Knocking Trump’s ego down to size

Donald Trump pinata

© Dawn Starin

Fighting prejudice and fear with good-natured fun and humour, the Mexicans have found a way – a typically Mexican way – of showing Donald Trump what they think of him and his vitriol and, in the process, having an enjoyable time smashing his character and ego to smithereens. Donald Trump piñatas made from crumpled-up pieces of old newspaper, discarded toilet rolls and crinkled-up crepe paper are a big hit and selling out fast – both in the US and in Mexico. This one, enhanced with devil horns and not containing the traditional sweets, comes from the Merposur mercado outside the city of San Cristobal in the Mexican state of Chiapas and was made by a smiling and laughing craftswoman who relished the idea of adding devil horns.

Dawn Starin

Ai Weiwei: @Large in Alcatraz


The imagery on this traditional Chinese dragon kite hanging from the ceiling in the New Industries Building, features birds and plants that represent specific nations with records that violate their citizens' human rights and freedoms. © Dawn Starin

Last November, two friends and I were ferried through the waters of the San Francisco Bay to a small dollop of an island, Alcatraz.

Once serving as an army fortress, military prison and a notorious maximum-security federal penitentiary harbouring some of America’s most dangerous criminals, ‘the Rock’ was formerly the address of, among many others, Al ‘Scarface’ Capone, Robert ‘The Birdman’ Stroud, George ‘Machine-Gun’ Kelly and Alvin Karpis, the first ‘Public Enemy No 1’.

Beyond the media hype, the Hollywood ‘glamour’ and the ghastly gangster stories of the Rock, however, there is another, incredibly important story: it is here that many prisoners of conscience were jailed for their beliefs.

Hopi Indian men who refused to send their children away to government boarding schools in the late 19th century and conscientious objectors to military service in World War I were incarcerated here.

It is also here that a political movement was born: after the penitentiary was closed, Native American Indians occupied the abandoned island on three separate occasions. These occupations brought nationwide attention to the fact that many tribes were being decimated by the US government and gave rise to the American Indian (or Red Power) movement.

Today, Alcatraz is a bird sanctuary, national park and major tourist attraction. Every November, on ‘Un-Thanksgiving Day’, Native American Indians gather on the island to honour their past occupations and all those who continue to fight for Native American Indian rights.

Since September 2014, this notorious prison and honourable site of protest has been the setting of an art installation which explores issues of human rights, confinement, punishment, protest and the loss of freedom and liberty.

Its creator? Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist confined, punished and unable to experience full freedom himself, who has often spoken out against human rights abuses and the need for reform.

His new seven-part multi-media exhibition, which will be at Alcatraz until 26 April, was created specifically for the island prison, and is ironically entitled Ai Weiwei: @Large, bringing lightning-clear inspiration and encouragement to ‘the Rock’, a place long seen as a symbol of the US’s craven, murky, dark side.

Since Ai Weiwei is still not allowed to leave China, the entire exhibition was designed and constructed without his ever having stepped foot on Alcatraz. From nearly 10,000 kilometres away, he formed a mental map of the site and imagined, created and directed the exhibits in his Beijing studio. The results are astonishing.

In the New Industries Building, a workplace for privileged prisoners, colourful youthful/playful materials – kites and Legos – were used to represent appalling realities.

In one room, a giant Chinese paper dragon kite made up of many smaller kites painted with flowers and birds – a Colossus ‘yearning to be free’ – is suspended from the ceiling, contained and restrained.

The Twitter symbol –  banned in China – sits within its eyes and the dragon’s body holds quotes from Nelson Mandela, Edward Snowden (‘privacy is a function of liberty’), the Manipuri civil rights activist Sharmila Chanu (‘I want to cast my vote’), the Vietnamese human rights lawyer, democracy activist and prominent Catholic blogger, Lê Quốc Quân (‘My words are well intended and innocent’), and Ai Weiwei himself (‘Everyone of us is a potential convict’).

