By: An Anonymous Survivor
This survivor has requested that her name not be disclosed due to her safety, but she wants her story shared. Global Woman Newsletter respects her request. We hereby issue a warning that portions of the following story might be too graphic for some.
I was born in 1971 in Lofa County, Liberia, West Africa. I grew up in a village with my family and extended relatives. My father had 2 wives, which gave me many brothers and sisters. The people in my village had no formal religion, except for animism. There were no schools in our village so my siblings and I did not have the privilege of attending school. Our days were spent doing household chores and doing farm work. Our evenings were spent by the bonfire, listening to stories from our mothers and grandmothers. In my village, the girls got married at 15 years old, but prior to marriage the girls were taken to the Sande Bush School for initiation between ages 8 and 14.
I was barely 9 years old when 2 of my older sisters and I were taken to the Sande Bush School for initiation, which included female circumcision (female genital mutilation). In my village, the women who perform FGM on little girls are called the Zoes. Everyone feared the Zoes in the village because they were the midwives and they ran the Sande Bush School. We thought that they had the power to use dark magic (voodoo) to place curse on people. Anything the Zoes said became the law in the village. Each family had a Zoe assigned to them for the purpose of recruiting girls in the family for female genital mutilation (FGM). My grandmother was a Zoe, so she was assigned to my family. The recruitment process began with an announcement that the Sande Bush School would be opening. The announcement was to make sure that the parents prepared themselves economically, because the Zoes were paid handsomely for performing FGM.
Three month prior to my initiation, I became anxious; I asked my mother many questions about the Sande Bush School. I wanted to know where it was and what I would be doing there. I later discovered that all of her responses were lies. She told me that I would see and cross the mighty ocean, and there would be a lot of tasty food. I was excited because I had never seen the ocean before, since we lived near the forest. As we got closer to the initiation date, the Zoes took over the village, and instructed the men to build large huts. The Zoes inspected the huts and approved the men’s work. Two weeks prior to initiation, many girls and their mothers arrived from neighboring villages, and some from as far as Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. My grandmother even took me to a lady to have my hair braided. The celebration began with drinking, eating, dancing and singing. It was the happiest time of my life at that point because I thought that if the Sande Bush was anything like that celebration, I did not want to return home to my village.
In January 1980, I was taken to the forest for initiation. The Zoes dressed us in pretty white clothes, after our bodies had been rubbed down with white chalk, and put us on display in the village center, while they sang traditional songs. To my surprise, all of the men ran indoors, and there were only women and girls left outside. As the Zoes marched us off deeper into the forest, I saw my grandmother, which gave me a sense of security because she had always taken care of me. We were a total of about 80 to 100 girls, led by a group of Zoes. We walked for more than an hour, and I was very tired. When we got to a certain point, the Zoes asked us to remove our underwear and urinate, which I found strange since I had not told anyone that I needed to urinate. As I squatted to urinate, a Zoe pushed me backwards to the ground, and before I could realize what was happening to me, two other Zoes jumped on top of me. They spread my legs apart while one of them sat on my chest, almost suffocating me. I was terrified and screamed, yelling for my grandmother. I was happy when I saw her walking toward me because I just knew that she was coming to rescue me from those evil Zoes but I was wrong. Instead, my grandmother knelt before my opened legs, and I spotted the shinning blade in her hand. She reached for my genitals and I felt a very sharp pain as she cut off my clitoris. I screamed the loudest a 9-year old was able to scream, and tried to fight off the Zoes but they were far larger and stronger than I was.
After the excision was over, one of the Zoes took some green herbs, mixed them in a wooden bowl and applied it to my genitals, which burned profusely and worsened the pain. I considered jumping up and running but my body was overwhelmed with indescribable pain. As I lay on the ground crying, I wondered why my mother had not told me the truth; that I needed to suffer such violent pain, just to cross the mighty ocean. One of the Zoes picked me up and carried me to a matted bed in one of the huts because I was unable to walk.
