If anyone can convince you that patient dialogue and common ground are more than just buzzwords, it’s Nice Nailantei Leng’ete. As a teenager, Leng’ete succeeded in the seemingly impossible: convincing her Kenyan Maasai community to abandon its ritual of female genital mutilation in favor of new, alternative rites of passage. Since then, she has gone on to help hundreds of Maasai villages do the same, saving an estimated 17,000 girls (so far) from what’s known as “the cut” — turning what started as a forbidden dialogue with the patriarchal elders of her community into a full-blown cultural revolution. 

I am an editor here at Reasons to be Cheerful, and when we originally conceived the We Are Not Divided project almost a year ago, Leng’ete’s story was one of the original inspirations. Named by TIME as one of the world’s 100 most influential people, I’d heard her story many times — typically with a focus on her unbelievable quantifiable achievements. But the stories had always left me wondering: how did she do it? How does anyone do something like that? In a time where most of us can’t even talk to our neighbors, let alone our ideological opposites, how can someone who cares about human rights work so closely with people that have upheld centuries of violence, and genuinely find enough common ground to build a path forward? 

Nice Nailantei Leng’ete talks with girls in Kenya before an Alternative Rites of Passage ceremony in August 2019. Credit: Steve Kagia for Amref Health Africa.

So I did what journalists do: I called her, and I asked. And she gave me three answers: Have patience. Talk less. And above all, treat them with love.

Leng’ete was eight years old when she escaped the cut for the first time. From a young age, she’d known the horrors, waking often at 4 a.m. with her mother and sister to watch other girls’ circumcisions take place. She’d seen the girls married off shortly after the ceremony, forced to have children while they were still children themselves and — Leng’ete’s own personal nightmare — forced to leave school. Knowing the same fate awaited her, Leng’ete ran away from home until her grandfather conceded that she could return and finish her education, making her the first girl in her village to ever attend high school and remain uncircumcised. 

“It was not easy: I was seen as a bad example — that girl who had not agreed to undergo the cut. They give you bad names. They call you all kinds of things, treat you as an outcast and all that,” the now 29-year-old tells me, sitting on a bed in her wood-clad home in Kenya smiling through my Zoom window. 

Credit: Joost Bastmeijer for Amref Health Africa

Elderly people, remember, they understand the culture more. And what they were simply saying was that in the Masaai culture, there is so much that is good in our culture that we need to embrace.

Leng’ete started talking to the girls in her community about high school and what else their futures could hold if they, too, refused female genital mutilation (FGM). She started helping other girls run away like she had, bringing them to her home, and to her school and teachers for shelter.  

“I realized, that is not a sustainable solution. So as I talk to girls, how can I talk to their parents? And that’s how I started dialogue in my village.” 

She started talking to mothers, teachers, elders and the women who traditionally lead the cutting ceremony, known as cutters. Slowly, she even started talking to men. One by one, she found allies in younger men who eventually arranged for the unthinkable: a meeting with the council of elders — a mini parliament of men that women were forbidden to address. When the first meeting came, every man walked out of the room. But Leng’ete kept coming and, slowly, the men started staying. They started first talking about other issues in the community: community development, HIV, education. Eventually, the subject turned to the cut. And when it did, something magical happened. 

Young men in Tanzania, would traditionally marry girls after they undergo FGM, take part in an Alternative Rites of Passage ceremony in October 2020. Credit: Adrian Mgaya for Amref Health Africa

“I remember getting to respect them, but also to understand their perspective more. Elderly people, remember, they understand the culture more. And what they [were] simply saying was that in the Masaai culture, there is so much that is good in our culture that we need to embrace. By sitting to them is how I got to know how beautiful our culture is. Because remember, FGM is one thing, child marriage is another and teenage pregnancy, but [they said], ‘Have you ever thought about how we dress, how beautiful our necklaces are, how beautiful our Masaai traditional clothes, the way our warriors jump high, the way we sing together, the way we share the little we have? The way we have so much generosity in that culture and love, and that’s why we never fight over anything. Sharing is our world: whatever small you have, you have to share, your neighbor cannot be hungry. That is our culture that is teaching us,’” they told her. 

