Sitting by the side of the road with me, a group of young Gambian men all say they want to get married to a wife who will be ‘pure when she comes to me’ and who will wear the veil so that she will ‘be good’, always stay ‘one on one and never look at another man’. And they all want to have more than one wife. Most of the older men I speak to say it is not necessary for their wives to be veiled and that they do not think their daughters should wear the veil. ‘A woman cannot work hard if she wears the veil and she must work hard all day.’ They, too, believe that men should have as many wives as they can afford.
I have never met a woman who wants her husband to take a second or third or fourth wife. Isatou, a craft worker, who was married off when she was a teenager, would be furious if her husband even thought about taking a second wife. ‘Too many wife very bad for man and for the first lady at home. If two wives, one wife go to marabout to make other wife get sick, die or go away. If my husband take another wife I cut her throat.’
Walking through any village in The Gambia, you will see women working and men lazing about, chewing cola nut and gossiping. In any market, women are the main sellers and buyers. In any rice field, it is women who are labouring in the hot sun. Women are the main producers, purchasers and preparers of food. On many levels it is the women who economically and nutritionally hold this small country together.
But women have very few decision-making powers even over their own health and that of their children. The maternal mortality rate is extremely high. This could be due to a lack of maternity care but it could also be because women start giving birth when they’re as young as fifteen, and have an average of six children. In one village, researchers found that Gambian men would like to have an average of fifteen children; women would ideally like to have seven – a disparity that is possible within a polygamous society.
Doing my own non-systematic, totally non-scientific survey of men working in one of the government departments, I found that thirteen men have a total of 93 children. At first they did not mention their daughters. I thought my question was clear: ‘How many children do you have?’ When I then asked them to give me the number of girls and boys, they responded: ‘Oh, you want girls.’ The numbers immediately changed. I was also perplexed by the odd sex ratio. Of these 93 children, 60 are boys and 33 girls. What is happening to the girl-children? Do fathers forget about them? Don’t they count? They all seem to disappear? Where are they? I know where many of them are not. They are not in school. The government claims that education is free for girls, because girls do not have to pay for tuition. Boys do. But when the cost of books, stationery, badges, assembly hall projects and uniforms are added up, it costs 1330 dalasi to send a boy to my local school and 955 dalasi to send a girl. That is not free.
In spite of all the disadvantages, it is not uncommon to see female security guards, female soldiers, female lineswomen during football matches, female businesswomen. The vice-president of the country is a woman. Women head many government agencies and have many top ministerial posts. They have held the posts of secretary general, accountant general, auditor general and speaker of the National Assembly. There is a Department of State for Women’s Affairs. According to UNDP [United Nations Developmernt Programme], in 2000 there was a higher proportion of female government ministers in The Gambia than in Canada, Belgium, Australia, Switzerland, Ireland, Italy and Spain. As an outsider, however, I have no idea whether the women are just there as stooges or are actually consulted in the decision-making processes of government.
And then I look around me and remember that most of the girls and women have been circumcised. Circumcision can be performed on newborn infants, young girls, adolescents or adult women. Female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation, involves partial or total removal of the external genitalia and sometimes involves sealing up the vagina. This can result in sexual and psychological dysfunction as well as many physical problems: haemorrhaging, infection, gangrene, tetanus, urinary retention; infertility as a result of pelvic infection, shock and death are not unknown complications. In many cases if a girl develops any of the associated health problems, they are not seen as a consequence of circumcision but blamed on evil spirits or witchcraft. Because women are often circumcised in groups with the same dirty razor or knife, HIV could be transmitted between them. Most of the circumcision done in The Gambia involves the removal of the clitoris by a ‘doctor’, usually the traditional birth attendant. During the circumcision the girl is usually blindfolded, held down and cut with a dirty razor blade. Anaesthetics are not used. The wound is sometimes doused with bleach or covered in cow dung.
The type and seriousness of the immediate complications depends on the skill of the circumciser, her eyesight, the sharpness of the instrument used and the co-operation of the initiate; a girl who struggles may be more damaged than a girl who does not. In some cases the labia are also removed and the vaginal opening is sealed up, leaving a five-millimetre opening. Intercourse and delivery are therefore impossible unless the vagina is reopened using the same crude methods and leading to further cases of infection.
In The Gambia, female circumcision is widely accepted and practised, seen as a rite of passage to womanhood, an important part of gender identity. Among some tribes, if a girl is not circumcised she is considered dirty, wanton, an outcast and unmarriageable. In many villages, all the young girls are sent to the circumcision ‘doctor’. Because no formal studies have been done, it is difficult to estimate how many of the total female population has been circumcised. Rough estimates run from 68 per cent to 93 per cent.
Many reasons are given to justify the practice. Some people claim it is a duty under Islam; some say that it is marks the beginning of womanhood; some say that it is done to reduce a woman’s sexual pleasure and stop her from being promiscuous; some say that it is done to ‘stop the ugly clitoris from growing too long and damaging the penis during sex or harming the infant during childbirth’.
