An Exclusive with Sando Sherman-Adetunji

This week we travel to the state of Maryland in the U.S. to speak with another fascinating lady.  Sando is originally from the West African nation, Liberia.  She talks candidly about some of the dark sides of the innermost parts of that country.

GWPF:  For the past 25 years you have worked for the State of Maryland.  What exactly do you do for the State of Maryland?

Sando Sherman-Adetunji:  Currently, I work as a social worker II, LGSW.  I am licensed at the graduate level.  I work in the Emergency Services Unit, which serves the Montgomery County public.  I started with the Department of Social Services in 1988 when my daughter was only five months old.  I was a data processor, just out of a two-year college with an Associate Degree.

GWPF:  You are a family-oriented social worker with low-income families.  Tell us about your work.

Sando Sherman-Adetunji:  I work with families and children to help them get caught up with their bills when they lose their jobs or are on the verge of losing their homes.  I case-manage the homeless families or single adults as well.

GWPF:  You are a very busy lady, Sando.  Are you still working with Ryan Rehabilitation?  If so, please tell us what you do at Ryan Rehabilitation.

Sando Sherman-Adetunji:  I no longer work at the Ryan Rehabilitation, due to my college studies.  But I did enjoy working with the clients.  I also worked at a mental health lock-down facility in Hagerstown, Maryland, located in Washington County as an in-patient psychotherapist five years ago.

GWPF:  You are originally from Liberia.  What part of Liberia are you from?

Sando Sherman-Adetunji:  Well, I was born in Margibi County in Kakata, Liberia, which is close to the Booker T. Washington High School.  As a matter of fact, as a little girl, I sold groundpeas (peanuts) and coldbowl (food cooked a day earlier) on that school campus to students and teachers.  My grandmother and mother owned a restaurant not far from that high school.  Believe it or not, my mother also sold alcohol and marijuana from the restaurant.  My brother and I were made to sell marijuana for our parents.  He stood on Carey Street and I stood on Gurley Street in Monrovia, Liberia to sell that for our parents.  I had moved to Monrovia in the early 1970s.  We lived in a one-bedroom apartment with six people.  As a curious child, I already knew what sex was and how a baby was made at the age of six years old.  I am planning to write a manuscript about that period of my life.

GWPF:  According to reports, for a girl to attain primary and secondary education in Liberia remains a major challenge.  Why do you think it is such a challenge?

Sando Sherman-Adetunji:  It is due to poverty, unemployment and old traditions.  When some parents have no means of supporting themselves, they tend to send their children to work to help with the upkeep in the home.  Most girls are pulled out of school and placed in the Sande Society Bush School to prepare for womanhood and to become a wife.

GWPF:  United Nations reports show that girls below age 10 are pulled out of schools by traditionalists to undergo initiation ceremonies, which include female genital mutilation.  Would you please elaborate on this?

Sando Sherman-Adetunji:  Well, it depends on the culture and traditions.  My traditions and culture do believe that a child is only marriageable when she has undergone female genital mutilation.  Income is another reason why the excisor or circumciser performs female genital mutilation (FGM).  One of the excisors (circumcisers) in the Garwular District in Grand Cape Mount County in Liberia is my grand aunt (my grandmother’s sister).  I wanted to call a meeting with her but approaching her was ritualistic.  I was made to send her money through a coordinator to tell her that I wanted to speak with her about FGM.  Then my grand aunt requested additional funds to provide transportation for her and other excisors to travel to where I had planned to conduct the meeting.  I complied and provided the funds for their transportation to the meeting.  Standing before fifty excisors was an out-of-body experience for me.  They demanded that no cameras be allowed and only women who had undergone FGM or members of the Sande Society Bush were allowed in the hut where the meeting was held.  No men were allowed at the meeting.  You see, the male equivalent of the Sande Society is the Poro Society but the females and males do not have meetings together.  After much discussion with the excisors, the agreement was to stop practicing FGM in their district, and I would send them financial support for the elderly women who could no longer work for a living.

GWPF:  Obviously, you have upheld your end of the agreement.  Have the excisors upheld their part of the agreement from that meeting?

Sando Sherman-Adetunji:  That meeting was held in 2010, and I am happy to say that the women have upheld their promise of the agreement.  That district in Grand Cape Mount County in Liberia is now FGM-free.

GWPF:  How do you know for sure that they are really upholding their agreement to you?

Sando Sherman-Adetunji:  I know because I have coordinators on the ground that report to me regularly on the progress, and I go back to visit every year.  I also have to pay the coordinators to ensure that that agreement is kept.     

GWPF:  Reports indicate that Grand Cape Mount County has been successful in convincing traditionalists to stop pulling girls out of school for the purpose of FGM.  What is the strategy that the County of Cape Mount used to accomplish that?

