Ending FGM needs a Cultural change

The assumption that culture is a monolith, fixed and closed, unchangeable and immutable, is what we call a principle of exclusion. Culture inherently is a dynamic, flexible and transformative process which rather than excludes, it includes even if, at some point it can resist to some changes. When it comes to Female Genital Mutilation, culture, along with religion, takes the leading spot. Within entire communities, from elders to the youth, from spiritual leaders to chiefs, they commonly agree that FGM is part of their culture and so almost impossible to change.
In my long work trying to understand the diffusion of FGM and the differences of its impact around the world, I met many women, men, girls and boys who had different opinions on FGM. But when asked “why do you practice it?”, though the bad health consequences it leads to are more an more recognized, the common answer is: “it’s our culture, we cannot deny it”.

We should have a look at WHO (World Health Organization) statistics to understand the dysfunctional proportion of this practice worldwide to realize how much the notion of culture is so mistakenly interpreted.

We do not need a treaty or a convention to acknowledge the irreversible health problems, which FGM leads to. Just as a mean of general understating, the main risks go from genital infections, to fistula, from heavy hemorrhages to complications during childbirth, from painful intercourse and menstruation to infertility, from septicemia to death. Without including the tremendous psychological effects of it: depression, sense of loss, lack of desire, anxiety, to mention some. The WHO estimates 140 millions of women victims of FGM in the world and 3 million girls at risk every year only in the African continent. FGM is one of those issues often misunderstood and full of stereotyped concept trying to define them. People, who are not familiar with FGM for one reason or another, assume that is just an African issue or that it is a religious demand from Islam. If we take a map of the world and use red color to mark the countries where FGM is practices, we would definitely see the red color spread all over the five continents. How? Simple, FGM is traditionally performed within communities in Africa, Middle East, Southeast Asia, some countries of Latin America, and in certain aboriginal Australian regions, (in the XIX century it was used in the US and Europe to cure hysteria, masturbation and lesbianism). In addition to that, there’s immigration, which has moved flocks of people from place to place who, in the diaspora, brought their culture with them, FGM included.
In culture, people represent and identify themselves. In culture, people feel “safe”. Practicing communities say it is tacitly known that girls must undergo FGM when they reach the right age, as a way out from childhood to womanhood because culture demands it. But what happens when culture generates violence. Yes, violence is cultural. Violence does not exist in nature, so it is a cultural construct and as FGM is a form of abuse as it violates the basic rights and integrity of girls and women, it is a form of violence. We need to acknowledge that there’s no other way to eradicate violence (any form of violence) if not through culture itself. It is a big deal, indeed, because it requires a lot of guts to discuss one’s people principles and at the same time open to different perspectives on issues, which past generations gave for granted.
Cultures change, they have always changed, if not in the short time in the long time of course. As Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once said, people make culture not the other way around, there’s enough room for a reflection on how changing a culture lays in the human being’s will and wish. What makes it so hard then, for millions of people across the African continent, and the rest of the world, to recognize the flexibility of culture, and the role of humankind in stretching ideas and imagination?
There are three main sources, which are responsible for change and resistance at the same time: forces at work within a society, contact between societies, changes in the natural environment. It is a matter of how people can deal with loss and invention, part of the changing pattern, against resisting instances like habits, integration and in group – out group dynamics.
When communities object that FGM is unchangeable, they should try and look back at their history and see how many things have been modified since they were moving from land to land looking for pastures for their herds. Somali writer Nuruddin Farah says it right: Today in Somalia ( which is also one of the countries in Africa with the highest rate of FGM) – people use I-phones and I-pads, is that not a sign of cultural change? So why they can’t change also their perception of FGM? Wasn’t the great Mariama Bâ the one who said in her famous novel “A so long letter”: we should eradicate the bad of each culture and preserve only the good.
In a digital world where information and knowledge is accessible on a mass scale, where the “other” become more easily the mirror for ourselves, it is more difficult to think at culture as a static unchangeable thing. If culture shows the symptoms of not changing, in a case where FGM is still justified as “cultural”, it is perhaps because is used by politics to control over women’s lives, suppressing gender equality, continuing to support the patriarchal system. Eradicating FGM is a call to revise culture, to change politics through culture (and not the other way around). It is about promoting a holistic vision through which occupy a new space and have impact, where tradition and innovation can stand side by side.
Things get tougher when it comes to religion. In Middle East, Asia and in some African countries FGM is referred as mandatory of Islam, which is something I always knew being untrue for personal and professional reasons.
During my researches and meeting people from different countries, different social classes and different cultures, I realized how FGM in many African countries, for example, is still highly practiced among low class people, who do not have access to education, information and modernity.
While in Southeastern countries the practice is prevalent in urban areas and among middle class people who have regularly access to higher education and progress.
It seems that the idea of “religion” as a justification for FGM is homogeneous and goes far beyond social class, while the “pure cultural” justification has more impact where people do not have enough chances to confront themselves with what information and education carries. But what if we start considering religion as a cultural product too? Also in this case the change will necessarily need to come from a cultural change by admitting first of all that there’s not something called “female genital mutilation” in the Quran nor in any other holy book and that eventually culture made it up through free interpretation.


