Possessing the Secret of Joy and Authors in Uganda. FGM, choice – or coercion?

„When I met the author [of Possessing the Secret of Joy] in 1993,” Yumiko Yanagisawa revealed, „Walker told me that vigorous African women were campaigning to end FGM. So two years later in Beijing, at the UN Women’s Conference, I sought them out” (Telephone interview, 9 September 2013). The Japanese translator of Alice Walker’s novels, after hearing the Inter-African Committee in a dozen workshops calling for allies, returned to Tokyo and founded Women’s Action against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) – Japan.

To this one striking instance of Walker’s global influence we can add others. In her chapter in Waging Empathy, Hilda Twongyeirwe from Uganda explores additional links between vision, action and the power of our keyboards.

Nathan Ogole Okoro. Lust and Love.  Oil on Canvas. 2010.

Nathan Ogole Okoro. Lust and Love. Oil on Canvas. 2010.

A member of the FemRite Women’s Collective in Kampala, Twongyeirwe compares Walker’s fifth novel to Beyond the Dance. Voices of Women on Female Genital Mutilation edited by Violet Barungi and Hilda Twongyeirwe. This anthology of poetry and stories that appeared in 2009 preceded a 2010 bill outlawing FGM passed by the Ugandan Parliament, and the volume was used to lobby for the legislation. Like Walker, FemRite deploys imaginative literature against FGM, and Hilda re-reads the authentic and sometimes agonizing texts to illustrate the prescience of themes Walker embedded in her pioneering tale. Ugandan writers, in their fictions “drawn mainly from life,” present characters whose decisions resemble those of Tashi, Walker’s heroine; they also “grapple with complex issues of sexuality and the female body” like figures in Possessing the Secret of Joy, and “face challenges real women confront in societies that accept excision as the norm.”

Uniting both texts is  complicity as one key stumbling block to ending a noxious custom. “After all, women are the ‘circumcised’, the ‘circumcisers’, and the guarantors ensuring that those after them are also ‘circumcised’. And despite the victim-perpetrators’ understanding of excision’s wounds, they shroud this knowledge in debilitating censorship. Expressions of pain are proscribed” (Twongyeirwe).

Silence and conspiracy enfold and empower FGM. “Taboos and secrecy [are] patriarchy’s most efficient tools to create and sustain gender hierarchy in Africa,” Twongyeirwe concludes, offering a haunting metaphor. “Society hangs a suicide rope and women dangle. At first, of course, they are made to believe it is merely a skipping rope to play with and keep fit.”

The UK Department for International Develop (DfiD) expresses it this way: „Individual families deciding alone not to cut their daughters simply risk condemning them to a life of ostracism and stigma.“

But who ostracizes, stigmatizes, bullies? Implicit as the power that drives Walker’s Tashi to ‚choose‘ infibulation, presented to her by the respected national leader as the sine qua non of ethnic identity, this agency – to police others and ensure conformity – is found in Beyond the Dance being exercised by the female victims themselves. Take Yemo, for instance, in „The Intrigue.“ A wedding night of horrors witnesses the infibulated heroine hobbling home, so distraught as to have put on two shoes with heels of different heights, to seek understanding from her mother who taunts her instead. „Chincha,“ the matron scoffs, — „Frigid“ — and sends her daughter back. Or Brenda in Betty Kituyi’s “My Mbasuben” who wants nothing more than acceptance signaled by the Mbasuben or lifetime companion, the girl who stood before you in line for the knife. No knife, no mbasuben – no friend.

Yet in Walker’s fiction and the Ugandan life (like) tales, women also resist “a practice that denies them full humanity” (Twongyeirwe). They come to understand themselves as handmaids of a larger force, usefully called ‘patriarchal’, and the theory enabling escape called ‘feminist’. One way among many that they do this is by airing the agony and truth of their travails. They use the keyboard.

With a new introduction by Rebecca Salonen of the Godparents Association which for the last decade and a half has enabled girls fleeing FGM to attend high school in Kampala, an expanded edition of Barungi and Twongyeirwe’s Beyond the Dance will be published by UnCUT/VOICES Press this fall.


DfiD qtd. in Country Profile: FGM in Uganda (July 2013) 28TooMany.Org/ Ann-Marie Wilson. p. 13. Retrieved 11.09.2013. http://www.28toomany.org/media/uploads/UgandaFinal.pdf]

The painting titled „Lust and Love,“ oil on canvas, is by Nathan Ogale Okoro.


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