When the international movement to end FGM was relatively young — in the 1990s–, an intrepid leader arose in France. Urged by many to publish her story, Khady Koita hesitated. It’s hard, she would write, for anyone to expose their private lives and, in this case, sheltered body parts. But she had begun to speak out, to organize, encourage, and inspire. In 1995 in Beijing, she toured the plenitude of Inter-African Committee booths at the NGO conference parallel to the official UN gathering. One evening, she found herself in the center of activists resident in Europe, Australia, New Zealand, or North America whose conversation focused on the need for a network. In 2000, Khady co-founded the EuroNet-FGM, first among many associations advocating for the interests of girls and women, cut or at risk, in the Diaspora. The EuroNet-FGM was registered officially in Brussels in 2002 with Khady Koita as president and Tobe Levin as secretary.
Below is an excerpt from Khady’s memoir, titled simply Mutilée in the original French, and in English Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights (Trans. Tobe Levin. UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2010).
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.”
The night before, my cousins had arrived from Dakar for the school holidays. There was my sister Daba, six years old; Lélè, Annie and Ndaié, cousins on my father’s side, and other cousins less closely related whose names I don’t remember. A dozen or so little girls between six and nine sat with legs outstretched on the steps in front of one of the grandmother’s rooms. You’d be just as likely to find us playing house with dolls made of wood and rags, making believe we were going to market for spices to cook with the little metal utensils our parents had fashioned for us.
That night, we fell asleep as usual in the care of a grandmother, aunt or mother.
The next morning, very early, they woke me up and showered me. My mother put me in a flowered, sleeveless dress made of African cloth but cut in a European style. I remember the colors: russet, yellow and peach. I slipped my feet into rubber sandals, my flip-flops. The morning was still young. Nobody else in the neighborhood was up.
We took the path past the mosque where men were already at prayer, their voices spilling out of the gaping door. The sun had not yet arisen but the heat was already intense. The rainy season had begun, but it wasn’t raining. In a few hours, the thermometer would hit the high nineties.
My mother took me and my sister to the large house where my grandfather’s third wife lived. Around fifty, she was short, slim, kind and very gentle. My cousins stayed with her during vacations and, like us, they were already washed, dressed and waiting, a proper little covey assembled there, innocent and mildly ill at ease. My mother departed, leaving us. I watched her walking away, slender and fine-boned – a mixture of Mauritanian and Peul. My mom is an admirable woman, and although I wasn’t aware of its importance at the time, she raised her children, girls and boys, without discrimination: school for all, chores for all, punishment and tenderness for all. But she had vanished without telling us a thing.
We sensed something unusual though because the grandmothers kept bustling back and forth, murmuring among themselves with an air of mystery and making sure to keep us out of earshot. Without any idea of what was to come, I knew that these whispers meant trouble. Suddenly, one of them called the girls because the “lady” in a voluminous indigo and midnight blue boubou had arrived. I recognized the petite visitor with large dangling earrings as one of my grandmothers’ friends who belonged to the blacksmith caste. Male members of this caste do metalwork and “cut” little boys while females “cut” the girls. Two more women accompanied her, heavy-set matrons with solid arms whom I didn’t know. My cousins, the bigger ones, might have been aware of what awaited us, but they didn’t say anything to anybody either.
Speaking Soninké, one of the grandmothers announced that we were going to be “salindé” which means, in our language, “to be purified for access to prayer.” In French: “excised.” You could also say “cut up.”
The shock was brutal. Now I knew what I was in for, that thing the mothers would mutter about from time to time at home as though it meant acceding to some sort of mysterious dignity. And I remembered, in that instant, becoming aware of things I had previously suppressed. Our older sisters had already gone through it, instructed by the grandmothers privileged to run households and educate children. When a girl is born, after baptism on the seventh day, it’s the grandmothers who have her ears pierced with a needle, sliding the black and red thread through the hole to prevent its closing up again. They are the ones in charge of weddings, births, and newborns. And it is they who decide when we’re going to be “purified.”