Next door, in a display of 1.2 million Lego bricks titled ‘Trace’, the portraits of 176 dissidents from 36 countries are spread across the floor of the old laundry room. Some of the portraits are of famous individuals; some are of individuals basically unknown outside of their despotic borders. All of them, however, are prisoners of conscience.

Flowers at Ai Weiwei exhibitionFor me, the most beautiful of the seven installations was ‘Blossom’. In the psychiatric observation wing, the old prisoners’ bathrooms were transformed: delicate, shining-white ceramic flowers now fill cracked toilet bowls once shit and piss covered, old scum-covered tubs and once phlegm-covered, rusty sinks.

The installation references China’s Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1956, a short period of time when the Chinese government tolerated free expression. For me, it signifies something simpler: the idea that out of a swirling cesspool of filth and repression, beauty and unrestrained freedom can emerge, if given the chance.

The most poignant of all the installations, ‘Yours Truly’, is in the dining room – said to be the most dangerous room on the island. Piles of postcards, pre-addressed to many prisoners of conscience around the world, wait for visitors to fill them out.

The postcards, with pictures of flowers and birds representing the nations where the addressed prisoner is being held, will be sent to the prisoners as a reminder that they are not isolated, that their cause has not been forgotten.

Encircled by the natural beauty of the bay, within sight of the vibrant metropolis that is San Francisco, housed together with cracked and rusted fixtures, filthy, broken windows and the ghosts of once-silenced protesting voices, Ai Weiwei has created a space which perfectly captures the importance of freedom of expression and the pain suffered by prisoners of conscience.

Through his use of sculpture, sound and mixed-media works, Ai Weiwei has demonstrated that freedom cannot be imprisoned forever. According to him, ‘When you constrain freedom, freedom will take flight and land on a window sill.’

Or, in this case, on a rocky island/bird sanctuary in the middle of San Francisco Bay, complete with three-tiered cellblocks, tool-proof steel bars and wall-mounted teargas canisters.

At Alcatraz, a prisoner had four rights: food, clothing, shelter and medical care. Recreational activities like painting and music were privileges to be earned.

Graffiti at AlcatrazUnfettered artistic expression may also seem like a privilege to be earned or an unnecessary luxury, but it is as essential to our intellectual and emotional survival as food and water. It is a part of the very essence that makes us both human and humane.

Ai Weiwei: @Large makes that clear and puts unfettered, politically motivated artistic expression front and centre in a crumbling prison. Will this exhibit interest and educate visitors and arouse discussion about the value of freedom of expression, political protests and the meaning of censorship and imprisonment around the world? I hope so.

Leaving Alcatraz, I realized that although I was incredibly moved by Ai Weiwei’s installation, the most remarkable piece of political art I saw there was in fact outside the exhibition.

I saw it as I stepped foot on the island; I saw it when I left: the water tower still covered with graffiti – preserved vestiges from the Native American occupation of the island – spelling, in thick red letters: ‘Indians Welcome’ and ‘Indian Land’.

Photos copyright Dawn Starin.

Bats: not just pests

Healthy Indiana bats

Ann Froschauer/USFWS under a CC Licence

At the famous Damnoen Saduak floating market in Thailand, where women ply their fresh flowers, sweets and meats from canoes, many tourists pile back into their buses clutching a ‘bat box’ keepsake – a framed box containing dead bats and insects.

‘We’re doing the locals a favour by helping them get rid of the bats,’ says one Australian. ‘Just think of all the diseases they spread – rabies, malaria, cholera, TB...’

A cursory check on eBay reveals a steady trade in bat boxes from Asia. It’s just one of many threats – ranging from habitat loss, pollution and pesticides – that are sending bat species into decline worldwide. Clearly, bats are misunderstood; clearly, bats are in trouble.

Slow reproducers, most bats give birth to one single offspring every year. This leaves them exceptionally vulnerable to extinction. Rob Mies, Executive Director of the Organization for Bat Conservation, estimates that about half of our 1,200 bat species may be lost over the next 100 years.

