“I can still hear the blade slicing skin”: auditory trauma and FGM

In 1997, at the fourth general assembly of the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices affecting the Health of Women and Children (IAC), the highly esteemed campaigner and midwife from Somaliland, Edna Adan Ismail narrated an experience when I remarked on her inspiring commitment that dates from the 1970s. The event which she describes in her autobiography hasn’t ceased in all these years to colonize her thoughts. An auditory trauma. “I can still hear the sound of that shearing,” she told me.

With Efua Dorkenoo OBE in 1997 at the 4th General Assembly of the IAC. I am introducing Terre des Femmes’ work to end FGM, linking Germany with efforts in Africa. It was there in Dakar that I met Edna for the first time.


In her book A Woman of Firsts. The Midwife Who Built a Hospital and Changed the World (with Wendy Holden and Lee Cassanelli. HarperCollins, 2019), Edna Adan Ismail writes: “No sooner had I sat down on the stool as instructed than mother’s friends grabbed my arms while others yanked up my nightie … One woman gripped my left leg and another my right, while a third held me in a stranglehold, pressing … my shoulders. [This was a] well-planned operation that relied on speed and surprise. … [I] screamed as the old woman squatted before me and started cutting between my legs. I … remember the pain more than seven decades later, and I live that moment over and over again …” (36)

Edna Adan Ismail, far right in the photo, with colleagues opposing FGM at the Human Rights Council session, May 2016, in Geneva. L to r: UnCUT/VOICES author Kameel Ahmady, UnCUT/VOICES cover designer Godfrey Williams-Okorodus, Global Alliance founder Holger Postulart, Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen, and Global Alliance co-founder Elisabeth Wilson. My hand is on Edna’s shoulder.

Writing in 2019, Edna, who had served as the Foreign Minister of Somaliland from 2003-2006 and as Minister of Family Welfare and Social Development, founded the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in Hargeisa and uses her influence to warn against infibulation and other forms of FGM. Have her efforts borne fruit? She notes: “In my country it is estimated that the most severe form, as practiced on me [born 8 September 1937], affects 76 per cent of the female population, a trend that is down from the 100 per cent of my youth and the 98 per cent prevalence we found two decades ago. Because of migration, the practice is also emerging among refugee communities of Europe and North America, and British hospitals currently treat around 9,000 cases every year” (45).

Clearly, one weapon in the arsenal to end excision and infibulation is the book, and especially those pages that convey the subjectivity and condemnation of survivors like Edna. “For now I want to send comforting thoughts,” she notes about her motivation, “to the terrified eight-year-old me who was so bewildered and confused by the heinous thing that was done to her that she still weeps at the cruelty of it” (45).

If Edna focuses on Somaliland, complementary narratives and poems from a neighboring nation amplify her mission. Taboo. Voices of Women in Uganda on Female Genital Mutilation, edited by Violet Barungi and Hilda Twongyeirwe (UnCUT/VOICES 2015) appeared first as an imprint of FEMRITE, the Ugandan Women Writers Association, before new stories and poems were added to the edition brought out by UnCUT/VOICES Press. Representative of motives behind many of the contributions is the following statement by an interviewee. “I will share my story on condition that you will avail it to the rest of the world so that it can eventually help other women not to undergo the pain I went through and still go through” (32-33).

The secrecy on which the amputation of girls’ genitalia thrives is being broken. Repeatedly, as in Edna’s narrative and many stories in Taboo, naiveté precedes a hijacking. Girls who are wholly unprepared are seized and then cut. Astonished and resentful at what many denominate as betrayal and “slaughter,” they have begun not merely to speak out but to shout their opposition to a patriarchal power grab by blade.

What If I Refuse? Oil on Canvas by Manasseh Imonikebe in the collection “Through the Eyes of Nigerian Artists on FGM.” See https://nofgm.org/2016/06/06/through-the-eyes-of-nigerian-artists-confronting-fgm-an-exhibition-oxford-june-2016/

Abandoning the blades: ex-cutters and Badianu-Gokhs

Health visitors — Badianu-Gokhs — after a training course in Podor, as part of the Maa Feew project. On the left, Dr. Mariame Racine Sow, managing director, FORWARD for Women, e.V.