My Body and Skin

"What is your body? What is it to you, to others and to the whole world? Who makes decisions about your body and why? Here’s one woman’s deep thoughts on these fundamental questions." (Editorial Notes from Pambazuka)


I’m my body.
My body is my space.
In my body 
with my body
I sing
I think
I laugh
I cry
I dream 
I narrate
I love 
and live.

My body is
My body 
is playful and cynical
ironic and dramatic
obedient and wild.
My body
is my home
is my country,
not a house
for someone’s 
My body is multiple,
it doesn’t always fit
my mood
my desire
my wish.
It doesn’t always approve 
my choice
my statement
my ideals.

I am my body.
When naked, my body speaks all the languages, 
even the ones which human memory can’t recall
when dressed it can speak one language only
faltering on starchy letters and harsh words;
when naked, my body speaks with honesty and compassion
humble and human,
when dressed my body masters excuses to delay the conversation
making it stiff in a geometrical understanding;
naked my body feels home
dressed is always in a foreign land;
in my poetry it fits completely

In my body I find the world projected
in its most unpredictable symptoms
in my body I foster peace and revolution
I grow anger and forgiveness
like sides of the same seed,
for the better end -

In my body I fight a hundred wars:
against the fathers 
who assumed I had to reduce my flesh to look appealing
carrying the custom in silence 
to avoid the shame thrown on me
if tempted to oppose to the very blade of pain.
Because I fight, 
now, the cut that every month bleeds between my legs 
is my poem dedicated to all the girls and women 
who can start considering making a choice 
over being subjected to someone else’s
regardless the rejection they would face from their own people
- time is a chance that must be given to everyone.
I fight
against my husband who decided to wear the crown of gendered power
and for this, dug his armed body in my secret garden
opposite will and wish.
I fight for my son and my daughter 
To oppose the standards they’re trapped into.
In my body I stand for you
as you carry heavy weights at the edge of your possibilities
trying to connect the RIGHT in your disconnected life
In my body I speak for you 
since fear has made you orphan of words to express your SELF.
In my body 
I name the nameless
I translate the unknown
I uncover the unseen
I clean my myth out of the dust of time
And re-write a new epic on the footsteps of my mother’s.
I do not prostitute my body 
for any idea which doesn’t grow 
from my mental condition
...whatever it is.

In my body
I am WHO
WHEN happens within me
all the time
a life time

I’m my body and my SKIN.
I wear my skin 
to embrace the world around me
to welcome the freezing indifference 
as well as the kindest attention.

I wear my skin as a shield
cutting crossing lines quivering in assumption
I dive in the womb of the city
that’s where I breath in the eyes of the unforgiving people
who never grope for an understanding 
streets keep going their ways 
parallels undo 
snatching pics from 
peeping dreamy minds
tangents cross the very limit of my thoughts 
I’m not afraid of the shadows 
nor of the blustering wings 
of an unfed crow
waving in a blind sky
with my body I unpack all my fears
and spread them around
in my mortal and imperfect state

Undoing the fatal demand
that world endorse 
I plot my body and my skin
to engage with others

I’m my body and my skin
and refuse the central
I am my body and my skin 
and inhabit edges 

Perspectives matter …

I wear my skin 
and meet you at the corner.
Corners are set for thinkers and beggars
observers at the backstage
where threads are undone
regardless of the script.

