Life is by no means easy in Sierra Leone. If you are a woman, life is downright hard. Every stage of a woman’s life is met with adversity, constraint and conventional expectations of how she should live her life. Sierra Leone is not the best place for a woman to dream. For most women, the future is already known.
The distant sound of drumming woke me from a deep sleep last night. If this had been any other place in the world, I would have been energized by the sound of music and anxious to join in the festivities. But in Kambia, it is well known that drumming in the night means Bondo initiation. My stomach turned. Bondo is a secret society for women, traditionally intended to educate young girls on the ways of womanhood. Girls are expected to join the society; in fact, over 94% of all Sierra Leonean women are Bondo members. The initiation is particularly brutal and in my opinion, simply wrong. In order for a young girl to join the Bondo society, she must undergo the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). A Sowei, or FGM practitioner, uses a knife to remove part or all of a girl’s genitals, without any form of anesthesia or pain killer. By removing a girl’s clitoris, supposedly her sex drive is abolished and she will be faithful to her husband. It is meant to keep a girl clean and pure. When FGM is not done, a girl will succumb to her “feelings”, and she will get a disease and suffer for the rest of her life. A girl is not desirable as wife if she has not had FGM and she is pariah within the community if she goes unmarried. This is the belief.
During initiation, the girl’s mother or grandmother covers the girl’s mouth to keep her from screaming and her limbs are bound so she cannot move. Often times, the knife is unsterilized or the Sowei’s shaky hands cause her to cut a major vein and the girl hemorrhages to death. Health implications of FGM last throughout the girls’ entire life. Every time she urinates, she is in pain. Intercourse and childbirth can be life-threatening. An unsterilized knife can be a major transmitter of HIV. The list goes on and on.
Of course, Jonah and I decided to try and find the source of the drumming, eager to catch a glimpse of the ritual. A group of young boys agreed to take us to the Bondo initiation so we could watch part of the ceremony from afar. My heart began to race as we went out into the night. I was nervous about being seen; the Bondo Society is known for its secretiveness and hostility towards outsiders. Last year, a journalist covering Bondo mysteriously disappeared when she challenged the relevance of the FGM practice today. The moon was bright that night and cast a cool glow on the path before us as we weaved our way around town following the rhythm of the drums. As we got closer, our guides cautioned us to slow down and turn our backs to the women. We climbed the steps of a nearby house and sat on the veranda to watch the ceremony taking place across the street. There were about 15 women, all dressed in grass skirts and white tops, beating drums and singing about the work and life of a woman. The sound was haunting as it echoed through the deserted streets. The boys told us that the Bondo women were going door to door, collecting money for the ceremony from the townspeople. While giving money is not compulsory, most people willingly present a small sum in accordance with the longstanding tradition. Suddenly, a shadowy black figure ran toward the women from behind a house down the street. The boys told us that this was the only man who participated in the ceremony and he was supposed to represent the devil, dressed in a cloak of black cloth. The devil dashed back and forth from the group of women who were slowly progressing from one house to the next. We asked the boys question after question, but they admitted that their answers were mostly based on speculation, as only an initiated woman really knows the Bondo tradition. We were never able to get a clear answer from them if a girl was going to undergo FGM that night or not. As we walked home, the eerie sound of drums and female voices began to fade into the night behind us. I had a difficult time falling back asleep contemplating the horrible fate of a young girl which lies ahead.
In 2007, all of the seven Paramount Chiefs in Kambia signed a Memorandum of Understanding on FGM that a girl must be 18 years old and give her consent before having the practice done. A girl can no longer be forced into Bondo Society by her parents, as was the case for the majority of girls and women here. While this is a positive step against the harmful tradition, it is apparent from our conversations with people that there is still much to be done to have FGM abolished completely. There has been widespread education about the potential health risks that FGM poses and most girls are well aware of the dangers. However, many girls still believe that the practice is good for a woman and good for society as a whole.
I interviewed two young girls in the neighborhood who were both initiated as children, one at eight years and one at five years. Both of the girls were bright and educated with hopes of going to university in the next few years. When asked about the practice, they both replied enthusiastically that they were happy they had it done and want the practice to continue. They said it keeps them healthy and that they will never be promiscuous because their clitoral “feelings” are removed. One girl said that if she still had her clitoris, she would have a horrible disease in her genitals that would cause it to puss and swell. I’m assuming they mean that if a girl does not have FGM, her sex drive remains intact, she will sleep around with many men and contract any number of horrible STDs. All that to say, the girls agree with the tradition and will be happy to have their daughters initiated one day. And so the cycle continues.
I found it interesting that the boys we interviewed were much more opposed to the practice. Most of the boys felt that the Bondo Society should be abandoned all together because they did not see the point of putting a girl through that much harm. Where is the disconnect here? If the tradition is ultimately meant to satisfy men’s needs, and men are beginning to change their attitudes, why are women so resistant to change? How can we empower women to forge a better path for themselves?