Our ambulance having arrived safely in Podor, and being quickly put to use, we turned attention to the Badianu-Gokhs, traditional counselors well-versed in issues surrounding pregnancy, childbirth, and complications attending girls who are married off too young, with immature bodies not yet ready for safe motherhood. These women, instructed in the aims of Maa Feew to end FGM and stem child marriage, enjoy the trust of their communities; they hold authority in matters pertaining to sexuality and birth.

Our ambulance: Maa Feew has been written on the vehicle’s side.

Talking about excision, its risks and sequelae, these Badianu-Gokhs remind me of a cutter from Mali whose extraordinary story, available only in French, is not widely known to English-speaking activists. Told in Exciseuse (CityEditions, 2007) by Natacha Henry and Linda Weil-Curiel, the “conversations with Hawa Gréou” open a window of possibility, for this exciser, sentenced by a French criminal court to five years in prison, took a remarkable step on her release. She called on attorney Linda Weil-Curiel, the prosecutor who had put her behind bars, sat down in her office and announced, “You were right. May I campaign with you to end FGM?”

I’m abbreviating a longer process of coming-to-awareness, but the starting point hardly prefigures such an outcome. The cutter’s story opens with the following poignant description by a white French neighbor of Gréou’s.

“I’d noticed that when the first wife was present, they’d receive numerous African visitors who then left carrying their young children wrapped in cloth and crying bitterly. Sometimes the line would extend the whole length of the staircase. I was moved by the shrieks of those kids; they were truly piercing howls. And since I have heart problems that I feared might be triggered by their screams, I’d leave and stay away all afternoon” (7-8. My translation).

Now, Hawa Gréou had been quite popular in Paris among immigrants from Mali. Similar in prestige to the Badianu-Gokhs of Senegal, she exercised authority. When she emerged to offer help in ending FGM, she and Linda Weil-Curiel held the following conversation narrated in Exciseuse (my translation):

Linda: “… Tell me frankly:  do you think you’d be able to go and talk to families to tell them it’s not a good tradition and that times have changed? That for the good of the children they ought to stop excision? Would you have the guts to say it? Would they listen to you?”

Hawa: “I tell them already that I used to do, that I had problems and that I’ve stopped. But I can’t tell whether they’re listening or not.”

Linda: “It’s not a matter of stopping because you had trouble with the law! It’s because a woman is not intact if she’s been excised! If you cut off my finger, I’ll still have four left, but it won’t really be my hand. If you cut the clitoris off a girl, she’s no longer really a complete woman. Do you know how many women have gone to Dr. Foldes* to have their clitoris restored? He repairs it. They get the operation without letting their parents know. Some patients have even come here from Africa to have it done.”

Hawa: “I saw it on the TV but I don’t believe it.”

Linda: “If you’d like, I can introduce you to some girls who have had the operation. They can tell you how they felt before and how much better it is since they regained wholeness. You really should advise parents to stop excising.”

Hawa: “You’re asking me if I want to talk to the women? If I don’t do it, who will? They’ll come around and finally understand. It took me some time, after all. In prison, the first year, I thought about nothing but going back to Africa and excising every Frenchwoman I could find – in the Congo, in Mali, in the Ivory Coast, everywhere! Today, I would call the police myself if I heard that an excision was about to happen. Do you believe me?”

Linda: “What do you think is the best way to approach families to dissuade them from mutilating their kids?”

Hawa: “I know some Soninké who never listen to anybody. I would say, ‘My daughter, my sister, excision has existed for a very long time. But we live here now. We have the right not to go through with it. So let’s stop. And not do it in Africa either.’”

Linda: “They’re going to tell you you’re talking white…”

Hawa: “Yes, they are. But the whites are telling the truth! I’m not asking them to forget about Ramadan or stop praying! The only thing I want them to do is stop excising their girls. Older people don’t like to talk about it at all. You know there’s this man who recently called me to excise his wife. But I said no. And the other day, after studying the Hadiths, the marabout said I was right. ‘It’s true. We should stop!’”