There you‘ll find me.

Originally Published  on Pambazuka 


A Talk with Nigerian Writer Okey Ndibe

What does it mean to be an immigrant in the U.S today? What happens when a man who achieved professional skills finds himself on a different path, incapable of fulfilling his responsibilities to his family back in Nigeria? How do circumstances lead people who try to stay above water to drawn in the gigantic ocean of frustration, despair and failure?

Foreign Gods, Inc. is with no doubts a brilliant novel by Okey Ndibe, who explores the depths of the human condition when exposed to uncontrollable circumstances.
Ike Uzondu, the protagonist, lives in the U.S and doesn’t fit within the context of the American dream, which has made him a cab driver while he could work as a financial accountant in Wall Street. The immigration experience from Nigeria to the States forces the nature of his life experience to challenge the only seemingly possible chance left to get back on top: Ngene, the war deity of his homeland.
Foreign Gods, Inc. is also confronting Ike on a different level, not only as an immigrant in America but also back in his home country, trapped in a complex net of corruption, religious conflicts and political instability.
A story of despair, hope, family bonds, morality and faith all crafted with irony and linguistic shades which perfectly switches from fiction to storytelling.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA - In your novel you portray Nigeria in its many contradictions, moving the reader toward different threads: religious tensions, gender inequalities, corruption, political instability, migration. You chose to tell the story of the protagonist, Ike, who is a Nigerian immigrant in the States in the real momentum when he feels under pressure, a very delicate stage. You’ve skipped what is usually represented in stories about immigrants, how they arrive, how they adapt. What made you choose this perspective?
OKEY NDIBE – Each story is a unique organism, and demands its own parameters, its own inner logic and tensions. The subject I set out to explore had little to do with some of the concerns you enumerated. I was interested in a story in which my protagonist, having undergone the inevitable moments of gestation and primary initiation as an immigrant, is facing new kinds of challenges—trials that test his inmost moral and spiritual mettle. I was intrigued to learn how such a character might respond to what he perceives as his darkening circumstances.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA Ike, the protagonist, is a Nigerian immigrant who has gained a degree in the USA and fails to get the position he studied for the very moment he stumbles upon the reality of seeking a job, because of his “accent” which doesn’t fit the American standard. So it’s like to say America does prepare me to be a lawyer, a doctor, a finance manager, but when it comes the time to show my achievements and my skills, there’s still something missing just because I’m a foreigner. Immigration is a huge cruel experience. Does Ike feel a sense of being betrayed by that same country which gave him the opportunity to be more than a simple cab driver? How much of this sense of betrayal mines the identity?
OKEY NDIBE – I’d like to clarify several points, to avoid misperception. Being a cab driver is as dignified a way to earn a living as any other profession. The only time when this is not “true” is when, as in Ike’s case, he’d much rather be doing something else. Otherwise, there are lots of cab drivers who lead fulfilled, rich and satisfactory lives. And there’s nothing “simple” about being a cab driver. The other clarification is that the immigration is not always, or even primarily, “a huge cruel experience.” In many cases, it’s a lifesaver—which is why many people, including some who could be happy in their natal spaces, emigrate. Ike’s situation is by no means an every-person experience. I’d like to see Ike as one character who is done in by his accent. One could create another character in fiction—or find one in life—whose accent, even when stronger than Ike’s—becomes a key to all kinds of opportunities. Having said that, I’d leave the question of whether Ike feels betrayed to the impressions of each reader who encounters him.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA - Referred to the difficult experience of so many immigrants who often hide their real struggle in the foreign country, Indian author Kiran Desai said that immigration is like an act of translation where the possibilities of dishonesty are immense. Do you agree with this view?
OKEY NDIBE - I’m certainly intrigued by Desai’s claim. I like the openness and mystery of it; in fact, I admire writers who come up with such clever statements. There’s much to like—and agree with—in her statement. But one could also playfully broaden it by asserting that life itself, not just that sub-sector called immigration, is an act of translation susceptible to dishonesty (and, why not, honesty as well).
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Ike is drawn as a failure. He failed in marriage; he failed the expectation back home. He became a drunkard and a gambler. Stressed in his solitude almost at the bottom of that huge hole of failures, he decides to give himself a last chance to gain in a different way the wealth he was supposed to achieve through his skills and university degree. He then decides to steal Ngene, the war god from his Village to sell it to “Foreign God, Inc.,” a huge New York gallery that sells statues of deities from around the world to rich, bored, mostly American collectors. Choosing a symbol of traditional belief from his own country to mend Ike’s failure in the land of opportunities is provocative. Does Ike feel he has paid enough for his struggle by stealing Ngene and the symbol it represents? Does he feel justified in face of the unjust treatment he received in the USA?