Bats’ sinister cultural baggage means it is often forgotten that some 500 agricultural plants, including bananas, avocados and mangos, rely on them for pollination and seed distribution.

Bat byproducts are also a major money spinner. Droppings or guano, a major source of nutrients for fish, salamanders and frogs, makes excellent fertilizer that is sold commercially and used by subsistence farmers across the developing world.

Insect-eating bats control pests and reduce the need for harmful chemicals; the bats in Khao Chong Pran cave in Thailand gobble up close to 20 tonnes of insects every night. Unbeknown to the ‘souvenir’ buyers at Damnoen Saduak, far from spreading malaria, many bats eat the mosquitoes that could otherwise infect humans.

But tourism is a double-edged sword. If handled correctly, it can conserve bat populations while also benefiting local people. The Congress Avenue Bridge in downtown Austin, Texas, home to a 1.5 million-strong Mexican free-tailed bat colony, is a prime example. It attracts 100,000 visitors every year – and earns $10 million in revenue. It’s time to revise bats’ reputation as evil demons of the night - before it's too late.

The Gambia

When The Gambia is written about in the Western press it is often presented as a sunshine-filled tourist haven populated by smiling happy locals – a bit like a cheap beach party that is a hop, skip and a flight from colder climes.

On the Atlantic coast, near the airport, next to the tourist hotels with their well-manicured gardens, there are tarmac roads that are usually well lit. There is normally electricity, clean water and decent sanitation.

Dawn Starin

Leaving the tourist areas and entering rural Gambia, however, the roads are so bad that vehicles have to crawl around the potholes and it can take half a day to travel 100 kilometres. The electricity, clean water and sanitation facilities disappear. Scarecrows are made from ripped plastic bags, old rice sacks or dead monkeys. Platforms made of sticks stand in the middle of fields to sit on or under while children, often accompanied by dogs, keep an eye out for marauding monkeys.

The Gambia, the smallest and most densely populated country on the African mainland, has virtually no natural resources – except for peanuts – and relies mostly on tourism, foreign aid and monies sent home by expatriates.

Life in rural Gambia is particularly difficult for women – child marriage and female genital mutilation are still common, while women do 70 per cent of the agricultural work. At many levels it is the women who, economically and nutritionally, hold the country together.

Flag of The Gambia

The country gained its independence from Britain in 1965 and was dominated for three decades by its first leader, Dawda Jawara. It formally united with French-speaking Senegal, which surrounds it, during the 1980s after a failed coup attempt but reasserted its independent status in 1989. The current president, Yahya Jammeh, a former army lieutenant, came to power in a 1994 coup. He has since been elected and re-elected but effectively rules the country with an iron fist.

His Excellency Sheikh Professor Alhaji Dr Yahya Jammeh – to give him the full title he insists upon – is an eccentric figure. He has claimed that he can personally cure hypertension, infertility, asthma, strokes, sickle-cell anaemia, diabetes and AIDS, amongst other diseases. He claims to have received letters from US President Obama describing him as an inspirational leader and thanking him for his exemplary dedication, determination and perseverance for the development of The Gambia as well as the advancement of humanity at large – a claim denied by the Americans.

In March 2009, a literal witch-hunt sponsored by the state led to approximately 1,000 people being snatched from their villages and taken to secret detention centres. Amnesty International reported that, after being kidnapped, they were forced to drink hallucinogenic concoctions and tortured to make them confess to witchcraft. The liquid they were forced to drink led to at least six deaths from kidney failure.

Jammeh has shut down newspapers, imprisoned journalists and stamped down on freedom of the press. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says there is ‘absolute intolerance of any form of criticism’ in The Gambia, with death threats, surveillance and arbitrary night-time arrests the daily lot of journalists ‘who do not sing the government’s praises’. Political arrests are also regular occurrences, with several cases of individuals who have ‘disappeared’, died in custody or died shortly after release. According to Amnesty International, once people are in custody, they risk a range of human rights violations, including unlawful detention, torture, unfair trials and extrajudicial killings.

