Wednesday, July 21, 2010


In French here, it’s ‘l’excision.’ Most people know what we’re talking about when we say female circumcision. In academic discourse, the practice was referred to as female genital mutilation. More recently, this was redefined with the conscientious term of female genital cutting (FGC). In Mali, the practice is widespread, concentrated among certain groups (Bambara, Maraka, Nomo –the blacksmiths, Mandinka). My region, the Bambara heartland, is where it is practiced most intensively (usually surveys say 98% of the population). It’s an ancient tradition in Africa, predating the arrival of Islam by a long shot. FGC is practiced in a variety of ways from a small nick of the clitoris to the stitching together of the inner or outer labia (infamously practiced in Somalia and Egypt). According to health-related NGO’s working in Mali, there are four classified types of FGC (Type 1 – consists of cutting a part of or removing the clitoris and/or the hood of the clitoris, Type 2 – cutting a part of or removing the clitoris and labia minor, with or without harming the labia major, Type 3 – infibulation, reducing the vaginal opening - may include modifying clitoris as well, Type 4 – any other practice that modifies the female genitalia for non-medical purposes). Most Malian women undergo Type 2 according to information dispersed by health organizations. From what I understand from personal discussion on the topic, the practice performed here usually involves a cut or partial to complete removal of the clitoris.

I recently read a CNN article about how the American Academy of Pediatrics had rescinded ‘a controversial policy statement raising the idea that doctors in some communities should be able to substitute demands for female genital cutting with a harmless clitoral "pricking" procedure.’ This change was made to appease advocacy groups and the Western international community. I was struck by the blatant Western bias and found myself in a kind of no man’s land on the issue. It left me with questions such as ‘Where does this obsession with FGC come from in a place where it’s not even practiced? Why do we ignore other types of body modification? And what is so deeply unnerving about ‘medicalizing’ a pricking procedure that would satisfy cultural requirements and remove the very concerns the international community has raised?’ Perhaps, these questions have obvious answers, but they are worth illuminating.

Why the fixation? It’s a cultural practice that runs so counter to ours. In the Western world the practice is a seen as a complete affront to feminism. It demonstrates a will to maintain control over women’s sexuality, recapitulating the existent patriarchal system. As any other young, feminist Westerner would be, ‘I’m against FGC.’ I am personally outraged by the practice. Experiences, such as having to pay my neighbor a visit to wish their daughter healthy again (a girl of 5 years who had just been ‘cut’), have only reinforced my disapproval. But, my experience here has undoubtedly made me more attune to Western biases. And I fear that we often become so impassioned by our own goodwill that we end up crusading on behalf of a disinclined people. Adding to the cross-cultural misunderstanding, I believe our benevolence is misconstrued as cultural imperialism.

So why is FGC practiced? From personal communication with Malians, the most predominant response I receive is it’s performed to moderate the sexual desire of women. Women are believed to be naturally more sexually-driven than men (converse to popular Western belief). I’ve had many a person tell me that even if they have doubts of the utility of the practice in this sense today, they will have it done to their children as a precaution. Furthermore, it’s an important expression of cultural identity.

What are Western objections to FGC based on? I think it can be summed up by pointing to the concern of ensuing health problems, as a human rights violation, and, from a feminist angle, as sexual oppression.

1. I believe long-term health concerns (such as infections, painful or prolonged menstruation, fistula) are related to Type 3, not Type 2 as practiced here. For Type 1 and 2, health concerns are based mostly on the immediate act…e.g. infection immediately following the procedure or the same blade being used on a group of girls. My friends who have undergone FGC say they don’t experience any health-related problems in the present.

2. As a human rights violation. Put simply, it boils down to a girl not having a choice on the subject. But, recall that human rights are a Western creation. And the parents making the decision for the girl are most likely making it with her well-being in mind (in addition to the reasons noted previously, she risks being ostracized by her community). Furthermore, it’s about maintaining a long-held tradition, a cultural requirement. It’s not supposed to be an act of cruelty; it’s an expression of cultural identity.

3. Feminist angle – does it limit sexual fulfillment? A topic I’ve only discussed with a few close friends, but they say, despite being affected by FGC, they derive sexual fulfillment from intercourse.