Naturally, if you’re reading this, you agree too.

  • Dr. Foldes’ story is told in a publication by UnCUT/VOICES Press: Hubert Prolongeau. Undoing FGM: Pierre Foldes, the Surgeon Who Restores the Clitoris. Trans. and Afterword Tobe Levin. 2011. Original title: Victoire sur l’Excision.

What has an ambulance to do with FGM?

In December 2019, the ASB (Arbeiter-Samariter-Bund) donated a fully-equipped, smoothly-functioning ambulance to FORWARD for Women, a 501 (c) 3 charity founded in 1998 in Frankfurt am Main to oppose female genital mutilation. Sales of UnCUT/VOICES’ books contribute to initiatives like this one.

The conveyance arrived in Podor, northern Senegal, as part of a holistic project promoting women’s health and empowerment: Maa Feew, meaning in Fulani “everything’s gonna be OK.” Its three pillars include construction of a school library, managed by the Bookfeeding Project (Caroline von Janowski); adequate toilets for students; and a health center. The town where our co-founder and managing director of FORWARD for Women, Dr. Mariame Racine Sow spent her childhood, Podor poses risks for girls and women because FGM takes place there, as do early and forced marriage, and these three damaging practices endanger lives. Efforts to curtail excision and, if viewed through the lens of numerous victims, legal rape are ongoing but, caring about women’s welfare, we are unwilling to wait for eradication to diminish the harm.

Because immature hips in girls too young for pregnancy may not provide a neonate with adequate passage, and, similarly, since scarring from FGM further delays dilation in the second stage of labor, we observed hightened mortality among parturient mothers whose only recourse to help had been handcarts. We therefore provided the emergency rescue vehicle that allows speedy transport from Podor, 400 kilometers north of the capital, to Dakar where complications can be properly treated.

According to http://www.FORWARDFORWOMEN.org, the ambulance serves an average of 90 women per month. In the photo you see one, accompanied by a Maa Feew assistant and a medic. Hence, we are saving lives, and you are invited to join us. Please visit the website for donation options.

After a Rotary speech in January 2020 about Maa Feew in Eschborn, Germany, Dr. Tobe Levin von Gleichen and Dr. Mariame Racine Sow are joimed by co-host Mia Thoma, an artist who has donated oil paintings to raise funds for FORWARD.

On the subject of early and child marriage, often structurally linked to FGM when excision signals the availability of the amputee for courting and impregnation, memoirs express horror at defloration. Following is Khady’s account. She was only 13 1/2 when a distant, older cousin asked for her hand. So far at the wedding, she had not yet seen him while hoping “he is no brute. Sometimes, you overheard mothers talking about men who are unkind and even vicious to their wives the first night. No one had yet reported that a bride wasn’t a virgin. Even if it had been the case, the family would have kept it under wraps and the husband, too. Sometimes, though, they mentioned a newly-wed who fell ill and had to stay in bed for several days afterward. (58). …

“No woman admits that excision might make the first sexual intercourse painful or cause distress later on even though older victims have had problems or been privy to their daughters’ misery. But it wasn’t talked about and I had absolutely no idea” (59). …

Soon, the youngster would be taken in charge by a pod of matrons.

“They removed the veil from my hair, then the boubou, until I was sitting there with only a wrap-around and my torso nude. Symbolically, they were preparing my body for the ‘sacrifice’. They poured a little liquid on my head and chanted while patting my skin with aromatic fluid. For twenty minutes, I was a doll in their hands. I then resumed the white boubou saturated in the meantime with incense, symbol of virginity and ritual ‘purification’. After a thicker and heavier fabric was draped around me, I moved toward the bedroom, my head hidden under a veil.

“Because on the wedding day our house was full, Mandingo neighbors let us use their place across the street, providing four bare walls and a single mattress on the floor. A white sheet and mosquito netting covered it.

“The woman who walked me over soon left me alone.