Visitors to The Gambia’s beaches should look well beneath the surface – and the international community should pay more attention to the country’s increasingly worrying human rights record.

Tourism in The Gambia: Cardboard cut-outs or the real thing?

A warm welcome from smiling, sharp-witted traders awaits anyone who enters the sprawling alleyways of a Gambian market. These places are hives of activity with constant hustling and hassling, bustling and bartering.

Three cloves of garlic

But the economic reality of all this activity is very bleak. The traders often have only a handful of goods; tiny clumps of tomato and groundnut paste, dust-covered tins of sardines, evaporated milk and instant coffee, individual cigarettes, garlic cloves, peppercorns and the ubiquitous Maggi cubes seem to be the main items changing hands. Depending on the time of year, ripe or rotten fruits and vegetables also pass from seller to buyer.

How can someone afford to feed their family from the sale of three garlic cloves? How can it be worthwhile for a trader to sit all day under a hot tin market roof? Sometimes I think the gossiping and chattering and bantering and plaiting of each other’s hair is as important. It binds the community together; it creates a sense of ‘we are in this together’.

Used socks hang from wires. Boxes upon boxes of well-worn shoes line the shops, floor to ceiling, wall to wall. Stacks of university-of-anywhere sweatshirts, mounds of aloha shirts, mountains of fake designer gear spill on to the road. These are the items rejected by Western charity shops.

Among the piles of tat, however, there are a few Western-desired gems. An almost new pair of Birkenstocks cost 15 dalasi (about 54 US cents). A ‘Prada’ bag goes for 45 dalasi (US $1.50). All of these items probably donated and then cleverly re-routed to the market. The bargain-hunting expatriates rummage through the piles looking for the designer labels. The Gambians reach out for the brightly coloured ski jackets and nylon tracksuits and polyester nightgowns. There always seems to be something for everyone.

Horns, many types of horns – from both domesticated and wild animals – are also sold in the market. Stuffed with a secret formula of various root powders, one horn is said to be just as powerful as any weapon and just as protective or offensive as any shield. Worn anywhere on the body or tied to a gun they afford the possessor supreme control. Another horn will cure impotence. Although it is illegal to sell wild animal parts, they are found in most markets because the wildlife conservation department does not have the resources – money, fuel, vehicles, people – to patrol the markets and confiscate these illegal items.

Karite, shea butter cream, used by the women to keep their skin smooth and youthful, is sold by the block. Women in their sixties often look decades younger. If I slather this rancid smelling cream on my face, will I wake up tomorrow looking 10 years younger? A long string of tiny pebbles lies on the market table next to the karite block. A smiling, stick-chewing, turbaned woman tells me I must buy it and tie it around my waist and ‘it will make my man love me forever and he will never go with another woman and he will do it all night long’.

Evil spirits at bay

Handmade wooden stools and washboards, neatly woven small rattan cupboards and hollowed out and dried calabashes, brightly coloured natural fabrics from neighbouring countries and slinky polyesters from Asia all fight for space in the alleyways and roadsides.

My favourite stall is run by a bearded, toothless old man covered in jujus to keep the evil spirits and evil-doers at bay. He sells filthy, broken toilet seats, at least 100 used and dirty bottles, holey, odd shoes and socks, crooked cupboard handles, ragged pieces of cloth, cracked and empty perfume bottles, dead tires, chipped plates, cups and jugs, twisted and tortured pieces of corrugated iron, bottle caps, and pots without handles: everything that belongs in a rubbish tip. In all my years here, I have never known anyone, except me, stop to inspect his goods.

This foul-smelling rat-run of buyers and sellers is not the Gambia found in travel magazines. Very few tourists come here – they are told to stay away. ‘It’s not safe. You will be robbed,’ their guides warn as they usher them into open-top jeeps for an expensive excursion into the bush to find the ‘real’ Africa. The tourists treat The Gambia like a zoo. They come to see how the ‘natives’ live but the real people, the real scenes elude and scare them. But for me, the people in the market are plugged into reality. It is the tourist who is totally disconnected from it.