OKEY NDIBE – I doubt that Ike would think of his treacherous choice along the lines of being justified. Only a fool or a mad person would steal a deity quite so gleefully, in chest-thumping self-justification. If anything, I’d suggest that Ike desperately tries to avert his gaze from the pernicious and far-reaching implications of his choices. It’s not an easy path he’s taken. For sure, it’s not a path that lends itself to gloating and self-justification.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – You also write about a Nigeria where traditional beliefs and Christian fundamentalists take the stage in raising tensions among people. What is the real impact of traditional beliefs in Nigerian societies? And how much do the Christian Pentecostal Pastors take advantage of it, preaching against traditional beliefs, promising prosperity and getting rich through getting more and more worshippers?
OKEY NDIBE – On the surface, at least, traditional belief systems are embattled, endangered, and on their way to extinction. But that’s only on the surface. In reality, aspects of traditional belief systems have grafted themselves even on Christian and Islamic creeds—the dominant faith paths in Nigeria today. I think, for example, that many miracle-hawking, prosperity-promising pastors employ the language and psychology of traditional diviners. Like traditional diviners, these pastors invoke the chimera of demonic yokes, witches and wizards, and human-made diabolism to explain sicknesses, unemployment, childlessness, the inability to find a spouse etc., etc. Even though I’m a Christian, I’m deeply troubled both by the ways in which some pastors, priests and imams use God’s name to exploit the gullible and desperate and the violence visited on those who are animists or have chosen not to believe.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Uka, the pastor who also intends to destroy Ngene, can be recognized in the many pastors who preach in Nigeria and who do really represent the symbol of wealth and flamboyance in the country. They drive SUVs and other posh cars, live in villas, and are escorted by the police. They register their brands; they have fat bank accounts overseas. Some have houses in the UK and USA, and own private jets. And among the most influential worshippers there are politicians. What is the relationship between politics and these pastors’ churches?  Do you believe that this presence and relationship between the two contribute in the lack of indignation in front of what corrupts Nigeria?
OKEY NDIBE – I’ve written elsewhere—in a piece for the New York Times—about the abominable nexus between religious hypocrisy and political corruption in Nigeria. I’m curious about the fact that most Nigerians would self-identify as devout Christians or Muslims. What then accounts for the intolerable level of corruption in the country? One explanation, for me, is that many Nigerians—especially those who hold and abuse exalted positions—have invented a deformed species of Christianity or Islam in which the mere profession of faith suffices—without any attendant evidence of ethical and moral transformation. A public official who steals public funds and then uses a portion of his loot to build a church or mosque must believe that God can be bribed! That’s how weird it’s become, this matter of faith divorced from morally sound behavior.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – I’m curious about Ike’s feeling for his mother who is one of Pastor Uka’s most committed congregants. How did you personally relate to Ike’s feelings knowing that his mother is lost in her beliefs?
OKEY NDIBE – There’s a moment of irony in Ike’s profound sense of dismay at his mother’s complete susceptibility to Pastor Uka’s rogue schemes. Ike himself, whether he realizes it or not, is kin to the scheming pastor by the measure of their shared moral code. After all, Ike is in his hometown to steal a deity.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Your novel also focuses on the role of women in Nigeria. How much does the character of Regina, for example, reflect the reality of women in contemporary Nigeria? What will contribute in the next generation to emancipate women liberating themselves from traditional beliefs which often accuse them of being evil and witches especially when their spouses fail or die?
OKEY NDIBE – In many parts of Nigeria, women are still viewed with profound suspicion, or as somehow inferior to men. Part of the task for every Nigerian parent is to inculcate in their daughters the sense of their equality with men and dignity. In my novel, Ike’s former girlfriend, Regina, is accused of using “witchcraft” to cause her husband’s demise and death. On the basis of this unsubstantiated, hollow accusation, she’s stripped of her late husband’s assets. Women as well as enlightened men should rise in opposition to the practices—some of them culturally ingrained, some of recent provenance—that belittle, degrade or dehumanize women.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Without giving away the end of Ike’s adventure, was the end you wrote the one you envisioned from the beginning?
OKEY NDIBE – A novel is interesting to me precisely because it represents a creative adventure, especially for me as the writer. The adventure of writing Foreign Gods, Inc. led me to the way the novel ends. I thought it’d produce the right cathartic effect and leave the reader a bit restless, a bit unsettled, somewhat—yes—unnerved, even. I’m intrigued by the element of mystery in the way the novel ends.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – The narrative of your novel goes from fiction to storytelling, making the whole of it sweet and easy to engage with. How important is the presence/influence of Nigerian Storytelling Tradition when you write?