“I assume that from that moment on, I literally lost my mind. It must have fled because there’s something in me that absolutely refuses to envision what happened in that room. I know he came in but I neither looked at him nor removed my veil. He extinguished the oil lamp; and that’s the last thing I recall. I woke up the next morning around 4 a.m. as the sun rose. Cries and ululations at the door had aroused me from the coma into which I had fallen. The husband was gone; he had already left. The mamas were happy; they had gotten what they wanted, and my girlfriends told me, ‘My God! how you howled last night! The neighborhood resounded with your cries’.

“I remember the searing of that instant, but not my shrieks. Excruciating, it had hurled me into the darkest abyss. Robbed of sight and understanding, I had been absent for three hours from my life. Hating myself, I blotted out that intimate wound forever powerless to heal.” (60).

Rebelle: Fine Fiction against excision not translated into English

Available in French and German but not yet in English.

Among the first Africans to place violence against women — clitoridectomy; early, forced marriage; and patriarchal power structures — at the heart of a novel, this one published in 1998 in the Ivory Coast, Fatou Keita deserves attention from English-speaking readers. Commenting on her daring, a German description sees value emerging precisely from the complexity of themes, too often stripped of nuance and inherent equivocation by declamatory, didactic discourse. After all, mothers do this to their daughters who resent the deception and pain but love their mothers. With no singularity of approach but rather a gift for highlighting varied subjectivities, Keita serves up tropes we often find in FGM memoirs. The title, for instance, already tells us the protagonist Malimouna rebels; like Khady, she joins the women’s movement in Paris. Rejecting her husband’s non-consensual polygamy, she declares independence and is elected president of her women’s NGO that opposes domestic violence and offers shelter to battered women. These themes can be found in Khady’s Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims her Human Rights (2010), in Kiminta. A Maasai’s Fight against Female Genital Mutilation (2015), and Taboo. Voices of Women in Uganda on Female Genital Mutilation (2016) among many other sources. These three are published by UnCUT/VOICES Press and belong in a growing syllabus of literary texts on FGM.

On fiction, art, and advertising: inspiration for an exhibition

When in Lagos, Nigeria, in the 1980s, advertising executive Joy Keshi realized that the reason for her young neighbor’s extensive hospital stays was a botched excision, she posed a perennial question. How do we change a ‘social norm’ which really means altering behavior?

Advertisers know we can change behavior. Take cigarettes, for instance. Ubiquitous a mere twenty years ago, an indispensable prop for authors, actors or anyone wanting to project sophisticated allure, they are now frowned upon as polluting carcinogens. Expectorating has experienced a similar demise. In Parisian trams and subways in the 1970s, you found numerous ‘défense de cracher’ — spitting forbidden — signs which would not have been there had the habit not been prevalent.

So what can advertising teach us that may help to end FGM?

Program accompanying the exhibition in London

The medium appeals to emotion and moves viewers to act on their feelings. But which feelings? Students of empathy, looking at depictions of pain, have revealed mixed results. Portraits of suffering can have an effect opposite to the one intended, encouraging not an empathic reaching out but a turning away.

Especially when the subject is excision of a child’s clitoris and labia.

In 1998, Joy undertook to explore this issue with painters and sculptors, students and faculty, in Nigeria. She assumed that fine artistic expression, on canvas or marble, elicits admiration; the medium is dignified, especially when serving an ideal of human rights.

The works of art that emerged from her coaching have had an illustrious career, among dozens of venues, mainly in Germany, we can add a display in the British Parliament in November 2000.

Many of these canvases will illustrate my 20 May talk at Christ Church, Oxford.

Correction: attendance at the Four College Rose FGM LIVE event on 20 May 2022 is limited to University of Oxford students.

Apologies for any confusion: space — 40 seats — limits admission to this live event to University of Oxford students only.

At the University of Oxford: The Four Colleges Rose against female genital mutilation

Do come — if you are in the UK! And if not, presenters will welcome your reaching out to us.

