The scent of crushed roses welcomed all into the hallowed space of D-Empress Dianne Regisford’s performance. To the pulse of Rev J’s drum, an imposing woman, entering the aromatic ring of strewn petals, enabled us, the audience, to “step into [our] rhythm, wear [our] crown.”
The circle nested seven sculptures. Intricate spheres, the (not quite) jack-o’-lanterns, active in stasis, hatched or housed, sheltered or evicted curling creatures. Snakes? Umbilicals? Threads that might tangle, rupture or unite? From one of the cavern-eggs, the undulating Empress gently retrieved a dried rose. What did it mean?
The tribute by TORCH at the University of Oxford to UNESCO’s Africa Day – 25 May — had begun by evoking the sacred and profane. A series called “Great Writers Inspire at Home” showcased conversations between writers and readers. Regisford, a local poet  first performed her spoken lyrics while winding among the twined, gouache globes to celebrate fecundity and conjure potent womanhood. Described in the announcement as an installation inviting “critical explorations … of ‘la femme libre’ (the liberated woman) from an African feminist perspective,” the event was inspired by “the teachings and practice of the ancient West African Mandika badjenne tradition.”
The Mandinka practice FGM  but in St. Luke’s Chapel, pain fled. “SSSHHH” the seer shushed, a hush soon fell and the poetry began with a “call … Not to censor/ Just to sense her.” Of “Caribbean parentage, African heritage,” the bard embodied matriarchal pride. In “Hersto-Rhetoric? Na So Today!!!” she planted awareness of the female in full flower. …
I first met Dianne at an event on FGM at Lady Margaret Hall. We were showing Nigerian artists’ oils and scupture that pictured concern for people whose metaphoric roses had been sheared. Victims, yes, but survivors above all.
You meet these girls and women when Dianne performs; you encounter them again in a book from East Africa, poems and stories about FGM, edited by Violet Barungi and Hilda Twongyeirwe of the FEMRITE Women Writer’s Association in Kampala, Taboo. Voices of Women in Uganda on Female Genital Mutilation (Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2015).  The cover by Godfrey Williams-Okorodus also shows the rose. A young woman in “Defiance” – the title of the painting – turns her back to the village, arms folded, digging in. She hopes to escape tradition, to preserve her luscious flower, but her path is blocked by the patriarchs, ethereal figures not merely in front but also behind her, boxing her in …
By performing female strength, artists like Dianne, Violet and Hilda challenge the social arrangements under male hegemony that disempower women and girls. And so do other poets in Taboo.
In “Plucking a Rosebud,” Dorah Musiimire writes I have seen a rose bud/Ruthlessly extracted from her stalk/Forlorn with pain and shame/How villainous! …
I have also witnessed/A crest fallen stalk/Decrying the fall of her bud/ … the pride of a rose …
Yet as poet Grace Atuhaire declares I rose / Surrounded by clansmen/ With spears and knives/ ‘Make her a woman!’
I froze/ At the sound of the knives assembled/Smeared in white sand/ ‘Make her a woman!’
I shuddered /At mum’s consent/At the indifferent strangers/‘Make her a woman!’
I fled! /And stood for what was right/Ignorance makes no woman
Grace Atuhaire. “I am already a woman!” In Taboo. Voices of Women in Uganda on Female Genital Mutilation. Eds. Violet Barungi and Hilda Twongyeirwe. Foreword Rebecca Salonen. Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2015.
To purchase Taboo at a 40% discount, email the publisher email@example.com
1 “Was I a British writer?” Dianne mused in the Q & A when invited to comment by Erica Lombard. “Until I received your invitation, I’d thought not,” she said. “Now, I think so.”
2 Mandinka practice FGM. “Overall, the main reason for coming to the hospital or health center was delivery. With regard to ethnicity, it was found that FGM/C prevalence rates were 17.5% among Wolof and 46.2% among Serer, whereas Mandinka, Fula, Sarahole and Djola ethnic groups practice FGM/C extensively, with prevalences in the range of 94.3%–96.7%.” Adriana Kaplan et al. Female genital mutilation/cutting in The Gambia: long-term health consequences and complications during delivery and for the newborn. In the International Journal of Women’s Health. 2013; 5:323-331. Published online 2013 June 17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3702244/ Retrieved 27 May 2017.
3 In the Preface to Taboo, Rebecca Salonen writes: “Even if you are involved in international female genital mutilation activism, you probably have not heard much about FGM in Uganda. Among the 28 African countries where female ‘circumcision’ is performed, Uganda stands near the bottom of the FGM-prevalence list, around 5% or less. This does not mean that female genital mutilation in Uganda is not a problem, but only that the Pokot, Tepeth, and Sabiny (Sebei), out of Uganda’s 50-plus indigenous ethnic groups, practice FGM. These three groups live in remote and seasonally inaccessible regions on the eastern border with Kenya, where there are few casual visitors. Until recently, FGM was the lot of every girl in these societies, however, and the type of excision was very severe. Depending on the inspiration, ability, or eyesight of the circumciser, all of the external genitals are traditionally cut away. Most other Ugandans are horrified by the practice, and Parliament enacted the Prohibition of FGM act in 2010 …”