Someone had written excision on the calendar. I kept glancing at it, wondering how it got there. I thought about asking Fatouma, but she was working diligently at her desk. I didn’t want to disturb her, and I wasn’t supposed to talk about excision anyway. No one was supposed to talk about excision, not openly, though now I was no longer sure.
I’d only known Fatouma a week. New to town, I couldn’t afford to alienate her. We were supposed to work together at Bembèrèkè’s Community Center, where she was the head social worker, charged with running the region’s infant growth monitoring program. Bembèrèkè, population 15,000, was a sprawling, modern metropolis compared to the tiny, remote village where I’d lived the past nine months in the heart of the northern savanna, 120 kilometers from the nearest paved road and over 200 kilometers from a city. Originally, I’d craved such seclusion. I’d thought Yéma would be peaceful and failed to consider how insularity might close the village to outsiders. The midwife I’d been so excited to work with would not work with me, and would not say why, so I was left to guess that I’d offended her. Perhaps my whiteness caused her to distrust me. Her reticence made it difficult to tell. She was the most powerful woman in the village and my host mother too. I’d hoped in time she’d accept me, but as the months went on, the isolation grew so acute that I asked to be reassigned to a place where being white might be less strange, which is how I wound up in Bembèrèkè, a village on one of Benin’s major routes, where passing cars could be heard within earshot of the office I shared with Fatouma Baguidi.
It was the slow part of the month. The baby weighings had been done, over a thousand babies weighed within two weeks, their growth percentages marked on charts with green, yellow, and red lines for overweight, average weight, and underweight. For Fatouma, though, the paperwork had just begun. Stacks of baby-weighing records littered her desk. Did she want any help? I asked. No, said Fatouma. This was a one-person job. She marked everything in pencil first, then traced over it in pen. She couldn’t afford to make mistakes. My eyes wandered to the scuffmarks forming a ring around the once-white wall just above the floor. The smudged, soiled pattern reminded me of a story by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in which the husband locks his wife in the attic because she needs rest, or so it is said, and she acquiesces because her husband and doctor are only trying to do what’s best for her, but the longer she’s confined the more she begins to see a small woman crouching behind the yellow wallpaper close to the floor, trying to get out.
Back in Peace Corps training, we received a Xeroxed information packet titled “Female Genital Mutilation” that the Inter-African Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices (CI-AF) developed. FGM refers to three degrees of genital cutting: clitoridectomy, excision, and infibulation, often performed as a rite of passage. The cover featured a little girl sobbing, her parents holding her down, and an elder woman wielding a jagged knife above her. The scene was set beneath a ceremonial paillotte, a lean-to structure reminiscent of a sacrificial tent in the Bible. We went through every page. Here is a normal vagina. Here is an excised one. The illustrations resembled comic strip images. Our trainers, all of whom were Beninois, said photographs would be too graphic and turn people off, undermining CI-AF’s efforts to win hearts.
A trainee asked why excision is practiced, and the trainers looked at each other, taking in deep breaths, which made me think the question wasn’t easy to answer, or that they worried about how we might hear what they had to say.
“It’s superstition,” said Leonie. “Some traditions believe girls are innately wanton and that cutting off a girl’s clitoris will keep her from cheating on her husband.”
Excision is often referred to as “the purification” or “cleaning a girl up.” These euphemisms are widespread: among the Igbo in Nigeria the practice is referred to as “having your bath” and among the Bambara of Mali as “washing your hands.” Our trainers told us to be careful. Africans believed whites had turned their people against the practice, so it would be best, they said, if we didn’t talk about it and left the work to CI-AF, unless we wanted to alienate ourselves.
Excision wasn’t practiced in the South, but the Bariba in the North practiced it, and it was in the North among Bariba that I would live, first in Yéma, where whole days would pass without a single car blowing through the village. There we didn’t talk about excision at baby weighings. Not in January, February, or March. Not in any month in the whole Ouassa-Péhunco region, of which Yémasõ was a part, was excision ever on the calendar, and it didn’t occur to me that it could have been on the calendar, or that not having it on the calendar was as much a choice as having it there was. I kept imagining CI-AF pulling up in their NGO trucks, or arriving more discreetly on mopeds. I imagined the sound of the exhaust pipes, tearing through the quietude as the mopeds approached and suddenly came to a stop in the center of the village and two people stepping off, an African man and woman in traditional clothes, not Western ones, he in a boubou and she in a complet, asking whoever passed where they could find the village wise men, because if you want to get anywhere, you have to respect protocol. You have to speak with the king, mayor, and délégué too. And you can’t just come for one visit and that’s it. CI-AF would have to visit many times over many years and establish relationships. My imagination didn’t go much further than that: two people from the outside coming to start a conversation. But they never did.