Please visit http://www.uncutvoices.wordpress.com or


TONIGHT at 7 p.m eastern: Opposing FGM in Tanzania

Soon after the film premiered, UnCUT/VOICES had been privileged to enjoy it in a distinguished venue, the British Houses of Parliament. You’ll want to see it, too.

Susan McLucas of Healthy Tomorrow (Somerville) and Sini Sanuman (Mali) is inviting you as a friend of the movement against FGM to join in tonight. You can still register for In the Name of Your Daughter by Giselle Portenier, screening on Tuesday, April 26 at 7 pm (Eastern time in the US).  

Susan writes: “The film shows what Tanzania is doing to protect girls from female genital mutilation (FGM). Citizens cooperate with the police, the courts, and Hope for Girls and Women, an NGO, that manages a safe house and strives to convince parents to leave their daughters’ genitals intact. After watching the 45-minute version of the film and talking about it with the director, we’ll examine work performed by our partner group in Mali, Sini Sanuman, to end the practice.  Part of our effort these days highlights this film and trailer in Mali to inspire its residents to pass a law against FGM.”

Here is the trailer to the film.

To register, go to tinyurl.com/FGMfilm.  The movie is powerful and inspiring and we hope the discussion will be interesting as well.  

In case you want to spread the word about this event here are our social media posts that you can share:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/4494036750697402/?ref=newsfeed

Twitter: https://twitter.com/HealthyTom/status/1517162184249200641?s=20&t=9TrSSaWkA6wPMtEYImrcqQ

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/p/CbYCns3u0Dg/?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y=

The event is free, but we hope some of you will be inspired to contribute to our groups.

Thank you.

What may be the secret to ending FGM? Memoir, fiction and the arts

Nick Mwaluko WAAFRIKA Blog Criminal Queerness Festival

“Girls die every day. We are here wearing masks, aren’t we?  So we don’t die of Covid. But girls die every day of FGM. Every day. Every day FGM kills girls. And who tells their story? Nobody.”

At this moment, 3:09 p.m. in Frankfurt am Main, I’m listening to Sadia Hussein at the Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development telling one survivor’s story, her own, by introducing her book, Hidden Scars of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) [1]. “Reading it enables people to understand the underlying issues, what we are living with,” she notes, and urges that the anguish be acknowledged; resources allocated; conferences understood not to replace but to complement funding communities directly. In other words, while all available means to stop a COVID pandemic are mustered, girls in the millions lose their lives without any commensurate outrage. Yet all constituencies must become involved: elders, survivors, clinicians, politicians, educators, women and men. For the real topic transcends FGM. Targeting not the ears or the nose but the genitals, it’s invisible. External appearance elicits no empathy as wounds remain unseen until we talk about them. Sub-titled the “cultural struggle of the girl child,” the memoir would put girls in charge of their bodies, as FORWARD (UK) has it in a striking animation, “My Body My Rules.” [2] Yes, Female Genital Mutilation is an emotional issue whose  disclosure risks triggering embarrassment and pain, but this is ineluctible despite international agencies and local NGOs treating the harm as though reason alone were enough to end it (for instance, the risky ‘health approach’ that experience has shown justifies medicalization).

While the powerful unholy coupling of sexual politics and economics undergirds the ‘rite’, UnCUT VOICES joins Sadia Hussein who encourages our search for memoirs, fiction, the fine arts, and music as frequently deployed but underexplored tools that can stop FGM. How? Only artistic expression is commensurate with the complexity of an over-determined tradition. African and other celebrated writers’ drama, poetry, stories, and genres of all sorts express both subjective and objective aspects of the custom, that is, desires and fears, affect, and reason. If indeed genuine works of art, they reject oversimplification and tolerate contradictions.

Stones cover as jpeg (2)Here are several instances. Contradiction #1: familial love for children subjected to the blade (e.g. from Senegal, Khady (Koita). Mutilée, 2005, translated as Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights, 2010; from the Cote d’Ivoire, Fatou Keïta, Rebelle, 1998; from Guinea-Conakry and Canada, Lawrelynd Bowin, Swimming in a Red Sea, 2018).