Wandering through the markets my eyes are glued to the passing feet. Splayed, cracked heels, ragged and torn toenails, toes at odd angles. Brown feet, pinkish soles. Each foot is different; this foot works in the field; that foot walks the corridors of civil servantdom. All amble and stroll and meander. There is nowhere to go. Nothing to see or do. Just the daily routine of eating and sleeping, buying and selling.

Assanatou, a 53-year-old market trader and divorced mother of seven and grandmother of five, with her gold-capped teeth, traditional scars and tattoos on her cheeks and elaborate headscarves, is having a hard time. Her electricity and phone have been cut off. Her rent has gone up, her taxes have gone up and her profits have gone down. She does barely any business during the rainy season and finds that the dry season (or ‘tourist season’ as she calls it) is no better. The 30 jujus she wears on her waist and the two solid silver rings on her fingers that protect her from evil and bring ‘business luck’ are not working this season.

‘I wake at five, bathe my body, say my prayers, talk to my children and work from seven to seven everyday. I take no days off. I come if I am sick. For what? For nothing. We have no business now,’ she says. ‘We have no business for years since that man took over from President Jawara. Then it was good. The tourists came and they weren’t afraid to shop in the market and they were friendly. Now the tour guides and hotel owners tell the tourists to stay out of the big markets and stay in their hotels where they will be safe. Now the tourists pay too much for food and drink and clothes and beads in their hotels and never see Gambia or real working Gambians. They go to fake markets set up in the hotels, not the real markets.’

Assanatou was taken out of school and married at 14. ‘I screamed and screamed until there was no scream left.’ She had her first child at 15 and vowed that she would never do the same thing to her girls. She hasn’t. Both her 21-year-old daughter and her 33-year-old daughter are happily unmarried and not working as market traders.

My wooden crafts will see the world

Market prices vary according to availability and the colour of the buyer’s skin. Often there is one price for Gambians and another, higher price for toubobs, whiteys. The price also depends on the seller’s mood and financial situation.

Musa, wearing his jujus to protect him from vampires, devils and the evil eye, sits under a tin shack weaving his baskets.

‘How much do you charge the tourists for the baskets?’ I ask him.

‘The price depends on who is doing the buying and how much I have in my pocket. If I have money I am tough. If I have nothing in my pocket I am soft.’

‘Are you tough or soft today?’

‘I’m telling you today and this week and this month I am soft. There is no buying now.’

Sitting by the side of the road, Abdou sculpts his wooden bowls, plates and chairs from huge slabs of kenno wood. He knows what woods to use, where to get them and how to preserve them. He also knows which trees are disappearing from The Gambia and how it’s impacting on his livelihood. His work is beautiful, but it barely brings in enough to feed him and his family. Abdou tells me that he is glad when his bowls go off with a tourist because ‘then the bowl can see the world outside, something I will never see.’

‘Where have your bowls gone this month?’ I ask.

‘Now my bowls go nowhere. The tourists don’t buy my bowls this month. My bowls just sit here and watch Gambia go poor.’

Crucial and nothing

The first Gambian-European contacts were established in the 15th century. Colonialism, reliance on peanuts, and the slave trade followed. Small-scale tourism started here in the 1960s with the Scandinavians. Because The Gambia is only six hours flying time from northern Europe, often in the same time zone and has guaranteed sunshine from November to May, it soon became popular with British, German, Dutch tourists.

Tourism contributes approximately 16 per cent to the national income, is a top net foreign exchange earner and is responsible for over 10,000 direct and indirect jobs. In short, tourism is crucial to the Gambian macro-economy.

