought she was dead and news in the village went that Rhobi was no more. According to tradition, girls who die due to cutting are not buried; instead they are thrown in the bush to be eaten by the wild animals. But Rhobi survived, she had to, for the hundreds of girls from all religions in Tanzania that she currently protects at a Safe House, and travels around the countryside fighting against this thousand-year-old tradition and educating both men and women on the negative effects of FGM.
“Safe houses is one of the strategies to fight against FGM,” Rhobi says in a film titled ‘In the Name of Your Daughter’.
When the room-lights were turned on, there was a pin-drop silence for about 30 seconds before the crowd stood up to applaud Tanzania’s most charismatic and courageous woman. Rhobi, the commoner was now in the spotlight shedding a tear or two. Her story tapped into the audience’s deepest emotions and reduced it to tears. “I looked left and right, and I saw women weeping, some holding back and others wiping their tears,” says Rhobi in an interview with Woman Magazine after the event.
Rhobi was given the Hall of Fame award (Tuzo ya Heshima), the most prestigious recognition of the night.
Kauthary Mohamed, an entrepreneur based in Mwenge, Dar es Salaam, who spoke to Woman Magazine after the event, said Rhobi’s story touched each and every one convened that evening including her and her family. “Her story shows a painful yet courageous experience. She deserves the recognition. She shows women like us that everything is possible if we are determined to do. We [women] need to change our mind set and abandon such outdated norms. Men will understand us if we raise and echo one voice in unity against such acts. It should begin with us,” says Kauthary. She added that she was so glad to witness such an outstanding personality who provides safety for girls who don’t want to be cut, guarantee their welfare in an effort to restore their lost hope.
Rhoby Samwelly has saved more than 900 girls from the ruthless practise of FGM and has given shelter to about 100 girls who have fled their homes from forced FGM, child marriage and other forms of gender-based violence, at her safe houses located in Butiama and Mugumu giving them all their basic needs and support such as food, education and vocational training for free.
Ms Gertrude Mongella, an inspirational icon, educator, politician, diplomat, and activist is of the belief that women’s strength stretch as far as that of men. Speaking during the event as the guest of honour, Mama Mongella commended Rhobi’s charisma and of winners, nominees alike. She said, “Why should we [women] entertain any form of persecution? Why do we shed tears and continue tolerating such shameful acts such as rape, domestic violence and FGM. We have to reach a point where we can say enough is enough.”
Mama Mongella is of the view that there should be an inter-generational exchange of knowledge, skills and experience and skills for women to make a step further in their endeavour to achieve their desired goals be it in equality, women empowerment or eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls.
It wasn’t just the women that night that inspired thousands of Tanzanian girls and women. Men who have done outstanding work and achieved a remarkable milestone in various spheres of life had the opportunity to say a word or two.
Among them was Eric Shigongo, an author, entrepreneur and a media mogul. Speaking at the event he said for him respecting women regardless of their social status is a rule taught by his late mother.
“I lost my mother six months ago and I know the pain of living without a mother. So whenever I see a woman out there I am so happy that I still have other women to look up to whom I can call them ‘Mama’,” he said. Challenging the women present, he said, “Don’t allow men, environment or any circumstances destroy your hard-working fighting spirit.” In his concluding remarks, Shigongo encouraged women to believe in themselves and do something to change their lives and the world in general.
It’s a given that ‘Malkia wa Nguvu’ this year cracked the code for calibrating the good-feel moment in celebrating Tanzania’s sheroes and courageous women. 20 Tanzanian women in different categories were recognised at this year’s ‘Malkia Wa Nguvu’ awards.