When I first moved into my very small mudbrick house with a wattle and mud roof, and a packed mud floor that the US Peace Corps had rented for me in my assigned village of thirty some identical very small mudbrick houses, the first wife of the village chief shyly stopped by and apologized for the fact that my house had no door on it. I did not care as I had brought nothing of value with me other than my good intentions and hopefully the US Peace Corps financial backing for projects I might do. The other houses in the village had no doors and I wanted to live as they lived because I thought that would facilitate my understanding of them and my work with them. I was very naive not to realize that I myself was something of value, but I was completely focused on figuring out what good work I might do in this village.
The Chief's First Wife did not speak English or French, and I did not speak any of the numerous local languages. A small boy translated what she said into French and I could pick out enough nouns and verbs in what he said to understand her. I also understood from the glimpses of the elusive villagers that I had had, and by the shabby appearance of this woman working so hard to make me welcome, that the people I was to help were dirt poor. Nevertheless, each evening she brought me a bowl of millet porridge with slimy okra sauce and sometimes a couple of dry-cured black minnows on top that the US Peace Corps paid for as part of my food and lodging. Millet porridge is notoriously unpalatable, even animals will not eat it unless there is nothing else, but I was soon hungry enough that I could eat all of it. Millet is grown in Mali, West Africa because it endures the semi-desert conditions dependably.
The Chief's first wife and I were simpatico from the very beginning, and she was kindly when she told me that my name Ann, âne in French, sounded like donkey to them with all the associated meanings of "ass". Other village women firmly and with much embarrassed amusement backed her up on this!?! She gave me a Malian name of Samu Traoré, Samu after her and Traoré after the President of the Republic, Moussa Traoré. Samu tried but was unable to teach me how to pronounce Traoré, I just could not hear it and I could not speak it. My name would be simply Samu. To make me feel better she told me that my nickname was N-tigi May, meaning same name because we had the same name. When we saw each other we said, "N-tigi May, i ni ce, i ka kεnε wa?" (Bambara: "Same name, how are you?") It was fun.
Within days of my arrival the First Wife of the Chief and some of the other ladies in the village asked me to walk with them over to another house in the village, where a young mother had laid her infant girl on a square of thin material on the bare ground outside. We knelt around the baby and it was beautiful, glistening with oil, well-fed, loved, with pretty homemade beads tied around one tiny fist. It appeared to be just a few months old. I started to express how lovely the baby was, how well-formed, how healthy—when the First Wife of the Chief grabbed my shoulder and shook me a little. She made a sharp, sweeping motion over the infant girl's genitals, she was to be cut. All of the women mutely appealed to me, could I intervene? Could I save this infant from female circumcision—the genital mutilation that was to be done to her? These villagers were not Moslems but in that country all must adhere to Moslem laws and female circumcision was the law. I desperately wanted to save that baby, and thought carefully. but what authority did I have to tell the men of this village to do anything? I was a woman and I had scarcely spoken to any of the men in the village, in fact I had seen very few of them. I had met the Chief of the Village but he was standoffish, he did not speak French, and I did not pursue him as I understood the separation of sexes in this culture. Could I go to the police? There was a police shed of some sort along the highway into Ségou, which was really only a slightly larger village, but they were likely to all be the enforcers of the Islamic law, not heroes. I had seen their hard, curious faces as I rode by on my moped and I knew better than to entangle with them. There was no infrastructure for hundreds of miles, no government buildings, no hospital, no clinic, no school, and I had not yet discovered the Christian church near Ségou. Would the Christian missionaries have been able to save that infant girl from female circumcision? I had not yet met my Malian work counterpart(s), nor did I know where they were to be found. That would have been a difficult way to start my work relationships, by challenging the fundamental Islamic cultural law of female circumcision—genital mutilation.
That night that precious baby girl was circumcised. I know this because I listened to her scream into the night when she was held down and her exterior genitalia was cut off without anesthetic. For hours after her genitals were mutilated she whimpered shrilly and urgently, like a puppy being skinned, only this was a human baby in such terrible pain. I believe that she died because her whines fell silent before dawn and everyone left that house. I mourn her to this day even though I have never been able to think what I might have done to save her that first week of my US Peace Corps assignment to a little mudbrick village in Mali, West Africa.
This is what was done to that precious baby girl:
Horrifically, female genital mutilation, also known as female circumcision, usually includes nonmedical persons such as the local butcher, Islamic Imam, or an experienced woman cutting off a girl or female infant's clitoris, labia majora, and labia minora, leaving much painful, debilitating scarring, frequent infection, and sometimes closure of the urinary tract which requires more cutting to release urine. Sometimes this causes lifelong incontinence making that female a social pariah. If any tissue heals differently than the butcher wishes, it is cut off again. After giving birth a circumcised woman or girl may be cut again and resown to create a "tight" genital opening. Sexual function is lost, and some die. There is no anesthetic. Don't believe this? Look it up.
Caption: Mourning Female Circumcision—Genital Mutilation
by Annmarie Throckmorton 2019
These memories bring me to retching grief.