I’d lived in Benin nearly a year when I moved to Bembèrèkè. The first time I met Fatouma, she strode right through the gate surrounding my yard, outraged that no one had cleared the grass before I arrived. A troop of machete-wielding girls shuffled in behind her and stood amid the green, tall and buoyant as a meadow. When I tried to tell Fatouma it was all right, that I liked grass, she shot back that it was not all right. Grass camouflaged snakes. All of it had to go. “Kpé kporo!” she called to the girls, who bent obediently beneath the punishing sun, clearing the grass by hand and blade until all of it was gone.
Fatouma pressed the buttons on her calculator one at a time, ploddingly, her glasses low on her nose. All morning she’d been tallying up the babies within different growth percentiles for the report she’d submit to Catholic Relief Services, which funded the program.
I looked at her, trying to discern whether she’d written excision on the calendar. Never before had I seen excision written anywhere but in the CI-AF packet. Over the year since training, I’d given up on seeing it, yet the calendar reminded me that I’d wanted to see it. I’d wanted to see EXCISION graffitied on the walls of dressmaking ateliers and marché stalls, in as public a place as the billboard in Parakou that exclaimed, “PROTECT YOURSELF FROM AIDS. USE CONDOMS.” AIDS was another taboo subject, one that some Africans believed whites had invented so they wouldn’t have sex—and who could blame them?—yet there it was, AIDS, right in the middle of the city’s busiest street. And here was EXCISION, on a poster-sized calendar, a calendar anyone who walked into the office could see, a calendar marked “NUTRITION LESSONS 1998,” right inside the door, taped to the side of a large metal cabinet. The topic for the month’s baby weighing was written in each of the twelve little boxes: Protein, Calcium, Vitamin A—the usual—except for Excision, marked on the calendar as the first topic of the year.
I needed to talk to Fatouma. But how? Would she tell me it was none of my business? I fretted for days. A recent phone call with my father invaded my thoughts. He asked if I knew about Alice Walker’s activism against—“Oh, I guess what you’d call ‘female circumcision’,” he said. I did. One of the trainers had a copy of Warrior Marks: Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women that Walker co-authored with Pratibha Parmar. The book documents Walker and Parmar’s journeys as they made a documentary film about the practice of FGM in The Gambia. My father had recently read an article in which male African leaders called Walker’s mission to end this rite of passage a form of imperialism. They took umbrage with the term “female genital mutilation” too, saying it stigmatized those who practiced it. My father demurred from having an opinion. He reasoned that female circumcision was a cultural tradition he didn’t understand. I sometimes wondered if I should demur too. In the mid- to late 90s, a wave of cultural relativism engulfed not only my college classrooms, but also those who were close to me, well-meaning liberals who often shrank from judging cultures that weren’t their own. At the 1995 International Women’s Convention in Beijing, when First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton proclaimed, “Women’s rights are human rights,” her statement was considered controversial. I couldn’t help but sense that I walked among a people who just weren’t ready to confront the widespread sexual violence against women and girls and our complicit role in perpetuating such violence and aggression. I stayed silent as not to embarrass or betray anyone. Four years earlier, when I was seventeen and touring Trinity College in Connecticut, my father and I came upon the thick outline of a body, chalked onto a brick pathway on the main campus, the outline like one you’d see at a murder scene, the word RAPE written in large capital letters right across the chest. A casualty. I felt relieved, grateful someone was speaking, and stopped to photograph the body. “Jeesh,” said my father, and looked away. Not until I was twenty-three, the year I left for Benin, could I tell him I was raped when I was fourteen. A boyfriend. “That asshole,” my father said, clenching his fist. “I was raped once. Mentally, I mean, at work.”
I looked at the calendar every day, my throat constricted, wary of offending her. If Fatouma supported the practice, I couldn’t bear it. Finally, I had to ask.
“Fatouma, I see you talk to the mothers about excision.”
“Of course,” she said reproachfully.
I swallowed, unsure whether to say anything else. “What do you say to them?”
“Shouldn’t it be obvious?”
“No, it isn’t obvious. I’m asking you because I don’t know.”