Despite my friends’ claims, I imagine that physiologically FGC must diminish sexual fulfillment. However, a woman’s sexuality is also psychological and sociological. Not undergoing FGC may cause a sense of shame, which could be just as detrimental to sexual pleasure for psychological and sociological reasons. Is it then possible to view FGC like other body modifications (e.g. breast augmentation, nose jobs, tummy tucks)? In the example given above, does FGC not fulfill a culture’s beauty-femininity requirement, as any other body modification?

Malians, in the course of discussion on the topic, will tell me that their ideas on FGC (and female promiscuity) don’t apply to me. They assume that ‘chez les blanches’ (where the white people live), it’s not a part of our culture and must not be necessary. Is this a naïve point of view, or is it incongruously open-minded? On the flip side, there has been Western financed advocacy against FGC in Mali for decades. The efforts emphasized health concerns posed by FGC. But, when this simply led to the increased medicalization of the practice, the debate shifted towards the human rights aspect. And I think this is where it gets tricky. There’s a philosophical choice that must be made between respecting another’s culture (and not imposing your own system of beliefs, customs, and values) and accepting the universal idea of human rights transcending cultural norms. I don’t think in this case you can reconcile cultural sensitivity and cultural relativity with the Western notion of human rights.

Also, I don’t ignore that there are many Malian voices that speak out against FGC. But, at the same time, even those who take part in the anti-FGC marches, don anti-FGC apparel, work for organizations that disseminate information on the danger of FGC, will often have FGC performed on their daughters.

Today, the ritual has changed in many areas of the country (I think particularly in cities). Traditionally, the rite was practiced on a group of girls at a similar age from the same village at the same time (20-30 girls being ‘cut’ at one time). This probably served a social function of creating a kind of bond between women, or a source of group solidarity. Today, it’s done secretly and individually. The male circumcision rite is still performed in groups and much more visible (afterwards, they dress up in a color denoting their class and clap broken pieces of calabashes together demanding money on the side of a road. This is the only occasion you can cast money at people. I’ve literally chucked coins out of a moving vehicle to a group of these boys).

In conclusion, I recognize the importance of awareness/advocacy – of the potential health risks and against stigmatization. It’s unfortunate that this notion was first planted by the West, which continues to the present to view Africa through a paternalistic lens – it’s the ‘dark continent’ that needs our help and support. It’s evident to me in my personal interactions and even in the media (Malian popular music always tends to be feminist and socially critical) that Mali wants to deal with its own issues. They don’t want their discourse steered by ‘l’occident’ (the West).

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Girl's Camp

The last week of March was reserved for a girls’ camp in my town of
Koulikoro. I was so pleased with how it went that I think it is the bit of work in Peace Corps I’m most proud of (of course, I was not alone in its planning and execution). The camp was concerned with women’s empowerment/youth development. The girls who attended were encouraged to continue with their studies, they were taken to see women leaders in the workplace, and given a range of lessons on ‘life skills,’ as we call them.

I live in the small city of Koulikoro (which may be a misleading description because when my family came to visit they thought of it more as a village). Four volunteers, who actually do live en brousse (in the bush), each brought five girls into my city. Another five girls came from Koulikoro itself. They were all the equivalent of six graders in the US. It was an amazing group of girls. They were attentive, enthusiastic, and easy-going. It was a bit discomforting to see the enormous difference between the brousse girls and the ‘city’ girls, but maybe that was just because one of the ‘city’ girls was already speaking better French than me (not that that’s saying much).

We brought the girls to see a couple schools and women in the workplace over a range of sectors (health, military, government, NGO, business). Most of the girls live where there isn’t a high school, let alone a middle school. Though some came in from over 100km away, my town is where they find their nearest high school (lycée). And any kid looking to go to high school, professional or technical school here would have to find a relative to put them up. I have 5 ‘brothers’ in my compound who come from brousse in order to attend high school, and they are very distant cousins of the family. So it’s not a particular difficult task to find some living arrangement, but an obstacle nonetheless. Chances are, if you are a girl coming into the city from brousse, it’s to work as a house servant. You will make 5,000cfa a month ($10), and you’ll be obliged to send that petty amount back to your family in brousse. It’s a bit bizarre to see how the families in my neighborhood are poverty-stricken by any general standard, and yet they all have a house servant. In my compound, we seem to have a different house servant every few months. None of them are educated. They can’t recognize the numbers 1-10. They have all been teenagers, and their reason for leaving was either pregnancy or theft.