But how much of the tourist’s money will trickle down to the local people in the local markets? Some of the money will go to the foreign-owned airlines and tour operators. This foreign-directed money, known as ‘leakage’, consumes anywhere from slightly less than 50 per cent to almost 90 per cent of the tourist revenue in The Gambia, depending on whose arithmetic is being used.

Obviously, the Gambian economy is not entitled to 100 per cent of the revenue. But the local people who sell local goods in local markets should receive a fair share. Studies on Gambian tourism appear to show that tourism here is pro-poor and that the local people are benefiting. But the market traders I know seriously disagree.

In the present scenario Assanatou, Musa, Abdou and their fellow stall-holders and craftsmen are losing out, because many of the tourists visiting The Gambia stay in their hotels and rarely venture out into the real world.

These tourists are also missing out. They’re not in The Gambia. They are simply dropping in on an African beachscape, getting a quick tan, drinking imported beer and liquors and eating a European diet often made up of imported groceries with a few local chillies thrown in, taking hundreds of photographs, getting back on the plane and going home.

Photos by the author unless otherwise indicated. People in the pictures are not the ones interviewed for the story.


Contrasts and contradictions abound in the West African state of Guinea-Bissau. This is a land of mangrove-lined waterways, white sandy beaches, lush uninhabited islands, sleepy colonial towns, thick steamy forests and sprawling dry savannas. But it is also a land of cramped urban slums, war-damaged buildings and seriously devastated habitats.

Guinea-Bissau bears the name of its capital city so as to distinguish it from the other two Guineas in Africa. It is one of the least known, poorest and least developed nations in the world.

In the 1960s the country achieved some notice for the prominence of its struggle for liberation from Portuguese rule, an increasingly successful guerrilla war headed by one of Africa’s most prominent anti-colonial thinkers, Amilcar Cabral. But Cabral was assassinated just before independence was finally achieved in 1973 and the ensuing reality has far from lived up to his hopes. The country has endured decades of coups, countercoups and assassinations, is often described as a hotbed of corruption and was recently called a ‘narcostate’ by the UN – it has become a hub for international drug trafficking. It is ranked a lowly 173 out of 177 countries in the UNDP Human Development Index.

The current state of its healthcare is particularly troubling. I am inside the National Hospital in Bissau, capital of Guinea-Bissau. I watch a mother holding a limp, swollen-bellied infant in her lap. The health assistant tells me the child is undernourished and riddled with worms. ‘Most people here – particularly in the rural areas,’ she says, ‘do not have access to safe, clean drinking water, proper sanitation facilities, electricity or the necessary nutrients. If they had that, this child would probably not need to be here.’

Here, the stark reality is that people are poor and dying from lack of simple, basic facilities. Hospital staff often go without pay for months on end. Patients go without medicine and their families go without hope. The National Hospital, one of the biggest hospitals in the country, often has no vitamins, oxygen, paracetamol, bandages, alcohol, ferrous sulphate, respirators, MRI machines, CT scanners or blood. Patients often have to buy medical necessities themselves. If someone needs a major operation they have to go to Senegal. In spite of these problems, many lives are being saved by staff who are dedicated and deeply involved.

Health is, of course, not the only problem. Logging, mining and hunting are taking place here on a large scale on a daily basis – often by foreigners and politicians. Fishing by foreign fleets is depleting the shoals of fish off the mainland coast and around the islands. Today, Guinea-Bissau is haemorrhaging flora and fauna. As with other countries in a state of current, recent or recurrent war, the conservation of wildlife in Guinea-Bissau is not a priority. Faced with so many pressing problems in health, education, food and agriculture, and with limited financial resources, the government is forced to give wildlife conservation low priority.

So this is a land facing myriad problems, being exploited by foreigners and domestic politicians alike. But it is also a land of great imagination, creativity and merriment, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the carnival that takes place every year before Lent. To celebrate this, thousands upon thousands of masked and elaborately costumed dancing, singing, whistling, drumming men, women and children take over the crowded and dusty streets of Bissau. The carnival clearly unites a disparate people. For three days every year, Muslims, animists, Christians, members of every political party, farmers, fisherfolk, traders, beggars and even foreigners are as one and Guinea-Bissau is united in joy and exuberance.

