What many refer to as Female Genital Cutting or Mutilation (FGM), is what we in Sierra Leone refer to as Bondo. My views on Bondo always seemed expansive, yet in retrospect as I write this article, I realize my real knowledge has been limited. This was made clear upon my return to Sierra Leone, my home country, in 2011.
My grandmother passed away shortly after I returned to Sierra Leone. She had raised me from birth to age three, a force of nature and a gentle spirit, the nucleus that held her family together. She was also a high ranking sowei in her community. A sowei is a female bondo society leader, one who initiates young women into the society, one who cares for her sisters within the society, one who plays the role of leader, mid-wife, confidant, mother and friend. This is the very society that many understand as 'bad', 'backward' and 'anti-woman.' It is often described as the problematic secret society that encourages harmful traditional practices like 'cutting' of young girls or women. This is the very society my beloved grandmother played a leadership role in I came to discover.
In October 2011, my mother and I received a call from Bo, the second largest city in Sierra Leone. My grandaunt's voice strained but strong informed us that my grandmother had just passed away. My mother became mute, and within ten minutes I assisted in packing all the necessary ceremonial burial cloths required to respectfully bury my grandmother, we then clamored into the car. I later on realized my mother had been preparing for this day. On our way to Bo, which is about three hours away from Freetown, a thick silence engulfed the car. No one uttered a word. We arrived late into Sunday night, A Line, an often jovial street with music blasting from brown corners was silent that evening. As soon as we entered my grandmother's house, my mother released a scream that could only come from the depth of her being. My aunties and grandaunts rushed to my mother's side as they quickly ushered her into my grandmother's room. I too followed, eager to see my grandmother's body; however before I could enter I was told to stand back. I was not allowed to enter the room nor see my grandmother until she was prepared for her burial. At first not quite understanding why I could not enter the room like everyone else, I attempted to push my way through. I was quickly and sternly told I could not. I was not part of the society; I could not see her until she was dignified by her sisters and daughters who had gone through initiation.
I took my exclusion with anger, not quite sure what to feel I remained silent. I spent the next seven days unlearning what I thought I knew about Bondo, re-shifting my focus from the 'act' often understood as purely barbaric, to the larger social picture. I was forced to quiet my judgment, take a step back to bear witness, listen to stories and respect the power of sisterhood, secrecy, support and most importantly LOVE that held these women together. It was in this space they were most powerful beyond any of our imagination.
Bondo, I came to understand, manifests itself differently and uniquely across cultures that practice it. It differs based on context, religious acceptance, cultural understanding and geographical spaces. What remains clear though is its multiplicity and complexity. In Sierra Leone, Bondo is a society for the women by the women. It is much less about the cutting and much more about larger social notions of womanhood and strength. It is space where women exercise power, exchange deep traditional knowledge of child bearing, and institute community support. Most importantly it is a private affair that reinforces cultural and traditional lineages. Like any cultural institution anywhere in the world, bondo is deeply entrenched in the psyche of most women in Sierra Leone and any real tangible shift from that practice must emerge from the nucleus of that society -- its women. This type of perspective is often lost in the media. More often, voices and experiences that depict gross violence and violation are amplified offering a simplistic perspective of a much more complicated and dynamic cultural practice.
As a cultural hybrid continually navigating between my cultural upbringing and ancestral linage, I have come to see female genital circumcision through the lens of choice and right. The Sierra Leonean president's Agenda for Prosperity at a policy level offers choice to women of Sierra Leone; a woman should be able to consent or be of consenting age to engage in Bondo. This provides the opportunity for the right to choice that ultimately determines a woman's passage to Bondo. I believe that Bondo should more actively become a right to choice that women can exercise. In that we must also ask, what factors will inform this choice?
My grandmother was a Sowei, I share her story in abstention of her own voice, as her granddaughter who is the first generation of women to not go through Bondo by choice, I respect my grandmother's position and role played in her community. I maintain that Bondo belongs to the women, who too often are misunderstood or underestimated.
Bondo and Sowei's have a right to their cultural belief. Let us place our immediate preconceptions and judgments aside. In this complexity, the solutions will more than often have to be community led, allowing space and flexibility to re-examine a cultural belief far more ingrained and entrenched in the psyches of these women than most of us will ever truly be able to understand, and at times even respect.