Fatouma took off her glasses and turned to look out the window. Tiny leaves flickered on slender trees behind her as she consulted with herself. I feared my ignorance had already exasperated her. When she turned to face me again, she folded her hands on her desk, poised to deliver a lesson, and as was common with Fatouma, she skipped preambles and went right to the matter.
“An excised woman doesn’t have her labia. You understand labia? Les levres,” she said.
“Yes,” I nodded.
“She only has scar tissue there, where the baby comes out, and scar tissue doesn’t stretch. That’s very dangerous. Do you know the word hémorragie?” she asked.
“Yes. It’s like our word—for blood.”
“Okay, then, there tends to be a lot more blood with these births. Mothers hemorrhage because the scar doesn’t give. There’s internal bleeding.”
Her candor stunned me. All the months I’d waited for CI-AF I sensed excision as something near, but closed off, kept at a distance, like neighbors in their houses, a scream with no sound coming out. Then suddenly Fatouma flipped on the volume, her words so clear I was pinned to my seat, listening in near disbelief as she described how it’s done, the ointment used to loosen the clitoris and the knife made by the local blacksmith. But when she referred to excision as “an operation,” I had to stop her.
“Excision is considered an operation?”
“Yes,” she said gravely. “Doctors will even do it.” When families move to the city, they seek out a doctor to excise their daughters. In villages an elder woman traditionally performs the operation. Every time Fatouma used the word “operation” it jabbed at me. As if excision were medically necessary. As if excision were equivalent to cutting out a calcium deposit or cancerous mole. As if excision would rid the body of a malignancy when the malignancy is in those who would tell a story about girls being dirty.
“I was excised,” said Fatouma. “They paraded us around the village like something great was about to happen. They tell you to be brave. They say it’s like touching fire. If you can touch fire and not flinch, you’ll be strong. Can you believe that? They think you don’t know anything, but I knew everything that was happening to me when they did it.”
“How old were you?”
“Ten. I was ten. Isn’t that crazy? They can just take a girl like that, and do that, because they think you’re just a girl. They think you don’t know what’s happening. But I knew everything. I bled so much I lost consciousness. For three days I didn’t wake up. My father was so afraid he ran all over the village calling on healers. Nothing worked. They thought I’d die, but one day I opened my eyes. No one knows why.” Fatouma shrugged and looked away. “I guess we thank God.”
“I am so sorry,” I said with the sense that nothing would ever be adequate. I asked what her recovery was like.
“Ho! To urinate? Oh, it was painful, very painful. For the rest of your life you have trouble urinating. And they tell you you’ll get used to it, but they don’t know anything. And periods. You don’t know how painful—and odorous! That smell! A girl will wash and wash. She’ll try so hard to clean herself to get rid of it, but the smell can get so bad that some of these girls are locked up in the house because the family is so ashamed. She can’t go out smelling like that.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
Fatouma nodded faintly and pressed her forehead. Self-conscious as I was at that age, I wondered if another woman should be there in my place, an older and wiser woman who might know what to say. I only sensed I was supposed to hold a space, a space that let Fatouma’s story breathe, uninterrupted. I imagined other women with her, women who gathered water at wells, women who shared stories at wells and on the banks of rivers, women who shared stories when they were together, away from men. Women, facing one another, speaking and listening and speaking and listening. This was the only image I could conjure of healing.
When Fatouma looked at me again, a hesitant half-smile rose to her face. She was trying to look okay. “I was the first and the last,” she said softly. “After me, my parents were scared and spared my sisters. They all still have theirs. I was the lesson in my family.”
When I returned to the house I gazed out back, suspended between what I could hear and what I could take as pale pink light faded into the gray of dusk.
In the whole nine months that I’d lived in Yéma only Epifani had ever told me anything personal. She didn’t belong in Yéma. She wasn’t Bariba. Being white, I didn’t belong in Yéma either, but it was my assumption that Africans would go to each other with personal matters, not to any Westerner. So the day Epifani said to me, “I’ve been looking all over for you; I need to talk to you,” I couldn’t believe my ears. No one here needed to talk with me, not unless that person wanted money, but she just plunked down beside me as if we were old friends and started talking about how her husband had gotten on top of her the night before and said, “You’re not done yet.” He meant she wasn’t done having babies, but Epifani already had four children and didn’t want any more. She wanted me to tell her about birth control. Her “boss,” as she called him, wouldn’t wear a condom.