Time will tell

Photo by Xavi Talleda under a CC Licence

Rainy season upcountry rural Gambia, is green. It is a warm, inviting blend of a thousand greens. It is a mixture of beautiful, calm, peaceful mingling greens.

Digging beneath the surface, however, it is immediately clear that soil erosion is out of control, crop yield is extremely low, people are poor, many children are malnourished, many adults have type 2 diabetes, pneumonia is common, malaria is widespread, especially amongst pregnant women, and the division of labour is anything but equal in this green landscape. Necessities are scarce. Luxuries are almost non-existent. There are very few commodities here, except time. Time is one commodity everyone has plenty of. Time is relative. People take their time. They have nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with. The hours seem to pass more slowly upcountry, especially for the women.

As I look around and soak in the reality of it all I remember that life, for most of the women, is hard; toiling long hours in the fields, tending domestic livestock and vegetable gardens, gathering firewood, fetching water, cleaning clothes, preparing and cooking food, taking care of children and managing household food distribution. The average rural Gambian woman works at least 16 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. The workload is never-ending and even during the fasting period of Ramadan, the rural women are still working in the fields, still carrying out their domestic chores and still carrying all the heavy loads on their heads.

Women in waiting

Young girls walk along the paths carrying even younger children on their backs and small bundles of firewood on their heads, practising for their future roles. Up here in the green rainy-season fields, it is very clear that so often women are women and girls are women in waiting. And, like their mothers and grandmothers and aunts and older sisters and over 130 million other girls and women worldwide, most of these young girls will be circumcised. Because no formal studies have been done, it is difficult to estimate how many females in the Gambia have been circumcised. Rough estimates run from 68 per cent to 93 per cent.

One woman from the village tells me that she has not allowed her daughters to be circumcised and that ‘many people are stopping it now because they are aware of the problems it can cause’

In the Gambia, female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation or female genital cutting, usually involves the removal of the clitoris and excision of the labia minora, by a ‘circumcision doctor’, usually the traditional birth attendant. The girl is usually blindfolded, held down and cut with a dirty razor blade. Anaesthetics are not used and the wound is sometimes doused with bleach, covered in cow dung or smeared with Vaseline.

The type and seriousness of the immediate complications depends on the skill of the circumciser, her eyesight, the sharpness of the instrument used and the co-operation of the initiate; a girl who struggles may be more damaged than a girl who does not. In many cases if health problems develop, they are not seen as a consequence of circumcision but blamed on evil spirits or witchcraft.

Because women are often circumcised in groups with the same dirty razor or knife, HIV could be transmitted between them. Certainly there is a higher incidence of HSV2 and bacterial vaginosis among circumcised as opposed to uncircumcised individuals – whether this is due to the same blade being used over and over again is not clear.

Excuses and lies

Female circumcision has been condemned by the World Health Organization, the United Nations, the World Medical Association, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, and the American Medical Association. A group of Muslim clerics and scholars in Mauritania has declared a fatwa, or religious decree, against the practice. In 1999 neighbouring Senegal legally banned the practice. Burkino Faso, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Ghana, Guinea and Togo followed suit. But the Gambia refuses to budge.

In the Gambia, female circumcision is widely accepted and practiced. Over the years I have heard many reasons given to justify the practice. Some people claim it is a duty under Islam; some say that it marks the beginning of womanhood; some say that it is for protection against the evil eye; some say that it is done to reduce a woman’s sexual pleasure and stop her from being promiscuous; some say that it is done to ‘stop the ugly clitoris from growing too long and damaging the penis during sex or harming the infant during childbirth’.