OKEY NDIBE – I’m not sure that an animal called “Nigerian Storytelling Tradition” exists. Nigerian writing, yes. As far as storytelling tradition goes, I’m more aware of the tradition from my hometown of Amawbia, which is part of the broader Igbo tradition. As a child, I was lucky to be told numerous folktales by my parents as well as aunts, uncles and elders. As I grew older, I took a deep interest in the rich harvest of stories that are told at every Igbo occasion—marriages, funerals, naming ceremonies, age grade meetings, at the shrines of deities, in bars, etc.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Author Susan Sontag said that “no book is worth reading that isn’t worth rereading”. I’ve read somewhere that you read Things Fall Apart 40 times. Can you tell us from the first to the 40th how your feeling about the book changed?
OKEY NDIBE – Each rereading—whether of Things Fall Apart or Ngugi wa Thiongo’s A Grain of Wheat, or Soyinka’s The Man Died—each rereading of a book rewards the reader with new perspectives, fresh insights, deepened illumination. A great book invites interminable re-readings. But each consequent immersion, if you’re a careful reader, has the beauty, magic and surprise of a first encounter.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – You wrote a powerful essay on your memories about the Biafran War; how do Nigerians relate today with that chapter of their history? Do you believe there’s reticence in speaking and writing about it among the elders? And what about the generation which came after, what do they know about it? How important is keeping a collective memory about the past?
OKEY NDIBE – I’ve argued that Nigeria’s current crises—from the carnage inflicted daily by Boko Haram to the malaise of corruption—owe their roots to the Biafran War. And specifically to our reluctance to reckon up its meaning, its ethical demands on us, its imperatives. My fear is that too many Nigerians are hostile to the project of memory. We say “nothing spoil,” or “no wahala” or “it shall be well,” or “God is in control” exactly at moments when we ought to be most concerned, when the sky is close to falling on us. We thought that catch phrases like “no victor, no vanquished” or “reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation” would suffice to put the ghosts of Biafra to sleep. We’re living the nightmare today of that misconception.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – There are so many young African aspiring writers, most of them have degrees in law, in economics in management but have also that fine sensitiveness for the written word. It’s hard making a living by writing, but what would be your best advice to those who need to make a living and still pursue a calling in literature?
OKEY NDIBE – I always tell people that a desire for riches should be the last reason they take up writing. Yes, a few writers break out and make a fortune from writing, but they’re the exception, not the rule. Besides, those who make a fortune from writing are not necessarily the best or most important writers. I’d write because I’m passionate about it, because I believe I have an important story to tell—and the world of literature would be a bit impoverished without that story. I’d write because it’s impossible—out of the question—NOT to write. If you feel so passionately about it, then, inevitably, you’d find the time and space to write. And let’s not forget the luck as well.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Were you an early reader? Which books would you read as a child or teen? What was the first book which represented a mirror for you and, let’s say, gave you permission to write?
OKEY NDIBE – Without question, I was an early reader. And I was a kind of omnivorous reader—novels, magazines, cartoons, the Bible—any text in sight! I became enchanted the moment I learned to read. I fell in love with the rhyme narratives of Humpty Dumpty. I treasured Victorian literature. But it was my discovery of African writing—Achebe, Soyinka, Ngugi, Ekwensi, Nwapa—that truly made a magical impact on me. And yes, Things Fall Apart was that book that sparked the enchantment.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – In the last few years, many books by African writers have been published in the UK and USA: Binyavanga Wainaina, Chimamanda Adichie, Teju Cole, Tendai Huchu, Adhiambo Owuor, Chris Abani, NoViolet Bulawayo, Jeffrey Renald Allen. Strangely enough, these writers were first published by Western publishers, not African publishers. Can you share your reflection about the incapacity of the African publishing Industry to invest in African authors? What could be your advice to African publishers?  What do African countries need to empower their literary treasures?
OKEY NDIBE – I’ve often registered my dismay about this anomaly—that it’s European and North American publishers that, for the most part, “discover” Africa’s contemporary literary talent. It’s all part of the economic arrangement of the world, where financial power—as well as the arbiters of global cultural taste—reside in London, New York, Brussels, Paris and such locations. African leaders, political, business and cultural, ought to start playing the game that would bring their continent into greater reckoning in the world. In that process, African intellectuals, writers and publishers have an important role. I’d like to see a wider readership emerge in Africa to support the continent’s wealth of creativity. But all of this is tied to the expansion of a middle class that treasures leisure and recognizes the importance of their society’s cultural output and imaginative enterprise. It’s a complex problem, tied to economics and other considerations, and will take a long time to address. But we’d be indifferent to this problem at our peril.
VALENTINA A. MMAKA – Books in Africa cost, and are not affordable to the majority of the people. There’s a large diffusion of digital books which can be read on a mobile phone for example. What do you think about it and do you envision the future of the traditional book in African countries?
OKEY NDIBE – Digital technology offers great opportunities for widening readership, in Africa and elsewhere. That’s clearly the wave and trend of the future. I also think we should be thinking, for now, of ways of producing affordable print copies of books for readers. Africans must read and read, as if their lives depended on it. We must read more, or risk perishing.