Contradiction #2:  mothers’ wish to resist but inability to do so (e.g. from Eritrea via Germany, Uschi Madeisky, dir.  Die drei Wünsche der Sharifa: bei den Kunama in Eritrea, 2000; from the UK, Janet Fyle, executive dir. Our Daughters. #EndFGM animations, Woven Ink, 2018 [3]; and from California, Jeanie Kortum, Stones, 2018).

Contradiction #3: supply and demand, a vicious cycle for cutters: loss of honor and income in retraining; temptation in an economy of scarcity to bend to demand (e.g. from the USA, Alice Walker, Possessing the Secret of Joy, 1992; from France, Linda Weil-Curiel, Exciseuse, 2006; from Sierra Leone and Norway, Kadidiatou Suma in Mette Knudsen, dir. The Secret Pain, 2006).

Contradiction #4: initiating womanhood by disabling sexual response (e.g. from Kenya and NY, Nick Mwaluko, WAAFRIKA 1 2 3.  1992. Kenya. Two Womyn Fall in Love, 2016.)

Painting and sculpture, equally multifaceted media, offer a paradoxical advantage in their muteness. Literature uses words; the absence of explicit language from visuals stimulates altered mental activity. Confronted with an image, a viewer invents the story, making meaning from clues oppositional artists have planted, especially important where literacy is low. Avoiding pitfalls of directness, canvasses and marble convey, with dignity, all the horror of the act, encompassing humanity’s complicity in this massive, ancient and tenacious tragedy. In sum, art and artists are welcome accomplices in efforts to end FGM and should find support in universities whose curricula include them and their work.swimming-in-a-red-sea-cover-2

This introduction prefaced a paper delivered during an Inter-African Committee  symposium at the Palais des Nations, Geneva, on 10-11 May 2016. “Why favor and support the arts to advocate against FGM?  The role of university curricula.


  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVH3prkUks8 Accessed 26 June 2020.
  2. My Body My Rules. (2915) FGM Animation. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W2IStB6Z3Vw  Accessed 26 June 2020.
  3. https://www.wovenink.co.uk/endfgm-animations Accessed 26 June 2020.

“Fear of the upcoming knife”: Toward Ending Mutilation in Uganda

On April 14, 2022, in Kampala, I’ll have the great pleasure of seeing Hilda Twongyeirwe again, co-editor with Violet Barungi of UnCUT/VOICES’ book, Taboo. Voices of Women in Uganda on Female Genital Mutilation (2015). An expanded version with new contributions to FemRite’s collection called Beyond the Dance, Taboo is, in the words of Professor Joy C Kwesiga, Vice Chancellor of Kabale University, “part case study and part literary art [whose] down-to earth approach demystifies … [the] subject by representing the points of view of both victims and ‘executors'” (from the back cover).

The introduction by Rebecca Salonen (below) offers an edifying glimpse into the inspiration that led Mary Karooro Okurut, founder of FemRite and former cabinet minister (in the office of the Prime Minister), to pen an autobiographical novel devoted entirely to the excision theme. Her explicit aim? To end the ‘torture’.

Mary Karooro Okurut. The Switch. Kampala: FemRite, 2016.

The Switch is a thriller. Its Foreword by UNFPA Country Representative Esperance Fundira reminds us that “story-telling is a powerful tool … to mobilize citizens against … injustice,” (3) and FGM counts as a profound violation of human rights. A kidnapping opens the tale: Daisy, the beloved only child of Chelimo, the Minister of Culture, is seized, not for ransom, but to be excised by force in a gesture of revenge and hubris. Her captor claims leadership of a society to maintain cultural cohesion by opposing governmental efforts to stop the cutting in Kapchorwa. On learning of her daughter’s capture, the Minister grows wild with anxiety but also resolve that her offspring be spared the travails excision had visited on her, and while the search is on, Chelimo takes stock of biological facts and psychological challenges. Among her misfortunes due to the knife are a still-born child, vesico-vaginal fistula, excruciating pain of intercourse, and a broken marriage to an upright man who only gradually finds his wife’s handicaps more than he can bear.