Sando Sherman-Adetunji:  I will tell you an account of my personal story.  I was only nine years old when my grandmother kidnapped me from my school.  She lied to the missionaries at my school and said that my father had had a car accident, and he was requesting to say his goodbyes.  I was blindfolded as soon as I was off the school campus and my life changed forever.  I was taken to the Sande Society Bush and they held me down and performed FGM on me.  When I returned from the Sande Society Bush after a year, I was already a woman.  I had been prepared to serve a man and be his wife; I had been taught how to make a bed, and how to position my hips to become pregnant during sex.  Anyway, I was also taught how to dance the traditional dance, and I became a dancer for visitors to the village.  I wanted to be back in school so I ran away from the village the first opportunity I had and returned to school.

Sando Sherman Adetunji:  Going back to that report you asked about earlier, I am not sure about the report but I do know that the people in my village are not the only ethnic group that practice FGM.  We have the Sierra Leoneans, Ghanaians and the Kru, the Lorma and Gio ethnic groups that practice FGM.  My success in the Garwular District of Cape Mount County was not an easy process.  The people of that district had to be able to trust me; it was a bit easier for me because I am one of them.  I can get through to them better than anyone else can because I have gone through the Sande Society Bush.  Education is vital in these remote areas, and also starting activities from which they can benefit is healthy.  I encourage anyone to invest in the Cape Mount Lakeside area to build resorts on the beautiful beaches to help the economy in that area.  Community education projects and investment approach are the two best factors to help end FGM.

GWPF:  You also helped make a difference in Cape Mount against female genital mutilation.  Do you wish to share what you did in Cape Mount?

Sando Sherman-Adetunji:  Dialogue with the community and the leaders of the Sande Society Bush, but one has to be a member to penetrate that tightly knit society.  If you are not a member, it is going to be a struggle of no cooperation.  The trust level and the people’s belief system are deeply rooted in that society.  I used economics to help convince them to stop the practice in the district.

GWPF:  Do you think Liberia will ever ban the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM)?

Sande Sherman-Adetunji:  With the right president and proper enforcement of the law, it is plausible.

GWPF:  How much responsibility should be placed on the leaders of Liberia to end the practice of FGM?

Sande Sherman-Adetunji:  I do not think that advocates and activists should depend on the leaders of that country to end FGM.  We need to do what I did with the people in the district.  We need to negotiate with the main excisors and perpetrators in dialogue.  Determine what their needs are and what they lack and use those needs to negotiate.  Once you get them to agree to a commitment, then monitor the progress and make sure they uphold their end of the bargain.

GWPF:  With the firm hold that the Sande Society has in Liberia, what will it take to convince them to stop the practice of FGM?

Sando Sherman-Adetunji:  Education of the people and providing employment opportunities.

GWPF:  What is the punishment from the Sande Society for someone who exposes their secret about the practice of FGM?

Sando Sherman-Adetunji:  It is death but permission must be given to impose the death sentence on those who expose the secrets of the Sande Society.

GWPF:  You are a PhD. candidate.  What are your future plans for Liberia after graduation?

Sando Sherman-Adetunji:  My plans are to become a public health worker for the World Health Organization (WHO).  If I am stationed in Liberia, I would love to eradicate infectious diseases, most especially malaria and the mosquitos that cause malaria.  Maybe I will be the first female epidemiologist of Liberia.

GWPF:  Do you ever foresee a FGM-free world?

Sando Sherman-Adetunji:  No I don’t.  It is not just about the cutting and mutilation but in some places, it is about cannibalism and the ritualistic beliefs.  I think there are mentally ill people in various ethnic groups who are cannibals and they have a craving for human flesh.

GWPF:  Why do you relate FGM to cannibalism?

Sando Sherman-Adetunji:  Has anyone ever wondered what the excisors do with the parts of the genitalia they cut off the girls?  I have not heard anyone in America ask that question.  Certainly, they do not throw it away.  So what do you think they do with it?  Think of the ritualistic beliefs and connect that with cannibalism.  Maybe in other countries they throw it away but within the Sande Society Bush, they use it cannibalistically.  Figure it out.

GWPF:  What would be Sando Sherman-Adetunji’s contribution to a world free of FGM?

Sando Sherman-Adetunji:  Education in the most remote areas of the world is in dire need.  My strategy is to have coordinators in every district to monitor any performance of FGM and to follow through after interventions have been implemented.  I also plan to develop a model that will help the FGM women to participate in schools and other social service programs.  Some of the activities would be basket-weaving programs, tie-dying tee-shirts, sewing clothes, making housewares, jewelry, welding, diamond and gold digging, etc.  We already have these projects but there are no funds to implement them to move to the next districts.  I am afraid I might lose credibility and then I would have to start all over again with the women.  I plan to travel to Liberia in December 2016 to implement the micro-finance program with the FGM women and the pregnant women in the district in Cape Mount County.  I also plan to implement the adult-basic English conversation with the women.  Education is the key to empowerment.  The first class conducted in 2014 in that area was forced to close down due to the Ebola crisis in that country.  However I plan to reopen the literacy program.  If the women become literate, we might have an easier way to comprehensively explain the health risks and dangers of FGM to them.

Join us in next week’s edition when An Exclusive brings you another fascinating woman.