Okey Ndibe teaches African and African Diaspora literatures at Brown University. He earned MFA and PhD degrees from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has taught at Connecticut College, Bard College, Trinity College, and the University of Lagos (as a Fulbright scholar). He is also the author of Arrows of Rain, and has served on the editorial board of Hartford Courant where his essays won national and state awards.
His website is http://www.okeyndibe.com/
Originally Published on Authors in Africa 


FGM Narrative Workshop

Logo designed by F. Mwanaiki
It has been a long time since I was literally swamped in writing my new book on Female Genital Mutilation. It was an hectic summer during which I met so many extraordinary people, artists, activists, educators, politicians, religious leaders. I feel privileged because my writing and my activism create impact and this is what I work for, being part of the global change making with ideas, imagination, creativity, committment and hard working. 
So as the book is in the Publisher's hands ready to be edited and published (updates soon) I'm happy to announce that the FGM Narrative Workshop is officially working.

It is an artistic and educational global project which works on different platforms, live and online.
It is addressed to:
- schools (students-teachers- mediators)
- social workers
- immigrant communities in the diapsora
- local communities in rural and urban areas in FGM practicing countries 
- artists
- organization and associations

In 2015 the whole project will have a permanent base in Africa.

To know more about the FGM Narrative Workshop visit the SITE
You can also "like" it on FACEBOOK
You can "follow" it on TWITTER