New Internationalist

A woman’s rite

Issue 373

They call it ’something of which you should never speak’, though many African countries have now explicitly outlawed the practice. Not so in the Gambia, Nikki van der Gaag discovers.

Nikki Van Der Gaag
Learning patience: Sunta Javara from the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices. Nikki Van Der Gaag

It always happens on a Monday. On the Sunday, the drumming and dancing go on all night. All the women get dressed in their best and most brightly coloured clothes – purples, lime green, orange, yellow, sky blue – and they dance until they drop, even the grandmothers. They have been preparing for this for a week, pounding vast quantities of rice and groundnuts which is then cooked in an enormous silver pot with three legs. At six in the morning it all starts again, and then a procession wends its way out of the gate and along the road, one woman banging a black jerry can with a stick. The mother of one of the little girls, aged six, cradles her child’s head gently on her lap and fans her against the heat. The baby and five girls are spoiled and feted, given new dresses. It is a cause for celebration, and for those who were the centre of attention last year, the first time that they are able to join in properly, to enter the circle of the initiated. A week later there will be another party when the children come home; more food, more dancing, more celebrations.

Learning patience: Sunta Javara from the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices. Photo: Nikki Van Der Gaag

The mothers tell the children – those who are old enough to enjoy stories – that where they are going there is a tree which has money instead of leaves. The girls dream of sending their father to Mecca, buying new clothes for themselves and all the family.

But at the heart of the party, as at the centre of all good stories, there is pain. For the little girls are going to be ‘circumcised’. In her compound, where only the girls and their grandmothers are able to enter, the circumciser, ngaman, will take a razor, and cut off the children’s’ clitorises and labia minora with a razor.

Around 80 per cent of girls in the Gambia undergo this procedure. Seven of the nine major ethnic groups practise female genital mutilation (FGM) at ages from shortly after birth until 18 years old. Some girls die, others have complications following the operation. Many have difficult childbirths. Though this is also due to malnutrition and to early marriage – the majority of deaths are among women under 20 – the scarring of the vaginal area in FGM also makes it less able to stretch for the baby’s head to come out. The maternal mortality rate in the Gambia is high, at 1,100 per 100,000 births – 107th out of 119 countries in the world – and has, if anything, gone up rather than down. In 1990 it was 1,050 per 100,000 births. Almost everyone you talk to has a sister, mother or other relative who died giving birth. Sometimes the child of a dead mother is called Malafi ‘the one who was not wanted’.

But it is not difficult to see why mothers in the villages allow their female children to undergo the cutting, especially in the rural areas.

My husband and I didn’t want our daughters to be circumcised,’ says one woman, ‘but I knew they would be bullied and ostracized if they were not. I felt I had no choice. Everyone would know if they had not had it done, and if they came too near a compound where the circumcision was being performed, they could be brought in and circumcised then and there against their will.’

This is what happened to one girl from the Wolof tribe, who was taken forcibly off the street to be circumcised. As a result of the operation, she had to go to hospital. Her family, unusually, took the case to the police. But that was two years ago and nothing has happened since.

So entrenched is the practice that the nyansymba, the village head woman, will not talk about it. ‘This is because if you talk about something, it might change, and she doesn’t want it to change,’ says one observer. But she is not the only one; it is something that it is taboo to discuss. As one Mandinka song goes: ‘Jileng nyaka jileng nyaaa ye ku le je ndata foola – my eyes have seen something about which I should never speak.’ 1

In other African countries – Burkina Faso, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Central African Republic and Tanzania – things are changing. The governments have outlawed FGM and in many cases there are programmes to retrain circumcisers, who are usually older women.

But in the Gambia in 1999 the President, Yahya Jammeh, refused to outlaw the practice, saying that it is part of ‘Gambian culture’. Others have argued that it is a Muslim practice, or a Christian one; but in fact where it is practised it is done so by both religions. The President also implied that organizations working against the practice in the Gambia were fair game, saying that anti-FGM campaigners could continue to do their work in rural areas, but that ’there’s no guarantee that after they deliver their speeches, they will return to their homes’.

So the four staff and the many volunteers who work at the Gambia Committee on Traditional Practices (GAMCOTRAP), are brave people. People like Sunta Javara, who is serene and determined. ‘The President said we should know that our lives are at stake. He said we were not allowed to use public radio or TV, nor would we have access to a lawyer if anything happened. International organizations, which had been funding GAMCOTRAP direct, redirected their funding via the Government.’ She looks up. ‘We hope that, as time goes by, the Government will change its mind.’

The campaigners work towards changing hearts and minds through workshops, conferences and persuading friends and family, perhaps the most difficult task.

The President said we should know that our lives are at stake

Sunta started as a volunteer after attending one of these workshops: ‘I found it hard to hear what they had to say at first. But then I became 100 per cent convinced that this was wrong. After my training I went back and talked to my aunt, who I was living with. You know, in Gambia it is not easy for us to talk to our parents or older relatives about these things. But she also became convinced and we were happy when we found she was pregnant. I asked if I could adopt the baby, and she agreed.

When the grandmother came to get the baby for circumcision we said no. My uncle supported us. The child was their last-born and he said: “I don’t want anything to harm my baby.” That baby is now 12. She still lives with me and she has not been mutilated. I also managed to save two of my cousin’s sister’s daughters. But it is easier in the town. It is more difficult in the villages and it will take time. But we are patient.’

Meanwhile, on the day Sunta talks to me, the five girls from the village are already in the circumciser’s house.

  1. 1 GAMCOTRAP leaflet

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