The perpetuation of female circumcision occurs because the mothers and grandmothers insist upon it. It is a traditional practice, maintained by women on young girls so that everyone fits in

This evening I can hear the drums in the neighbouring village heralding the presence of the female ‘circumcision doctor’. One woman from the village tells me that she has not allowed her daughters to be circumcised and that ‘many people are stopping it now because they are aware of the problems it can cause. Radio programmes tell us that it is a violation against children.’ In some cases, however, the radio programmes may be counterproductive.

Photo by Xavi Talleda under a CC Licence

I know a father of two young girls who feels that ‘the aid agencies are walking into our country with their ideas and theories and calling female circumcision female genital mutilation. They have no right to interfere in our culture. I was not going to have my girls circumcised but as soon as the aid agencies and the radio programmes said that it was wrong I immediately sent my girls to be circumcised. No one, especially not foreigners who know nothing about our traditions or people who talk about sex on the radio, has the right to tell me what to do and not do.’

Community identity

This father is not alone. There are many, men and women, who view Western opposition to female circumcision as just another form of colonial domination and cultural imperialism.

‘Sometimes, I just feel as though it will never end. Village life may seem exotic to some but for many of the young girls and women here it is full of personal violence and for some of them it is full of death’

Unfortunately, the anti-female circumcision messages are also having unforeseen effects. Nene, a rural health worker, explains to me that women are now circumcising their babies because young girls are being taught in schools that circumcision ‘is an abuse against their person’. Mothers and grandmothers, unwilling to put up a fight, now arrange for circumcision when the girls are too young to know better and too small to struggle. The idea that circumcision marks an important step into womanhood is gradually being dispelled as younger and younger girls – some of them only a few months old – are being circumcised.

When the circumcision doctor arrives in a village, the women, old and young, rejoice. The girls, almost always unaware of what is about to happen to them, dance and sing. This secret ritual, seen as barbaric in the West and full of immense joy in some parts of the Gambia, binds the women together. It cements them as a group, separates them from the ‘others’ – the men and the world outside. It ties the initiates to their mothers and their grandmothers and all the women before them. The perpetuation of female circumcision occurs because the mothers and grandmothers insist upon it. It is a traditional practice, maintained by women on young girls so that everyone fits in and no one is considered a ‘freak’. In many communities it would be unthinkable to not be circumcised. Community identity is important. One must conform to the community’s rules and traditions. Being circumcised is considered a necessary part of this. The mothers and grandmothers who perpetuate this practice are not doing so out of cruelty. They are simply re-enacting an age-old custom so that their daughters and granddaughters will become accepted members of society.

‘It has no place in today’s world’

Nene feels very strongly that coercion will not work and that ‘this tradition does not represent the best of Gambian culture. It simply represents what has survived from the past and has no place in today’s world’. She has tried to convince many of the circumcisers that this traditional practice must stop. She is not sure, however, how much success she is having. ‘Sometimes,’ she says, ‘I just feel as though it will never end and generations of young girls will continue to be harmed and violated because of this barbaric practice. Village life may seem exotic to some but for many of the young girls and women here it is full of personal violence and for some of them it is full of death.’

But, I think things are slowly changing. And so I ramble off some facts to Nene. Sitting with her, waiting for the Ramadan fast to break so we can sip tea and eat loaves of tapa lapa bread I say, ‘ten years ago no one ever discussed it. Many men did not even know that it occurred. It was a woman’s secret. It being the operative word. The secret word about a secret world. Now female circumcision is discussed by members of the National Assembly, some Islamic religious leaders are actually calling for its elimination, newspapers are printing articles about it and schools are incorporating anti-female circumcision messages into the curriculum. There are even Gambian NGOs campaigning for the sexual and reproductive health rights of women and children and against harmful traditional practices and they have had success in educating the public and getting some traditional birth attendants to put down their circumcision blades. Don’t you think this is encouraging?’

Looking at me, Nene responds: ‘Our village just buried a two-month-old. She bled to death after being circumcised and the mother blamed it on witchcraft. There is nothing positive or encouraging about that.’

An earlier version of this piece appeared in an essay entitled 'Time will tell' in The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, December 2008

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