Girls take part in an Alternative Rites of Passage ceremony in 2018. Credit: Joost Bastmeijer for Amref Health Africa

Suddenly, Leng’ete saw her Maasai life through a whole new lens. She found new beauty in ritual, and discovered what truly drives her community. “Unity: you can never find that in any part of this world. It’s only in my culture. So that’s something that is really good that we need to embrace and we should even teach the other world,” she says. She asked the elders: “How can we use that and take it back to our daughters; take it back to our women? Share the same love. Take care of them? Protect them from all of these harmful traditional practices? In the whole process of the female genital mutilation ceremony, what is wrong is the cut.”


Typically when this story gets told, the fast-forward button gets hit here. In a film, we’d cut from this moment of collective understanding to the revolutionary new rite of passage ceremonies that happen today. Cultural elders who once blessed FGM ceremonies now bless girls with books and school supplies. The girls dance, and take part in pageants that showcase their education and public speaking abilities — their voices — and improve their confidence. The former cutters guide the girls, and care for them through the ceremonies, giving them not just a new role, but an income replacement. Parents take part in mother-daughter and father-son dialogues about reproductive rights in the leadup to the ceremony, and give speeches encouraging the girls in their education. Men proclaim their support for marrying uncut women once they are ready, on their own terms, and political leaders publically denounce FGM. 

In reality, it took much longer to get there. Years of painstaking dialogue and, as Leng’ete puts it, “listening, listening, listening.” 

“Sometimes we blame people, but remember, we blame them because we don’t talk to them,” she says. “You cannot just say ‘no’ — you also have to listen to them, and once they are done you can bring out your views. You listen to them first, that is when they will give you an ear.”

Nice Nailantei Leng’ete Credit: Steve Kagia for Amref Health Africa

“You see, I truly understand that it’s a violation of human rights. It’s torture. It’s not something that should be happening to any of our girls. But… you cannot use force to fight attitude. You cannot use force to change mindset. You can only do that by showing people a lot of love. Even if you know very well it’s something that is not good, it’s something that should not be happening… if you don’t treat them with love, they will not even come to your meeting. They will say ‘you are judging us.’ By giving them love and not judging them, that is when they will also sit down and listen to you. If I keep blaming them they will not change.” 

The same goes for the creation of alternative rites of passage in the other communities Leng’ete helps. “For an alternative rites of passage to happen, it’s a collective effort. Everyone has to be there. Men and women, girls and boys, political leaders, administrative leaders, government representatives — you cannot have an alternative rites of passage if it’s only the women who have changed, or the men. It has to be all of them… It’s a process that takes years.” 

In 2011, twelve years after Leng’ete escaped the cut, the government of Kenya outlawed FGM — a move Leng’ete saw as an important milestone. She says, she has no problem using that law, but that even she sees it as Plan B: “Where you break the law, we use it. But before that, we say ‘talk — before the law gets you.’” 

“You know, we have problems. It’s not just in Kenya or in Africa — the whole world, we all have problems. It’s just that they’re unique in different ways… But I think one thing I know really works is dialogue. I feel like every issue, people need to talk. Dialogue is a solution to so many things. As much as people never want to go that way, it is a solution for so, so, so, so many things,” she says. “The differences will always be there. We just need to be a world that cares for one another, and a world where people are free to talk to one another.”

Victoria was sitting on the hood of a parked car looking down at the number she had been given by a staffer at the Planned Parenthood clinic where she’d had her abortion a few days earlier. She felt sure she had made the right decision by terminating the pregnancy. She was just 20 years old, holding down three jobs and on the cusp of finishing college. 

Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she had let her Catholic, pro-life family down. “It felt to me to be very shameful,” she says. She called the number and, before she knew it, she was telling the woman, a peer counselor for an organization called Exhale, about a recurring dream she had been having. “I would be speaking to my sister, but she would not turn to face me when we talked — no matter how I walked around her or asked her to.” 

The counselor listened intently and helped Victoria — who asked that her last name not be used to protect her family’s privacy — to reflect on her experience. “It was really good for me to put everything on pause and be like, ‘Oh, this is actually a little bit confusing what I’m feeling,” she says. She called the talk line a few more times and each conversation was the same. “Nobody said anything except things like, ‘You deserve to heal’ or ‘You deserve peace.’”

At a time when attitudes toward abortion are deeply divided along ideological lines, organizations like Exhale — whose clients include both feminists from California and churchgoers from the Bible Belt — are a rarity. 