So the camp tried to catch these girls just before they normally drop out to spend their days on the side of the road selling peanuts to passers-by, get married or pregnant, become a servant, or a combination of any of these likely life paths. Peace Corps volunteers did what I think we do best as Americans (the world experts in ‘camps’)…we held ice breakers, team-building activities, and life skill sessions. We invited our Malian partners to cover the more difficult topics: goal-setting, gender roles, and sexual education (the first time and probably only time any of the girls will see a diagram of the female reproductive system). We took the girls to meet and talk with working women: a political head of the region, a maternity warden, an accountant/NGO worker, a woman high up in the military, and an entrepreneur (woman who had a small factory producing juice, dried fruits, and cereals and had a woman’s group to run the place).Of course, we had a lot of fun as well. We had a dance (combined with sketches on family planning topics), we did henna and nail polish, we had a film night, and my favorite…a trip to the zoo in Bamako. In the US, kids go to the zoo to see the big mammals of Africa so the irony was evident from the beginning as this was the first time any of our camp girls had seen an elephant, a lion, a hyena, a warthog, a chimpanzee. It was a comical experience which I’ve recounted at the end of this blog. At the end of the camp, the girls were exhausted, but I think incredibly happy for the experience. Whether or not they were able to grasp all that was said to them, I have no doubt that they at least went away with the understanding that they could have the same kind of goals as their brothers.

Food preparation during the camp.

Trip to the Zoo

I’ve always found zoos terribly depressing in the states, so I could only imagine what a zoo in a poor country like Mali had in store for me. The experience surpassed my fears. Trash littered the park as it does the rest of the country. The park guide took us to see an adult chimpanzee and told us it would dance in exchange for a soda. He taunted the chimp with a plastic can as the crowd commenced a chant (coupled with clapping) which (I swear) translated directly as “Dance, monkey, dance.” A slightly, horrifying experience in my opinion, but I moved on with thoughts of the infamous manatee I’d heard tales of. I’d been totally by an ex-pat that the manatee had died in its tank and had been left to rot there, still on display. When I located the tank, it had more recently caught on fire, and now, amongst the shattered glass, lay only the charred remains of the manatee. When I approached where the lions were kept, a horrible scent entered my nostrils. I peaked over a ledge and saw decapitated donkey heads piled high along with their rib cages. There’s already an NGO in this country for the maltreatment of donkeys (they are often worked to death dragging carts around). I shouldn’t be surprised they also share the awful fate of being fed to the lions. After the tour, once I’d left the park grounds, a man motioned me over to look at something. He uncovered a crate to reveal a tense, snarling, teeth baring leopard. New arrival, he told me. I was absolutely terrified. I didn’t trust that crate, and quickly beckoned all the girls to get on the bus home.

But, it wasn’t all bad. The girls seemed to be learning a lot, taking copious notes at every cage. An adorable baby elephant was the first animal the girls approached. It was sticking its snout through the fence to be touched. The girls were terrified…‘n be sira. n ta fe ka tege dama.’ ‘I’m scared, I’m not going to shake its hand.’ “It’s hand?” I exclaimed. “That’s not its hand, that’s its nose!” I told them they didn’t need to be scared, it was, after all, just a baby. At this point, I was the one apparently being silly. “That…a baby? Come on!” Unfortunately, the zoo didn’t have an adult elephant to prove me right. It was a hilarious, terrifying at times, but ultimately educational experience at the zoo.

Day at the Beach

Hot season has decided to come a month early this year. The thought of 4 months rather than 3 months of biking around in triple digit Fahrenheit heat is a bit discouraging the second time round. One can imagine that in West Africa, on the fringe of the Saharan desert, it’s hot. But, you can’t really understand until you’ve been here and felt the strength of the sun. To be beneath it, is to believe some cruel joke has made you the recipient of all its rays.

