On the UN International Commemorative Day for Charity, September 5: with gratitude to Bernard Kouchner and Pierre Foldes in Undoing FGM

A remarkable Frenchman, an immigrant whose paternal grandparents were murdered at Auschwitz, rose to become the Foreign Minister of France. He also founded Médecins sans Frontiers (Doctors without Borders) as well as Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World) and was honored by the Jerusalem Post in 2010 [1] as “the 15th most influential Jew in the world.” I’m talking about Dr. Bernard Kouchner who authored the Foreword to UnCUT/VOICES’ book by Hubert Prolongeau about Dr. Pierre Foldes:  Undoing FGM. Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon who Restores the Clitoris (Translation and Afterword by Tobe Levin. 2011. Original 2006. Cover design by Kaye Beth). Beyond the selflessness of both Kouchner and Foldes in their relentless  service to humanity, they have a special link to this particular UN Day, named in memory of Mother Teresa who passed away on September 5th, 1997. In deep appreciation of his friend and colleague, Kouchner reminds us that

“Pierre Foldes worked in Mother Teresa’s hospice. Influenced by the devotion of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, he, too, grew determined to shelter the dying no matter where they came from. And knowing the protective force of words, he would start to unsettle those indifferent to sexual mutilation, speaking out about the rights of man, the rights of woman, and for equality. He never fled from his responsibilities. Not in Burma as the military regime acceded to power and used forced labor while spreading AIDS by growing poppies for heroin production.  Not in Mali or in Sarajevo either, where he accepted constraints in order to serve the greatest number. But let’s stick to what we know.  Who forced him to volunteer? No one, and therein lies his power.”

Prize-winning novelist Hubert Prolongeau, commissioned first by a major French weekly to depict Foldes, approaches his subject with enthusiastic admiration in the following excerpt from the Introduction to Undoing FGM:

“Urologist, physician and humanitarian, from his earliest assignments in Africa the gentle giant witnessed ravages due to FGM. At first he failed to see the horror and, like many, saw instead another’s custom that his respect and tolerance led him to accept.  But soon he recognized the immensity of suffering that this attitude obscured, the pain that he had always found unbearable. And this particular pain was one he’d be unable to forget. He had tended wounds he hoped to soothe. Although a technician, he wanted to create and, in search of a solution, miraculously found one. Quickly, welding handiwork and genius, he discovered how to repair the damage of excision, to return a clitoris to those from whom it had been snatched, to restore the right to pleasure and offer injured women the confidence of renewed integrity. It’s enough to hear a patient talk about all that his simple gesture has given her (going well beyond sexual satisfaction), to see her eyes light up when saying his name. Then you would understand that a fundamental change has occurred in her life and that the new turn she has made is merely at its start.

“Ever since, Pierre Foldes has opposed FGM. With courage. Making light of the many threats he’s received and the economic problems that follow from his having been, for years, one of very, very few able to perform the surgery, yet accepting no payment. As activist, as witness, he has become increasingly engaged in feminist movements opposing FGM such as GAMS and Ni putes ni soumises, ‘Neither Whores nor Submissives’. He has been found alongside personalities like Mother Teresa, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Taslima Nasreen, Simone Veil, Bernard Kouchner. … The physician held open the door and a militant emerged.”

And Hubert Prolongeau continues:

“I first met Pierre Foldes when portraying him for Le Nouvel Observateur. From behind his tranquil confidence emerged a certain modesty and more: doubt, dedication … as well as a limitless concern for humanity, characteristics that encourage us to go beyond the simple narrative of his discovery to include witnessing, denouncing, and insisting that what we have here is something magnificent, something that augurs a new beginning and gives immense hope to one hundred and thirty million women in the world.[3] This is what he wants as well. Writing his story allowed me to meet his patients, to join them in understanding what his discovery means to them, to go to Africa to learn more in order to take a stand against a practice that should be stopped. And then, to move beyond the exemplary biography out into campaigns, supporting those men and women in the Inter-African Committee – comprised of residents in African countries and not a group of ‘whites’ hawking ‘white’ values, as militants against FGM are sometimes charged with doing – who see this practice as ‘one of the worst plagues humanity has ever known’.”

Because Dr. Foldes’ esteem for Mother Teresa expressed itself in an obituary that he read on French radio, Prolongeau cedes the page to authentic encomiums from Foldes himself. Foldes told his listening audience in 1997 (in French of course):

“India – Hindu, Buddhist, and Moslem – is mourning the loss of a mother just like it wept for Gandhi. The crowds pressing toward the Mother House are venerating a ‘saint’ in the Indian sense of the word, but also a fallen symbol whose mission had opposed all exclusions and all violence. … Having been privileged to work by her side, I received three gifts of knowledge: You can accomplish a great deal with very little by being there at key moments when humans suffer. When you reach a clinical dead-end where science reveals nothing but horror, simple gestures offered with sincerity can produce tangible results. The enormity of the task is never overwhelming; a drop of water can become a river.

“All by herself, with help from no one, Mother Teresa began her mission in the slums and rescued the most abject for fifteen years before receiving attention from the media or dons and founding her order. Her disappearance will have a profound effect on Bengal, expert in broken promises and political sterility, left to ponder the immensity of her concrete and palpable work.

“And last not least, a compelling icon has unfolded its full meaning. The same message reached three hundred castes, two hundred dialects and six religions in a province devastated by partition, exodus and war.

Where Gandhi had achieved independence but failed in non-violence, Mother Teresa revolted against poverty and rejected the seeming ineluctable. For a people whose suffering goes on, she has become a myth of refusal to abdicate, no matter how desperate the situation. She took action, always. Action:  the word sums up her life and tells us why she remains close to the nearly 1 billion inhabitants of India. It’s also the universal message addressed to us, humanitarian volunteers. At the source was what she called faith but what we understand as militant activist engagement. … In sum, at the heart of it all we find the power of will, the primacy of action and dismissal of discouragement. … I am grateful for the lesson. Namaska, Mother.”

What moves readers most in Prolongeau, Kouchner and Foldes is the globalized ecumenism splintering boundaries and conventional constraints: not gender, nationality, faith, nor language inhibits a concerted effort to ameliorate a certain kind of pain and rid the world of it. This movement beckons everyone.

You can buy Hubert Prolongeau’s Undoing FGM. Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon who Restores the Clitoris (Frankfurt am Main: UnCUT/VOICES Press., 2011) on Amazon.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Kouchner Accessed 5 September 2019.

[2] Groupes [de] femmes pour l’abolition des mutilations sexuelles, French section of the Inter-African Committee, an association founded in Addis Ababa in 1984 covering twenty-eight nations and working to improve the health of African women and children.

[3] WHO’s estimate of the number of victims [in the early 00’s].

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