Most abortion counseling organizations are either pro-life or pro-choice. Pro-life organizations believe abortion is morally wrong and often see counseling as an opportunity to “save” women who have committed what they view as a grave sin, sometimes through shame or coercion. Pro-choice organizations seek to normalize abortion and often downplay or dismiss women’s feelings of loss, confusion, or regret after having one. 

“There’s really no space to wrestle with it because we’re just screaming over one another,” says Susan Chorley, a Baptist minister and president and co-founder of Exhale. Chorley got pregnant for the second time when her son was two and her marriage was on the rocks. The thought of having another child overwhelmed her and she chose to have an abortion. After the procedure, she didn’t dare talk about it with people at her church for fear of being ostracized. At the same time, pro-choice groups didn’t acknowledge the full range of emotions she felt about her abortion, which included intense sadness.

Both sides made her feel judged. “It was like, ‘Just do it and who cares’ or, ‘If you do that, you’re forever damned,’” Chorley says. “It’s so much more complex.” 

The isolation she felt led Chorley, who is still a minister, to co-found Exhale, a non-profit that helps people process their experiences around abortion without any preconceived notions about what that should look like. “It doesn’t matter where you are on the political spectrum,” says Chorley. “Your experience, your questioning of what it means, your questioning of who you are as a result of it — all those things are in that conversation. And there’s no space to have that conversation if we’re just talking about whether it’s right or wrong.”

exhale staff
Staff and volunteers at Exhale. Photos courtesy of Exhale

Founded in 2000, Exhale is staffed by 40 volunteers from across the country trained to act as non-partisan, non-judgmental sounding boards for women (and sometimes men) who have experienced abortion. It has staunchly resisted pressure from donors and others to plant its flag in either the pro-life or pro-choice camps. Instead, it has tried to carve out a space, which it calls “pro-voice,” in the sparsely occupied territory between the two extremes. 

“I think that some of the division and isolation that we’re experiencing in this country has been because there haven’t been enough opportunities for people across those quote-unquote divides to find one another, to know one another, to listen to one another,” says Chorley. “Ultimately, that’s what we want to create in this space.” 

The organization recently hosted a series of virtual healing circles for people who have had an abortion and have also been victims of violence (many women make the decision to abort because they have been victims of sexual assault or domestic abuse). The circles consisted of three activities per week, including journaling, yoga and weekly group discussions, for a period of six weeks. At any time, people can connect with a counselor via the organization’s text line (this year, Exhale transitioned management of the talk line to another organization, Connect and Breathe).

Most people reach out because they have nobody else to talk to or are afraid of what people will say. “You need to sit there and hold a safe space for them so they can talk about their feelings,” says Jenna Sprague, a peer counselor for Exhale who also sits on the organization’s board. “It’s giving people the chance to actually use their voice.”

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    Clients set the agenda for the conversation with peer counselors following their cues, right down to what language they use. “If they say baby, we reflect that back and talk about their baby,” Sprague says. 

    Text line counselors attend eight hours of virtual training over two weekends, where they role play situations they may encounter with clients — a college student grappling with the decision, a father wanting to support his teenage daughter, a grandmother coming to terms with an abortion she had years ago.

    One of the goals of the training is to unpack participants’ assumptions about abortion.

    “Your experience, your questioning of what it means, your questioning of who you are as a result of it — all those things are in that conversation.”

    When Sprague trained with Exhale in 2016, the organization was doing in-person sessions at their now shuttered office in Oakland, California. In one session, the trainer asked participants questions like, “Do you believe abortion is a form of killing?” and “Is abortion a form of birth control?” “We had a ‘Yes’ section and a ‘No’ section and you could stand anywhere along that wall,” Sprague recalls. After hearing why other participants felt the way they did, several people shifted from their original positions along the wall.

    For Sprague, this simple exercise was revealing. “It was a great way to tangibly see that it’s not a black-and-white issue. There are different layers to this.”

    That approach reflects a level of empathy and complexity that is arguably missing from the abortion debate — but it hasn’t been an easy sell. 

    “The middle ground isn’t flashy,” says Sprague. “Being on the extremes…it brings in more money, it brings in more followers, it generates more conversation.” In recent years, the organization has struggled to attract donors and funding constraints have forced it to scale down, including divesting the talk line.

    Despite these challenges, Chorley isn’t budging. “I’ve given up on trying to fight to belong,” she says. “I am committed to creating space for people who want a nuanced conversation.”