A day at the beach was in order. To feel a slight breeze off the water or better, the cold current itself. To love the feeling of the sun on my skin, rather than despise it. To enjoy pinching sand between my toes rather than fixating on the deep cracks designing the heels of my calloused feet. It began like a day at the beach might at home. My friend and I got a hold of a small cooler, which we packed with ice. We strolled to the shore taking us through mango groves (the only positive element of hot season is about to ripen). We found the shore lined with young palm trees.

Quick geography lesson: Mali is a landlocked country. I may have romanticized this day. The ‘beach’ is actually the exposed bed of the Niger River, downstream from the polluted capital of Bamako. I also skipped over that in addition to the mango groves, I walked past numerous trash piles, or rather, through sprawling dumps. And after we passed the neatly planted palm trees, we trudged through another quarter mile of still water and donkey droppings. The dredging of sand (piled onto donkey carts) has begun again as the river has dramatically dropped to make it impassable but by dugout canoe.

Anyway, this didn’t take away from my awesome day at the beach. The Niger had the current of the lazy river at the water park. Between dips, I lay in the shade of a make-shift sun umbrella – an indigo died traditional piece of Malian cloth tied to four twigs twisted into the sand. How cool to be able to lay in the middle of the Niger on bare sand, looking at the large rock formations that protrude up around my city and later at the large African sun setting behind thick horizontal bands of dust. Best of all, I had my friend there for endless entertainment. Her swimsuit was a pair of black capris and a halter bedazzled with silver sequins. She goofs around as much as my friends at home, and sings to me my favorite Malian tunes. While I’d had such a wonderful afternoon, my friend Awaha could not say the same. She confessed to me a few days later that she was clowning around to distract herself from the irrational fear she had…of me. She had been fretting over whether I was really ‘Aminata,’ her friend she had gone to the beach with, or the river goddess Mami Wata. Apparently, my lighter-than-normal complexion and long dark hair rippling freely in the water was enough to convince I might be the ominous mermaid-like mythological figure. She told me she kept telling herself to focus on the fact I had two legs, not a fishtail, and therefore everything would be alright. I've been to the 'beach' a few times since, but my closest friend Awaha has still not summoned the courage to go alone with me.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


I’m pretty sure only Seinfeld could properly capture the comedy in my life. So my last bit of money was stolen, which left me with not even a a ‘tanna’ to my name (10 cents). As I’ve pointed out, food, housing, all that isn’t a problem. My only real need to maintain my sanity is phone credit. Kelly, my Peace Corps friend who lives 800k away, has been my lifeline this past year and a half. We were sent to Madagascar together with high hopes and overwhelmingly good intentions. The military coup saw us evacuated together in dismay with lingering, unfulfilled aspirations. We spent two weeks in South Africa mentally preparing for Peace Corps round two. Then, we were transferred to Mali together excited and full of nerves, wondering if we could do it all again. Well, at least we had each other for potential pity parties. So when I was out of money, I wasn’t surprised when she sent me $6 worth of credit via the phone. Of course, she’s struggling herself. So when she ran out of credit the following day, I simply sent her back a bit of the credit she’d sent me. Spending the little money we have in slightly superfluous ways, but then helping each other out even when we're both broke- its so wonderfully characteristically Malian of us.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fantaya be

So I’m broke. I think I had more money when I was 7 years old; my piggy bank filled with the money I made off recycling my neighbor’s bottles and cans. Plus I had a little enterprise with my brother. We’d find golf balls that had gone astray into the Santa Monica Mountains surrounding our Tarzana home. We’d wash them clean and resell them on the side of the road leading to the golf club. I understand now that my brother was the brains behind my small fortune at a young age. I’m on my own now, I’m 24 years old, and I have $3 to my name ($1 of which I just spent on this internet session – clearly, I know how to manage my money).