From FemRite’s Facebook page. Accessed 7 April 2022.

Rebecca’s Salonen’s ‘Introduction’ to Taboo describes the real-life model for the heroine, Chelimo.

Rebecca Salonen, Introduction to Taboo. Voices of Women in Uganda on Female Genital Mutilation

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, so the public ‘circumcision’ ceremonies are disappearing, and the cutting is now being done secretly, in the dark.

I learned about female genital mutilation in Uganda almost by accident. In 1998, while I was visiting Kampala, a friend introduced me to Hon. Jane Frances Kuka, a Sabiny who was then Minister of Gender. She had famously escaped being circumcised by staying in school. When her opposition to the practice became too troublesome, in 1988 the elders bought rope and planned to tie her up and mutilate her by force. She escaped to Kampala and returned by helicopter with the Minister for Women, who suggested the elders give up compulsory FGM. Later, Hon. Kuka was elected to the women’s seat for Kapchorwa in Parliament.

Hon. Kuka invited me to visit her home town of Kapchorwa during the 1998 ‘circumcision’ season to attend Culture Day, a festival created by Uganda’s Reproductive, Educative and Community Health (REACH) project which had been launched in 1996 by the United Nations Population Fund to combat female genital mutilation. In 1998, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, arrived by helicopter at the mountaintop town. Standing in the bed of a truck, he delivered a speech to the thousands of Sabiny people gathered at the Boma Grounds for Culture Day, urging them to abandon their fiercely defended practice of female ‘circumcision’. Others spoke as well, including leading elders, some of whom stood in front of the president and, to our surprise but apparently not to the president’s, announced their determination to continue their traditional practices. Later that evening, visitors and Kapchorwa dignitaries gathered at a celebration dinner. After listening to some congratulatory speeches, a community leader rose. Looking squarely at the visitors, he said forcefully that the Sabiny did not need anyone from New York or London to come to Kapchorwa and tell them what to do about female ‘circumcision’.

That night, locked into our compound near Sipi, we lay awake in our beds hearing the sounds of ‘circumcision’ in the darkness: Feet marching on the roads, bells and whistles, singing and drumming that lasted all night long. At breakfast the next morning, as we looked out at the magnificent Sipi Falls plunging into the chasm below our lodge, our hosts told us how many girls had been cut at dawn. We wondered if any had died. The same ceremonies would continue for weeks, long after we had returned to our safe homes in the West. There was nothing we could have done. We were the people from New York and London whose views were irrelevant.

After returning home, a few of us formed the Godparents Association. We raised the funds to pay school fees for Sabiny girls (later also for Pokot girls, who are also at risk for ‘circumcision’) to help them stay in school and avoid being cut, as Hon. Kuka had done. Over the years, we have sponsored hundreds of girls in secondary schools, and a number have completed university studies and master’s degrees. All of them have avoided FGM, defied cultural expectations, and taken new paths in life that do not require them to be cut. These are the young women who will help to transform their culture.

The book you are reading is a collection of the stories of girls and women who have firsthand knowledge about female ‘circumcision’ in Kapchorwa and elsewhere. Each story is valuable because it is authentic and unique. Although FGM is no longer the secret that once seemed unbelievable to people in the West, there are many hidden aspects that underlie the persistence of the practice. Some of these are revealed by the women who speak in these pages – witchcraft, coercion, intoxication. Unlike the young women we have sponsored, most of whom have hair-raising tales about escaping forced ‘circumcision’, many of the women in these pages (and even the circumcisers) did not have a choice and were forced into FGM.

We do not know exactly how many Ugandan women have suffered female genital mutilation or how many hundreds of girls are being cut every year. No census taker goes door to door in the mountains or pursues the migrating Pokot pastoralists to count the ‘circumcised’ women in their households. Eventually, once the aid funding is exhausted and the papers are written, the people from New York and London always go home. But the Sabiny will remain on Mt. Elgon, coping with the divisions and differences among them since their ancient practice became of interest to outsiders. Only they can stop female genital mutilation on the mountain.