When they cut

FGM, Tribal Sands, Dorcas Gwata

A light wind blows in the Midlands and gives way to a hospital scent that I am so familiar with. I sit in the waiting room, fussing over my long skirt and head wrap. I am nervous, with a hunger to learn. I am shadowing Alison, a Specialist Midwife, who runs a Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) Clinic here in the Women’s Wing of the Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham.

‘So why are you interested in FGM?’ she asks

I rumble on about my background and interests in Public Health, African Cultural Practices and my clinical role in a Central London Accident in Emergency and Trauma centre, and for or a moment we are just two frontline clinicians exchanging experiences of working in Nurse/Midwifery led services in the NHS.

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Alison explains the four types of FGM, their impact on women sexual, menstrual lives and the medical complications that can arise when a woman has been circumcised. She hovers her hand over the big map of Africa and parts of Asia, and stops over Southern Egypt where the practice is said to have originated from many centuries ago. The practice has historically and culturally been viewed as a good way to preserve young girl’s virginity, control their sexual desires, and prepare them for a good marriage. In some cultures, it was believed that if a baby touched its mother’s clitoris, in childbirth, the baby would be doomed to an unfortunate life.

Historically, circumcised women were viewed as ‘cleaner’ than those uncircumcised. The cutting is traditionally done by older women, who are respected and experienced in cutting girls. In some countries the event is usually ceremonial, festive and celebrative. The girl is flowered with presents, as older women sing and dance around her. When the cutting ceremony begins, the singing and dances increases in volume to drown out the young girls cry.

Alison’s monthly clinic follows up pregnant women who have previously had FGM, or have been ‘cut’ as most in the African community prefer to call it. Her clinic addresses any possible medical complications that might arise at delivery if a woman has had FGM and how these can be managed.

‘In this hospital, we are very much used to looking after women who have been cut’ Alison reassures our first patient.
She engages her patients with deep sense of compassion and cultural competency. She listens and then gracefully addresses the law and options of care for each patient who has been cut.
‘Be careful about the terminology you use when assessing women’ Alison tells me. ‘Use the term that the patient uses’ she concludes. Most women are more comfortable with the word ‘circumcised’ not mutilation.

Those who have been ‘cut’ find the term ‘FGM’ offensive and degrading. Mutilation’ most say is associated with brutality and incomprehensible cruelty. Cutting, they say is best understood in the cultural context in which it occurs. Some will justify it as a means of cleaning and preserving young women for a fruitful marriage, and defend the practice, others accept that the practice of cutting girls is dangerous, harmful and violates their human rights. Peer pressure to undergo circumcision is common, whilst some young girls have died whilst attempting to circumcise themselves. In the some cultures, women who are not circumcised can be denied land ownership and social value within the community.

Women who have been circumcised generally embody a strong sense of social resilience, and most try to get on with their daily lives. Psychological trauma can be difficult to detect and is often managed by an embedded cultural resilience that instills, strength, and an ability to cope.

There are some debates on whether men in practicing communities are prepared to marry women who have not been circumcised, and argue that any level of awareness needs to include men. Activists such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Waris Darie argue that we should not dance around razors and culture. FGM is not culture, it is violence’ says Leyla Hussein, a Somalia activist who recently challenged the political correctness around FGM. When we fail to raise these issues within our society due to political correctness, we fail the very vulnerable in our society.

Nurses, midwifes and GP must be therefore be aware of FGM as child abuse, and rise above political correctness in screening and managing young girls at risk of being cut.

 

Dorcas Gwata

Tribal Sands. All rights reserved 2014

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Seminar with Binyavanga Wainaina at London School of Economics

On a cold winter’s evening at the London School of Economics, I stumble in with the student crowd and grab one of the last seats as the seminar room fills up beyond its capacity. Pan-Africanist, carefree, gay rights activist Kenyan born, Binyavanga Wainaina is holding a lecture called ‘We must free our imagination’, an extension of his recent public series in which he challenges Africa to look beyond her horizon, way beyond the boundaries set by scholars, colonialists and religious leaders. A timely discussion on the backdrop of recent gay rights laws and debates in Africa, that have whipped up more dust than the continent can bear.

It is sometimes difficult for a reader to contain themselves in the company of one of their favourite writers. I wanted to hijack the evening and tell him how much I liked his highly acclaimed article ‘How to Write About Africa’. By that single article, he set the standards for readers and writers alike. I admire that greatly.

He lends himself to the audience, the room is still, pin drop silent as he begins to read from his new unpublished book. Punching the silence, he draws us back and forth with narratives from his experiences in South Africa and New York. His reading is smooth and animated as he normalises the challenges of his own migratory experiences. Bearing all, he reveals his own vulnerability as he captures the dark moment he received a telephone call informing him that his mother had passed away whilst in he was in Johannesburg with no visa. Emotional, yet comforted, I too recall that dark Diaspora moment in Edinburgh when I too received a similar call about my mother in Zimbabwe.

His childhood narrative in middle class Nairobi is filled with laughter, as he moves into his sexual experiences with women and then the eventual love he would feel for a man many years later, in what is clearly an unusual African discussion. The rarity of these discussions in our African communities however, is as perplexing as it is necessary. I marvel at the possibility of this event happening at all, aware too that an event of this kind is unfathomable in most African countries.

‘Have you forgotten about our culture’ a young Ugandan female student asks him when the floor opens for questions.

‘In our African culture we do not talk about sex’ she adds.

‘Yes, we don’t talk about sex but we are busy doing sex’ Binyavanga replies.