Lettuce is in season, and I absolutely love to stroll the streets at night, finding a woman selling food, and having a big bowl of salad prepared. The vendor has probably washed the leaves well (with chlorine), but unfortunately she uses the same hands to toss the salad that she does to take dirty coins in payment. I’m well aware of all this as a health volunteer, but I’ve convinced myself that the vitamins I’m getting from the leafy greens outweigh the costs of sticking to a purely carbohydrate based diet. My closest friend Awaha and I have being doing this like ritual for the past two months. We tear pieces off a long loaf of locally baked French bread to scoop up mouthfuls of lettuce covered in oil, vinegar, and Maggi (msg-filled boullion). Maggi is ubiquitous, used in every sauce, every meal, every time. The commercials are endless and feature a typically dressed Malian woman cooking in a modern Western style kitchen. It closes with the motto, « Avec Maggi, chaque femme est une etoile » (With Maggi, every woman is a star). I'll skip the feminist comment and just say Maggi targets their audience well.

Now, my current state of means is curbing my appetite. It is absolutely impossible to starve anywhere in Mali that I’ve been. Every single person invites you to share their meal. There’s nothing Malians love telling foreigners more than 'an fe' or 'chez nous' - 'every morsel of food is everyone’s food.’ But, my body is craving veggies! Luckily, as people can buy almost anything on credit, so can I (they simply promise to pay the amount a week or more later). So my salad lady is keeping track of what I owe her. You know, every white person here is looked at as a walking wallet. Seeing me buy lettuce on credit is a very confusing picture. Only my friend Awaha actually believes I’m broke. Of course, the girl has less than me. And yesterday, I borrowed her cutest ‘going out’ shirt and she told me at the end of the night that if I tried giving it back to her, she would pick a fight. I kept the shirt, but I felt a pang of guilt…the pang of recognition of my selfishness. Months back, she’d done my laundry for me and borrowed a shirt of mine. A friend hinted that she liked the shirt a lot, which angered me, and I immediately asked for it back. From my point of view, it was sneaky…offer to do my laundry as a friend because she could a better job than me, and then indirectly ask for a shirt of mine in return. But, now I’ve begun to see their point of view. I know she gave me her favorite shirt the other day and I know I never would have done the same.

I knew I’d learn a lot from Africa. I knew Africa (and Peace Corps) would make me self-reflect to uncomfortable lengths. I've provided a small, silly example, but in much larger ways, I’ve become acutely aware of my selfishness in the past year. But, becoming self-aware is one thing. Changing is another thing altogether. Well, at the very least, when I get home, I’ll be better at sharing my food.

(I'd like to stress that Peace Corps is not starving me. They keep us frugal certainly by American standards - and we are volunteers after all- but I earn more than the average Malian teacher. I’ve just been a little to liberal with my money the past couple months.)

Visit to the Marabout

I joked around in my last post about petty fights and the rumor mill that is my town of Koulikoro. But, there are more serious disputes/problems and I say this in reference to gender relations. I’m not going to hide the fact that gender roles are deeply entrenched here and men hold the power unquestionably. I'm sure it's the first thing that makes an impression on every liberal Western visitor. Men often have multiple wives. This usually causes the first shock (after seeing people eat with their hands). Certainly, this kind of societal organization must have had its advantages and maybe still does in the bush. But, in the cities, it’s hard for me to see that a practical reasoning still exists behind polygamy. People will say that the wives of one husband get along wonderfully as well as their children. But, from my experience jealousies abound in all directions.

The male domination is not just confined to the marital realm. The same friend I’ve discussed before (the one who threw the punch) I'll call 'Awaha.' Awaha had been staying at my house since the day she called me at 5 in the morning, crying, asking me to come outside my concession. She was there covered in dirt and belt lashes. Her ex-boyfriend had beaten her up and when he’d dropped her off at her home, her mother had kicked her out of the house for turning up in the early morning hours. Violence against women is a reality here as it is everywhere. I just don’t think I’ve ever come across it so openly and publicly before. I’ve been chatting with a friend on more than one occasion during the day while listening to a man beat his wife for all to hear. Just the other evening, I heard a whiplash break the silence of the night and turned to see a girl sprinting towards me. She practically knocked me over in order to hide behind my friend and I, as a shirtless man pursued with a belt raised over his head. There's not much gray area to this issue: men are allowed to hit women, but a woman should never lay a hand on a man. I can say the majority of people I’ve encountered, male and female, agree with this concept fundamentally. Perhaps, someone will say in a particular incident a beating was unjustified. But, he always retains the right.