I cried myself to sleep, and when I finally awoke, my mother was sitting next to the bed. “Where were you?” I asked her with childlike anger and concern. She said she was present at my initiation but the Zoes had held her back, and that she had no control over what had happened to me. She had gone through the same as a child, and so had her own mother, her grandmother and her great-grandmother. She then took a rag out of a bowl of hot water and massaged my genital area, and rubbed palm oil on it. I asked her, “When are we going to the ocean?” She told me that there was no ocean; that she had lied to entice me to willingly go with the Zoes. I told her through tears, “You should have hidden me from the Zoes.” She said that the Zoes usually beat mothers who do not allow their daughters to go to the Sande Bush. She also told me that girls who do not attend the Sande Bush School will never find men to marry them. My mother said that girls are unclean if their genitals are not cut, and the men believe that they are witches. She said what had just been done to me was a way to remove the evil spirits from me and purify me for marriage. None of it made any sense to me, a 9-year old girl.
Within the next few days the pain became worse, and I came down with very high fever. My genitals were swollen and infected. Urination was difficult and painful, so I avoided drinking water so I would not have to urinate. I was unable to wear underwear, and my mother continued to apply palm oil to my genital area. She told me that the Zoes did not allow us to take the “White Man’s” medicine which was Western medications. Just as my genitals began to heal, and the pain became less, the Zoes dealt me yet another shock. They took a blade and marked my arms, back and thighs, which indicated that I was fully a member of the Sande Secret Society. Anyone who saw the marks on my body in the future would know that I belong to the Sande or the Bondo. My mother begged the Zoes to only partially mark my body; she promised to return me to the Sande Bush before I got married to complete the body markings. The complete markings are usually done to the entire back, thighs and sometimes the neck.
Our healing process spanned over the next 6 months. We were introduced to the next phase of the Sande Bush School, which entailed learning to cook, to groom ourselves, to make straw baskets and mats, how to care for a baby, how to fish in the river, and the medicinal uses of various herbs. Those were all the duties of a married woman. The third phase was as morbid as the first 2 phases. I was taken to the Sande gods, which were 2 wooden face masks, one dressed in white and the other in red. I was instructed to swear an oath that when I married and had daughters, I would have all of my daughters initiated in the Sande Bush School. I also had to swear that if I divulged anything from the Sande Bush to “kpolowa” (someone who has not been initiated) I would face the curse the Zoes would place on me and/or even death.
Two weeks prior to Christmas 1980 we were taken back to the village for graduation from the Sande Bush School. I was not the same little girl who had left the village in January; I no longer wanted to play outside or go to the creek with my brothers and other children. I did not sleep well because I had terrible nightmares. I did not eat well so I lost weight. I relived the cutting and other experiences in my nightmares. I heard that several of the girls who went to the Sande Bush with me had died from serious infection, loss of blood and high fever. The Zoes attributed their deaths to the fact that they were weak, lazy and witches.
Three years later in 1983 at the age of 12, I left my village in Lofa County and went to live with an older sister who was already married and lived in Monrovia. I finally began formal education when I was 12 years old. I liked school, and it was my first exposure to Christianity because my sister sent me to a Christian school. It was there that I learned to read the Holy Bible. My sister had become a Christian, and had left that life of animism behind in the village in Lofa. She took me along with her children to church every Sunday. My mother died four years later in 1987, and we traveled back to Lofa for the burial ceremonies. I shook the dust off my shoes, and have never returned to Lofa County since.
I graduated from secondary school in 1994, and I was accepted to the nursing program at Tubman National Institute of Medical Arts in 1997. My sister had reminded me not to ever tell anyone about my experiences in the Sande Bush. I continued to keep my secret until I met a man who was interested in marrying me. I told him about what had happened to me in 1980, and he became disinterested. That confused me since my mother had said that men preferred to marry women who had no clitoris. I later met another man who accepted me, and did not mind my FGM experiences. He married me even without a clitoris. When we went to have our first child I encountered major complications. The baby was stuck I the birth canal because the part of my genitals which was designed to naturally stretch had been cut off when I was 9 years old. As a result of FGM, we lost our baby. I hope my story will help other FGM survivors share their own stories to help inform the public about what happens to little girls. This is what FGM does to us, and this is my story. Thank you for reading.
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