His response is measured and dignified and awards him a full round of applause. I applaud them both for addressing the elephant in the room and the courage to critically challenge our African beliefs. The two big African elephants, HIV, sex and sexuality make for uncomfortable discussions especially when viewed through cultural religious lenses. Binyavanga pushes all boundaries and suggests that if Africa is to rise, it will need to rise to these debates.
The questions pour in, he asked why he chose to ‘come out’ in an online newspaper in South Africa rather than in big international media sources. Animated and jovial, he describes his decision making processes which are as personal as they are considerate.

‘I had nothing left to loose’ he adds after describing the death of his parents and then his close friends who died of AIDS.

Why now? Someone else asks. A half loaded question with an undertone that suggests, ‘who carers’
I ask him how this ‘coming out’ experience might play out for a gay African woman compared to an African man.

In Africa it is very easy for two African women to live together without sexual suspicion, they are a safer bet, less threatening to society, he answers. Then he accepts he does not know all the answers as these are not his lived experiences. I admire his sense of balance.

The evening rounds off with a book signing session. Queuing up, I recall a similar moment when I queued up for book signing by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie last summer. In the vicinity of great African writers.

Dorcas Gwata
Tribal Sands
December 2014

Nigerians!

‘Nigerians are everywhere, loud, domineering, flamboyant, untrustworthy and in your face ‘ the rhetoric goes on. As a fellow African I defend this, not because I have an invested interest in Nigeria’s oil or Nollywood industry, in fact I have never set foot on her soil, however some of the greatest people I come into contact with through my work and social life are in fact Nigerians. Diaspora life has a way of bundling us Africans together; we can tell each other from miles away, way before that African accent gives way.

Chimamanda Ngozi Idichie, Tribal Sands
Meeting Chimamanda

Step back from the dust, heat and our everyday bickering and look more closely at the country and its people. Cradled in West Africa, surrounded by French speaking African countries, diverse tribes, cultures, languages, and far too many chiefs and swaga. Oh and the food! With a population of over 166.00 million people, the house is pretty full and so you are bound to get noise, a lot of noise, and the volume is not about to be turned down anytime soon, on the contrary.

With one of the highest literary levels in Africa, yes they are indeed everywhere, athletics, fashion, design, film and business. Just this year the counties lead economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala was proposed for the World Bank Presidency. That’s huge. Her success speaks volumes on how far we have come as African women and the continuing challenges in the continent, especially for African women and children.

Nigeria, the home of African literature. As readers, where would we be today if the giant of African literature, Chinua Achebe had indeed lost his copy of ‘Things Fall Apart’ in transit from Nigeria to the London publishers? Achebe lived by his writing, he wrote from his heart, he had a way with African literature and we as readers dwelled and longed for more. Chinua Achebe did what he came here to do, he wrote, and so he will sleep well. His literature lives on.
Over the years the country has thrown other amazing writers at us. Helon Habila, Wole Soyinka and Ken Saro-Wiwa a writer and activist executed for stand on the environmental damage in the oil rich Niger Delta region. His gruesome death, a stain on all humanity.

If you haven’t read the ‘The Three wives of Baba Segi’ by Lola Shoneyin, then you have never laughed, and if you want to be challenged as a reader, tuck into Ben Okri, listening to Sade Adu and then ask a Diaspora again how much they miss home.

If Africa should have a Princess, it should be the amazing and utterly beautiful Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie, who dropped out of Medical School to purse her passion for writing, then nailed her country’s history of the Biafra War in ‘Half a Yellow Sun’. I often missed my tube stops when I was reading her book ‘Purple Hibiscus’. Some books should never end, ever! I am in awe.
“I encourage you to write about Zimbabwe” Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie said to me at an event in London early this year. My heart skipped a beat, and I feel a duty to write responsibly.

Chiwetel Ejiofor shines in every film that he does, recently embodying the role of Patrice Lumumba in the play ‘A Season of the Congo’. Nigerians are brilliant in theatre, they dominate the African theatre scene in London, I hand it to them.

Next time you are in a hospital (touch wood) look more closely at the name badge of the African Doctor and Nurses looking after you. They are likely Nigerian. Look at the staff going the extra mile in patient care, they could well be African.

Look at the domestic staff serving food to patients, she may well be Nigerian. Follow her to church and watch her dazzle the whole congregation with her figure hugging, African prints cut to measure, matching handbag and shoes and an empire of a head dress artistically erected on her head as the war of African head wraps descends upon London every Sunday. Diversity at its best.

Nigeria has its own challenges (name me a country that doesn’t). In Sub-Sahara Africa Nigeria faces a huge challenges with terrorism and the recent Ebola crisis raging around the region. It is the only African country that has not yet eradicated polio. There are huge efforts at grassroots level, driving initiatives, but that stuff

On why I decided to work with vulnerable people

I am a Zimbabwean Public Health Specialist, writer and news analyst. I have worked and traveled across Africa and an active member of many global health platforms.
I studied Public Health and Gender Violence at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and have a specialist interest in gang culture, mental  health and HIV.  I was awarded Nursing Standard Mental Health Nurse 2015 (Please Click here details)
I was awarded Vodafone World of Difference award in 2013 and worked as an Mental Health Advisor for AFRUCA Charity, providing consultation on communities affected by FGM, Human trafficking, witchcraft brandishing.
I am a African Affairs News Analyst for Arise TV and have appeared on BBC Africa, ITV, BBC London Radio and Press TV.
When not running grassroots programs, I am likely to be found reading, viewing art, scanning African fabrics,cooking African food, on adventure travels around the world, in yoga,or, capoeira or cycling across London.
I am a Bantu woman and am well versed on many Bantu cultures and languages.