So, back to my friend who turned up on my doorstep at 5 in the morning shaking, not knowing what to do with her arms...hold them together against the slight chill of the fading night or continue pointing out to me her various wounds. Like anyone would have done, I tried to be a good friend. She stayed with me for a few days. I listened, I made her feel at home, I kept her company. When this situation had occurred in the past, I tried to get her to talk to someone, a counselor of sorts, but to no avail. I thus resigned myself to play the simple role I was playing now.

There were other things I did to help, one of those ‘only in Mali’ ways of helping. Malians always use a third person intermediary for most disputes. Therefore, I was to go with another friend to talk with her mother and plead on her behalf to allow her to come home. But, even before that, there was a step to take to increase the probability her mother would concede; that was to go consult a marabou, Muslim holy man. One dusk, Awaha and I walked towards the outlying hills and found the Marabou she trusted. The Marabou sat across from us on a mat, surrounded by prayer beads, Quranic pages, fetishes, and traditional medicine (leaves and little soda bottles filled with anonymous concoctions). He was very serious and silent as he unfolded a binder filled with columns and columns of hash marks. He asked us to breath and whisper onto his pen, then asked our names and wrote them in Arabic. Beneath our names, he started to drawing columns of hash marks that flowed into more branching columns of hash marks. It reminded me of drawing evolutionary diagrams in life science. Then, he started telling us things concerning our finances and love lives and it started to remind me more of MASH (not the tv series, but the game we girls used to play mostly to predict who we would marry).

In order to realize a wish of mine, I was told to buy candies and peanuts for children and chew on one white kola nut. I helped my friend follow the instructions she was given to drive away her woes. The following evening, I built a fire so she could burn 6 red kola nuts and an old pair of shoes. All the items had been inscribed with lines from the Quran by the Marabou himself. When her mother conceded a couple days later, you know what she credited for hastening her return home. Her ex has also become less of a stalker and much friendlier in meeting. I’ve politely cautioned my friend that this probably isn’t a change for the long-term.

Fists flying

My community here is very dramatic and all too gossipy. Everyone is concerned with everybody else’s affairs because that’s what there is to entertain in a limited (small) society where jobs are lacking. The other day my girl friend ended up in a fight with another girl because she’d heard from her friend’s friend that the girl had talked about her behind her back. Whether or not the girl was guilty of the offense, the subject she was supposedly blathering about was not particularly wounding. She confronted the girl and, after a very brief, what I can barely call a ‘discussion’ between the two, the whole neighborhood had arrived to catch the insults and fists flying in both directions. It started with my friend leaning across an elder (who had been acting as the intermediary) and throwing a punch to the jaw. Maybe one could draw a parallel to a similar experience witnessed in middle school, but these girls are in their mid-twenties fighting over hearsay.

I admit fully to speaking in generalities, but I find Malians to be easily incensed, a bit hot blooded. But, what I love is that they mellow out as quickly as they are roused. A simple ‘sabali sa’ or ‘cool it’ works with amazing efficacy. Example: I was in Bamako about to take a cab. I noticed two other tubabs (foreigners) and assumed they were headed to the same neighborhood. I asked them to share a cab with me. They said sure, they had one ready at 2,500cfa…was that a good price? I said, listen, I got this cab guy going for 1,500cfa. So they quickly hopped in my taxi. At this point, their original cab driver ran over yelling in my face and was up in arms with our driver as well. It was a heated argument that certainly didn’t look like it was going to end soon. I raised a hand and said, ‘sabali sa.’ He looked at me, his shoulders dropped, and he listened attentively as I apologized that he had lost some business, but that we were obligated by reason to take the better fare. He smiled in understanding, blessed me, and walked away.

The story of my friend also fits this idea. It soon became clear that the story had been altogether fabricated – the girl was completely innocent of talking behind her back. My friend regretted her actions (which had included throwing the initial punch, later smearing the name of the girl’s family, and threatening by text message both the girl’s sister and cousin). She apologized to the girl and they were back on good terms all within 24 hours of the blow to the jaw.