On June 1, Sahiyo and StoryCenter launched a pilot online digital storytelling workshop – Global Voices to End FGM/C, which is supporting ten women impacted by female genital cutting in sharing and audio-recording their stories.
During June, storytellers attended a series of webinars that helped highlight the storyteller process and how to go about drafting their story scripts as well creating a storyboard for their digital story. During July and August, the storytellers will continue working on their digital stories by collecting illustrations for their stories. The stories will be illustrated with a combination of personal images (photos and video clips) provided by the storytellers, and images contributed by participating women artists.
The storytellers come from a variety of countries including: Tanzania, United Kingdom, India, Sweden, Singapore, and Bahrain. “As a survivor of FGC, it is empowering to be able to share my story in my own words, with my own choice of visuals, as opposed to my story being told by someone else,” said Aarefa Johari, one of the participants of the workshop.
All participants’ digital stories will be released in late September.
[This is Part 2 in a series of posts about Jenny’s experience of learning about female genital cutting happening within the Malian community in which she lived. Part 1 details her stumbling upon the aftermath of a cutting in Konza.]
As the editorial intern at Sahiyo, I’ve been reading the stories of women who’ve been sharing their experiences with female genital cutting with the world. Each story is so important, and reminds me of the stories of girls and women who shared their experiences with me during my time in Mali, West Africa. I lived in Mali from 2006-2009, but I went back in 2014 to work on a project about FGC within my community.
Five years after my Peace Corps service, my old mud brick house in Konza was occupied and Mali was hotter than I remembered. I flew back to visit friends, but I also wanted to explore the impact female genital cutting (FGC) had on community members. Cutting in Mali is as ingrained in society as pounding millet for dinner. The Sikasso region of Mali in which I lived maintains a 90.9% prevalence rate of FGC.
I had Kodak prints with me taken on the day of the cutting in Konza that I’d been privy to years prior. There were 21 girls of varying heights who gathered under a tree for a photo — all barefoot, and all wearing long fabric over their heads with colorful patterns of stripes, leaves, acorns and sunbursts. The girls in the group photo were adorned in head wraps, a symbol of their new status in the community as having been cut. They stood in a crescent shape in front of a mango tree. Only one adult woman out of the four present was wearing a long piece of solid white fabric covering her head. There was a lone silver tea kettle sitting in the dirt in front of them. Even though I can hardly look at the prints because of the emotion that’s palpable on their faces, it doesn’t occur to me that showing them to others during my search girls may be triggering for the girls in the photos.
I remembered a meeting I held with the community elders in a round mud brick structure near the end of my time in Konza during Peace Corps. Women hardly ever attend these meetings, let alone call them and set the agenda. About ten men sat on the floor ready for my monologue. I’d worked for a year with Binta, the midwife and the only health practitioner in the community. She hadn’t been paid in six months. The community had given her grain for sustenance, but didn’t give her monetary compensation. Binta was in Sanso, a mining town with her husband, and wasn’t present for the meeting.
I began by telling them that she works all hours of the day birthing their babies and burying placentas, as well as taking care of other ailments and injuries outside of her purview. They understood but expressed that they simply did not have the money to pay her. Paying her would involve pooling a small amount of money from every household in the community monthly. I paused. And then I let the words roll off my tongue in Bambara. “When cutting season comes, you find the money to pay the cutter to cut your girls, but you won’t find the money to pay the midwife.” The chief of the village, nearing 100 years old, had been lying on a cot. I was sitting on the edge. He bolted upright next to me and said, “Crazy woman!” to the men in the room. I laughed. I told them if they didn’t pay her they would not be receiving another volunteer. A few weeks later, they paid Binta for the full six months.
They welcomed me into their community and I threatened them by conjuring one of their most sacred traditions. I felt powerless that young girls in the community were being violated and no one was doing anything about it to my knowledge. I also could not understand how you could avoid paying the midwife for birthing your children. I’m sure there are a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is that the community members live in one of the poorest countries on Earth. But my reasoning was simple: if you can pay a person to inflict pain in the name of tradition, then you can pay a midwife to ensure your wife and children have access to safe delivery.
I had brought the printed portraits of the girls I photographed the day of the cutting in 2007, in hopes that I could interview them about their experiences with FGC. None of my friends could identify the girls. My translator suggested we try to interview the girls I photographed in a different series I also had with me called The Chair Portraits. Since the girls in that series lived in close proximity to me, my friends knew who they were and and where they could be found. Most of these girls were now teenagers who worked in the field all day. They too had all been cut years before.
One had moved to another community to work in a gold mine. Another, Yaya Kone had gotten married and moved to a nearby village. Jemani Kone moved five kilometers away to Kouale, a nearby community on the main road to Sikasso. Several were still in Konza.