Twenty years ago, walking through the village of Bakau with my young daughter, I was approached by a ‘Bundu devil’ who playfully – at least I hope it was playful – tried to grab her. The purpose of the ‘Bundu devil’, a Mende woman from Sierra Leone, dressed in raffia strips and wearing a large wooden mask, is to escort young girls to the circumcision ground, supervise their training and ‘hypnotise’ them while their genitals are cut off. Faced with this ‘devil’ and her two assistants, I scooped my daughter up in my arms and ran away as fast as I could.
This evening I can hear the drums in the neighbouring village heralding the presence of the female circumcision ‘doctor’. One woman from the village tells me that she has not allowed her daughters to be circumcised and that ‘many people are stopping it now because they are aware of the problems it can cause. Radio programmes tell us that it is a violation against children.’ In some cases, however, the radio programmes may be counterproductive.
Modu, a father of two young girls, feels that ‘the aid agencies are walking into our country with their ideas and theories and calling female circumcision female genital mutilation. They have no right to interfere in our culture. I was not going to have my girls circumcised but as soon as the aid agencies and the radio programs said that it was wrong I immediately sent my girls to be circumcised. No one, especially not foreigners who know nothing about our traditions or people who talk about sex on the radio, has the right to tell me what to do and not do.’
Modu is not the only Gambian who feels this way. There are many, men and women, who view Western opposition to female circumcision as just another form of colonial domination. In 1999 Senegal legally banned the practice. Burkino Faso, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Ghana, Guinea and Togo have followed suit. Not The Gambia. The president has refused to allow female circumcision to be outlawed, though the vice-president – a woman – is said by some to be a supporter of organisations working to rid the country of female circumcision.
Ten years ago no one ever discussed it. Many men did not even know that it occurred. It was a woman’s secret. Now it is discussed by members of the National Assembly, some Islamic religious leaders are calling for its elimination, newspapers are printing articles about it every week, and schools are incorporating anti-female circumcision messages into the curriculum. But the president still refuses to budge.
The anti-female circumcision messages given in schools are also having unforeseen effects. Women are now circumcising their babies because young girls are being taught in schools that circumcision ‘is an abuse against their person’. Mothers, aunts and grandmothers, unwilling to put up a fight, now arrange for circumcision when the girls are too young to know better and too small to struggle. The idea that circumcision marks an important step into womanhood is gradually being dispelled as younger and younger girls – some of them only a few months old – are being circumcised.
Most of the women in rural areas and probably many in urban areas do not feel deprived or feel that their basic human rights are being ignored. Although they can vote, probably influence political decisions, hold high political office and form women’s rights groups, they continue to uphold and even insist on traditions that, at least through western eyes, belittle and subjugate them.
Mothers, grandmothers and aunts are the ones who demand that a girl be circumcised. An uncircumcised woman will be severely ridiculed by other women who are circumcised. I know one woman who was circumcised after marriage because her co-wives kept ridiculing her.
‘Mariama, I am shocked. Why would you do this?’ I asked.
‘What is your problem, Dawn? I give them a small piece of skin and they give me the respect I deserve. I think it is worth it. You toubobs [whiteys] are obsessed with sex. That is the only reason you ask these questions. If I had given them the tip of my finger you would not be interested. My small piece of skin allowed me to learn the songs and the secrets of my ancestors. You will never understand the importance of that.’
When the circumcision doctor arrives in a village, the women, old and young, rejoice. The girls, almost always unaware of what is about to happen to them, dance and sing. This secret ritual, seen as barbaric in the west and full of immense joy in some parts of The Gambia, binds the women together. It cements them as a group, separates them from the ‘others’ – the men and the world outside. It ties the initiates to their mothers and their grandmothers and all the women before them. It is during this ceremony that the young girls learn many of the secrets of their group; secrets so immense and deep, it is said that anyone who reveals them to the non-initiated will die.
I believe one of the reasons most Westerners are appalled by the practice of female circumcision, and most Gambians aren’t, is related to our different ideas on what is and what is not personal property. In the west, most people would say: ‘My body, especially my genitalia, is mine and mine alone.’ In The Gambia, the concept of ‘mine’ is not as important as the concept of ‘my group’ or ‘my family’. In other words, traditionally, an individual’s property, including her body, probably extends beyond the individual.
Female circumcision is not the only harmful, traditional practice woman endure here. Since there is no minimum legal age for marriage, girls are often forced to marry as soon as they start menstruating. In some rural communities, girls are betrothed to older men as babies. Early marriage often stops a girl from completing her education. It also leads to early pregnancy. Many of these births result in severe complications because of the small size of the child-mother. Babies are sometimes dumped. The newborn body of a dead baby wrapped in a black plastic bag was recently found near my local market – just another case of baby dumping by a mother, a very, very young mother. The threat of forced marriage continues throughout a woman’s life. In many cases a widow must either marry her late husband’s brother or leave the village.
