Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has written: “What we think of as the unspeakable pain and suffering of FGM must be shouted and given voice, relentlessly. Khady’s account of this all too common practice is wrenching and necessary reading.”
On 19 February, following a webinar presentation for medical students at the University of Lübeck (Germany), I was asked to recommend FGM memoirs. Autobiography and realist fiction benefit future physicians by expanding their acknowledged technical understanding of this complex topic, and this had been the subject of my talk. A PhD in comparative literature doesn’t qualify me to explain to scientists how the biology works, but somatic mechanics — what happens when our most densely-wired organ is chopped off – cannot be understood without considering the subject’s feelings, and these in turn derive contour from context.
Below, introducing Khady are the opening passages from her book originally published in 2005 in Paris as Mutilée. Within months, 12 nations had produced translations. When I learned that, 4 1/2 years later, no English-language publisher had yet sought to buy the rights, I founded UnCUT/VOICES Press to obviate this dereliction of duty.
Given that the story proved a run-away best-seller in France and internationally, why had no US, British or Australian media shown interest?
Regarding Americans’ indifference, despite Representatives Patricia Schroeder (CO) and Joseph Crowley (NY) having proposed an anti-FGM bill in Congress in 1997, opposition to the ablation of girls’ genitals has been a hostage to history. Raising the issue at all, let’s concede, can elicit a racist response in the United States. Because FGM was at first an immigrants’ problem that only became home-grown over time, claiming lack of jurisdiction proved a popular cop-out for those hesitant to deal with it. Not that FGM was widely encouraged. Rather, protest was discouraged, even suppressed. With a significant exception.
Whose right to speak out was universally acknowledged? Whose voice would find an ear? Survivors, of whom Khady is a strident one. Her moving words will remain with you well beyond the final page.
New York, March 2005
The glacial cold is even worse for an African like me, but I walk fast, as I have all my life, so that my mother used to scold, “Why are you always running around? Slow down! The whole neighborhood is watching.”
Sometimes she’d trace an imaginary line across the threshold.
“See that? From now on, don’t cross it!”
Which is exactly what I rushed to do, dash off to play with friends, amble through the market or peer at soldiers in formation behind the wall of the caserne. For my mom who spoke Soninké, “running around” meant that I went out too much, that nowhere was beyond the pale, and that my curiosity about the world was far too in-your-face.
It’s true that I’ve “gone far” in my life, farther than anyone ever imagined. Today I’m in Zurich as a guest of UNICEF; yesterday I attended the 49th session of the United Nations General Assembly urging members to act on women’s rights. Khady in New York at the U.N.! The activist named Khady, formerly a girl with a sand-belly, like all African kids. Little Khady going to fetch water from the well, toddling along behind the boubou-clad grandmas and aunties, proudly carrying a pot on her head filled with peanuts to be ground and responsible for bringing back a beautiful glistening paste the color of amber in oil, and suddenly terrified to find it crashing to the ground.
“You dropped it? Just you wait …”
I can still see her descending the front steps, armed with the broom. How her sisters and my cousins laughed at me while the blows landed willy-nilly on my back and bottom and the awkward little loincloth tumbled to my feet! The girls rushed to the rescue but Grandma, furious, turned on them, brandishing her sheaf of straw: “You’re standing up for her? Watch out or you’ll be next!”
I took advantage of the scene to run and find shelter with Grandpa, hiding behind his folding bed where she couldn’t come and get me. Grandfather was my anchor, my security. Yet he never interfered when the women punished us. He just let them do their thing without raising his voice. Only once did he explain, “Now Khady, when you’re sent to do something, concentrate and do it right! We both know the pot broke because you were fooling around with your friends.”
After the well-deserved spanking, I’d be entitled to cuddles from grandma and the girls as well as curdled milk and couscous to console me. Despite my flayed bottom, the cheeks still smarting, I would play with my doll, seated under the mango tree with my sisters and cousins. Little Khady was waiting for September to go to school, like all her brothers and sisters. My mother insisted on it, and even if she had to go without, she saw to it that we never lacked notebooks and pencils.
Life was sweet in the big house in the suburbs of Thiès, a town whose towering trees lined broad avenues, a peaceful place in the shadow of the mosque where, at the crack of dawn, Grandfather and the men would go to pray … My father worked for the railroad so he was rarely around. As tradition prescribes, I was given over to the care of a grandmother who took charge of my education, my grandfather’s second wife Fouley who had no children of her own. It’s our custom not to let a childless woman suffer. My mother’s house sat 100 meters away so I made the rounds between the two, filching goodies from both kitchens. Grandpa had three wives: Marie, my mother’s mother, and his first; Fouley, the second, to whom I was “given” to be brought up; and Asta, the third, whom grandfather had married, also according to custom, after the death of his older brother. They were all our grandmothers, women of uncertain age who, according to their own unique styles, loved, punished and comforted us.
My immediate siblings included three boys and five girls; the tribe supplied even more girl cousins, nieces and aunts. Where I come from, people are all either cousins, aunts or nieces of someone or everyone! Impossible to count because there are so many relatives we’ve never met. My family belongs to a noble caste of Soninké, originally farmers and merchants. In ancient times we traded in cloth, gold and precious stones. Recently Grandfather worked for the railroad in Thiès and had my father join him. In addition to planters, my heritage also includes religious leaders who are the village imams. Among the aristocracy, — ‘noble’ is horé in Soninké whose meaning has nothing to do with the concept of European nobility – education is strict. Honor, loyalty, pride and the sanctity of our good word are values and principles inculcated from an early age that guide us throughout life.
I was born just before Independence, in 1959, and would have been seven years old in October 1966 on first entering school. To that point, I had led a happy life, cushioned by kindness, taught how to garden, cook, and identify the spices the grandmothers sold at the market. At about four or five, I received my first little bench. Grandmother Fouley gave it to me because each child must have one. We sit on it to eat our couscous and put it away either in our mother’s room or in our grandma’s, the one who brings us up, washes, dresses, feeds, fusses over and punishes us. These little benches are a constant source of squabbles among the children. “You took my bench!” “Give him his bench. He’s the oldest!” You keep that bench for a long time, until the wood cracks or you get a bigger one. At that point, you can pass yours on to a younger child.
Grandmother had it made for me and paid for it. With dignity, I carried it on my head: it symbolizes leaving behind the status of a baby on the ground to become a child who sits and walks like the big kids. And did I ever walk! In the fields, in the aisles among the market stalls, among the flamboyant trees, the baobabs and mangos in the courtyard, from grandma’s to the well, from grandma’s to my mom’s, I walked safely and protected through a life of tenderness soon to be brutally ended.
I have paraded, since I was seven years old, from Thiès to New York by way of Rome, Paris, Zurich and London, never ceasing to march since the time my grandmothers came and said, “Today, daughter, you’re going to be purified.”