Jenebou Kone was the first to agree to talk about how and where the cutting took place, and how it affected her. We walked to the northern part of the village for privacy and sat under a tree. I pulled out my RCA digital voice recorder and after she gave me her consent, I pressed record.
(This blog is the second in a series of blogs meant to inspire a larger, global conversation about girls’ and women’s health and rights, cutting as a practice, and ideas for positive change. The third blog will unpack my conversation with Jenebou and other community members in Mali. A series of conversations about cutting in my community in Mali led me to advocacy work at Sahiyo. My hope is that collectively we can gain understanding of the practice, and in doing so, encourage abandonment.)
A decade ago I lived in a practicing, rural community situated in the lush, southern region of Mali, West Africa. Out of nearly 2,000 inhabitants living in mud-brick houses, a dozen were Christian. The rest were Muslim, and remain among the loveliest people I’ve ever met. Out of love and many other complicated reasons, the Sunni Muslim community members cut their girls, as is the case for why many Shia Muslim Dawoodi Bohra mothers and fathers perpetuate the practice 5,000 miles away in India and among diaspora communities such as the one in Detroit, Michigan.
I am struck by how the impetus to cut has no bounds; how an impoverished Malian community that runs out of grain in the cold season finds the money to pay a cutter; and the lengths an educated, wealthy community such as the Dawoodi Bohras will go to protect the practice.
My first encounter with the longstanding tradition of female genital cutting in Mali punctuated my Peace Corps service in Konza. The local midwife reluctantly confessed that a mass cutting was occurring; I’d made her promise to tell me the next time it happened. I ran to my house, grabbed my camera, and navigated the maze of mud bricks until I stumbled upon several elderly women and a group of girls in the midst of lining up for washing. I was visibly furious and knew I needed to calm down. I didn’t know what I expected to see, or if I would be capable of stopping it, but I had to go.
There’s a particular kind of hush that falls over Konza during a ritual cutting of girls. The pounding of millet is stifled by a thick silence. What is typically a loose order tightens its reins over a large pocket of the community, with children scattered along the edges.
At least a dozen girls sat shirtless on the floor of a small dark room with their heads wrapped in patterned scarves typically reserved for women, and wearing small skirts of a different fabric. I searched their faces. There were dried tears and fresh ones. They were silent, their lives having been marked with a before and after by a woman who made it her job to perpetuate a harmful practice. Most of them looked about eight years old—the year I started writing stories and met my lifelong best friend, and thought about what outfit my Barbie should wear.
I’d taken many portraits of youth in Konza. They were intense, gorgeous people with secrets I wanted to know but may never be able to handle. At the time I couldn’t process that they’d been physically and emotionally violated, but my shock and anger was apparent—too visible to the elderly women.
I missed the cutting and thought I missed the cutter. I knew the cutter had come from Djobo, a neighboring community, based on conversations I had with friends. I envisioned her wielding an unsterilized razor, delegating older women to hold the girls down and making a series of quick, but painful cuts. I could see her promptly packing up, blessing the girls who bled too much and praising the ones who silently endured it.
I could see her mounting a motorcycle, and then her back in the dust with her head wrap billowing. I knew she had money wrapped in her skirt: payment for a day’s work. I knew of her need for secrecy, which was honored by everyone in the village. No one would share exactly who she was or where she lived or why I couldn’t speak with her.
I called a meeting with the village chief, along with my landlord and a few elders—the midwife, Binta, sitting next to me in the night as I spoke. I brazenly called for an end to the cutting. I mentioned the harmful effects—that these girls could die. Baji Kone, the chief, promptly told me that it would never happen again and thanked me for the visit. A few weeks later, many other girls were cut. I’d been appeased—but as a white American woman, who was I to pressure the chief to end one of the oldest rituals in Mali?
I would learn that cutting in Mali was a sacred tradition that would not be cast in a violent light. It would be protected and blessed and carried on years later in Konza. I decided as a volunteer that it was not my place to interfere; doing so may have undermined my work in the community.
It wasn’t until years after my service that I realized I wanted to explore and understand the motivations behind the practice of cutting. I knew the girls in Mali. They’d sat in my best woven chair under a porch made of tree branches and chatted with me daily. I wanted to know the cutters. Who were these women paid to inflict pain in the name of honor and purity? I’d learned Malian birthing customs, and experienced how many Muslims embrace death as God’s will, but the rites of passage for girls into womanhood was kept from me, so I ran toward it.
(This blog is the first in a series of blogs meant to inspire a larger, global conversation about girls’ and women’s health and rights, cutting as a practice, and ideas for positive change. A series of conversations about cutting in my community in Mali led me to advocacy work at Sahiyo. My hope is that collectively we can gain an understanding of the practice, and in doing so, can encourage abandonment.)