There are also many nutritional restrictions placed on women. Pregnant women are not supposed to eat eggs because the baby could be born unable to speak. Bananas and meat are also taboo because the foetus could grow too large and the mother will not be able to push it out. When chop is parceled out in the compounds, the men tend to get the choicest pieces of meat and fish, while the women and children get the sauce and dripping and leftovers.
Returning to the village I lived in for many years, I look for old familiar faces. At the entrance to the village I see that new shops have sprung up but I also see many of the old sights. A group of women, skin greased with karite, babies perched on their backs, labour in the fields. Jujus made from red cloth, cowry shells and horn are tied to plants to protect the crops from theft. Plastic bags tied to wooden poles flutter in the wind to scare off birds.
A group of young men sit outside a shop, laughing and eating tapa-lapa bread filled with hard-boiled eggs, margarine and crushed Maggi cubes. Four men sit in an old car listening to the radio. A man walking down the road blows his nose on the ground. Pots and buckets are arranged in a line in front of the village standpipe, waiting for the water to be turned on so that the women can fill them and carry them back to their compounds. Young girls carry even younger children on their backs. Young boys stand idly around in groups by the side of the road. Few things have changed. Most things remain the same.
Entering my old compound, I am joined by a middle-aged woman. We hug and it takes me a while to realize that Bintu, last seen as a skinny twenty-year-old, is now a plump 34-year-old divorcee and mother of two. We sit and eat rice and sauce and mashed up leaves from the bush and exchange gossip. Bintu’s mother, Fatou, died from cancer; her aunt, Yasin, had a heart attack after giving birth to seven boys and two girls in sixteen years; her grandmother, Ya, who carried my children around on her back, suffered a stroke and died. Her mother and aunt weren’t even 45-years-old when they died, and her grandmother was barely 60.
Bintu now makes fish pies that she sells by the side of the road, and has a market shop where she sells cloves of garlic, palm oil and gunpowder tea, as her mother and her grandmother did before her. This is being a woman: being circumcised, having children, grandchildren, selling bits and pieces in the market. This is probably the work her daughter will do.
To my eyes almost nothing has changed. The women still do most of the work. The men still do most of the lounging. The houses still leak. The shops still have mostly bare shelves. The women in the market still sell only a handful of goods. Many of the houses are still without electricity and water. There are no tarred roads. But for Bintu, now a solid woman, deeply embedded in her role, upholding her traditions, supporting her president, surrounded by many new possessions sent to her from her brothers and male cousins living abroad, The Gambia has progressed immensely. Like many families, Bintu and her female relatives receive much, if not most, of their money from male relatives living abroad. Often food, rent, clothing, and school fees are paid for by non-residents – in fact the amount of money sent by non-residents is now reported to be more than the money arriving into the country from foreign aid. Everywhere I go, everyone I speak to has a friend or relative living overseas who sends money and gifts back home. Everyone wants a good provider, someone who has left and sends money home. The Gambia as a country may be loosing its nurses and doctors and educated masses due to the brain drain, but the people living in poverty are gaining on an individual level when Western Union sends them a wire from the outside world.
As I look around me, it becomes clear that the practices of female circumcision, forced marriage, and various food taboos are not the major problems faced by the Gambian women. Yes, they anger me. And, yes these practices grab the headlines, especially in the west, but they are as nothing compared to the far more pressing forms of everyday oppression such as a lack of clean water, food and proper health facilities, illiteracy and drought.
Sitting on a stoop in the compound I try to recapture the time when I lived here. I remember screaming at Bintu and her younger brother Alhadji when they stunned weaverbirds with handmade catapults, snapped off their wings and roasted them, still breathing, over a small fire. I remember Ya collecting my daughter’s soiled disposable nappies from the trash bin, washing them, drying them on the line and wearing them on her head. I remember Bintu and her younger sister, Asanatou, searching through my scalp and squashing the nits between their thumbnails. I remember the women telling me that I must have a very poor husband because I never wore any jewellery. I remember Ya getting up at five o’clock every morning and throwing a bucket of water in front of the door to stop the evil spirits from entering the compound. I remembered taking care of a newborn colobus monkey for a month, carrying it with me everywhere. The children ran away whenever they saw it, never sure if it was a monkey or a djinn. I remember Ya sticking her dried-up nipples in any grandchild’s mouth when they cried and the child happily sucking away on the milkless teat. I remember Yasin beating her boys when they spilled food or slapping them if they talked while they ate. I remember plans being made for Asanatou’s circumcision so that she could become a full female by loosing part of her femaleness. Asanatou, standing in front of me now suckling her infant daughter who will soon be circumcised because ‘you loose less blood when you are small’.