This birth control question twisted uncomfortably inside me. She knew I’d worked at a maternity clinic in the U.S., and I knew she could get the pill or an IUD in Parakou or Nati, but my education, which included a healthy anxiety toward hundreds of years of imperialism, taught me not to impose Western values on anyone outside the West, even when it came to birth control. To which ideology did I owe loyalty? If I gave her the information she wanted, would that make me a neocolonialist? And if I refused to help her, would I be perpetuating the patriarchy? Finally, I decided to relate to her as a woman and told her her options. The whole thing was confusing. Epifani checked in on me daily, just to see how I was doing, but I didn’t quite trust that a friendship could be forming between us because our trainers had told us we probably wouldn’t have any friends in Benin, not true ones. “No African will confide in you. You’re just too different,” they said. At first I didn’t believe them. What was the point of being here if not to make friends? How do you understand anything about a place without friends of that place? But then I moved from training in a town where other whites lived to Yéma, where I was the only white person for miles, and being white was like having a conspicuous condition: my whiteness took over what people saw when they saw me, their reactions to my body so overwhelming that every time I stepped outside, I held my breath as if swimming underwater for the entire length of a pool. Just a little longer. You can take it a little longer. I pretended they couldn’t see me, yet I need not have pretended. They couldn’t.
Fatouma was supposed to take pain without flinching, too. I learned this about Bariba women the first time I saw one give birth. The woman trembled and sweat, clenching her jaw, her neck cords taut as she held herself down, but she made no sound. Bariba were warriors. Their men fought on horseback with bows and arrows. From the hills they shot at invaders and kept them out. They made fun of women who cried out. In Yéma, the village called Epifani “The Skinny One Who Talks.” The Bariba had another saying: “The woman who talks has no house.” But something must have broken in Fatouma. Her fury rattled the air like a powerful, enormous bird, a bird whose giant wings rustled on the periphery, haunting me, as I faced the world determined to hold myself together with steady composure. I would not be rattled. Let no one know you’re troubled. Years would pass before I could recognize that maintaining composure was a way of maintaining the very order that teaches women to be silent. To break from my own silence, I began to ask questions that I had previously barred from my thoughts. For instance, what is it like to be ten and held down? What is it like when the people holding you down are your mother and father and your neighbors and family are all around watching? And no one does anything? Maybe they think they shouldn’t meddle. Maybe thinking about another person’s pain reminds them of their own. Maybe they believe that line from Steel Magnolias: “What does not kill you makes you stronger.” But what if you’ve proven you’re strong, and you’re alone? Because I think if you’ve been traumatized but also trained to have a strong bearing, you go through pain alone, and when you go through pain alone, that pain will estrange you.
For a long time I wondered why Fatouma would tell me something so personal. In my mind I was not the person she was supposed to tell. I was the white woman she was supposed to keep at bay. Then I wondered if women who have been violated somehow know one another, if we detect something in one another, viscerally. But what happened to Fatouma was so physically final that the impulse to connect her experiences to mine ultimately struck me as self-absorbed. My own shadow kept telling me outsiders have no place, no legitimate role. Be humble. You don’t belong. I had to stop listening to that voice, and once I did, I could see that Fatouma told me her story because I was an outsider. I wouldn’t judge her for speaking against excision. I wouldn’t judge her as her own culture might judge her. Wouldn’t judge her when she said, “Where there’s evil, better speak it!” Wouldn’t judge her pain or her rage. I would never tell her, as her own people might tell her, that what happened to her was God’s will.
The next day in the office Fatouma said, “They say women who still have theirs feel pleasure. Doctors, the white doctors in your country, do they have ways to help women like me feel pleasure again, sexually?” She asked tentatively, perhaps afraid to give Hope too much space to breathe.
I didn’t know the answer. But in a couple weeks I’d be on a plane to the U.S. for a wedding. While I was there, I told her, I would do research and tell her if I found anything.
“Thank you. It would mean a lot to me and many women like me to know if there are other ways we could feel good, sexually.”
Back home a new thing called the World Wide Web had yet to arrive at my father’s in upstate New York, but a friend who lived as a nanny in a Manhattan penthouse had it. When she plugged in the dial-up cable, the computer screeched and crackled as if straining to transmit signals to frayed wires in outer space. A few sources said some women have breasts so sensitive they can orgasm just from having their nipples caressed. My friend and I looked at each other, amazed. Was that really possible? We kept searching for alternatives, but when we couldn’t find anything else and kept saying to each other, “Breasts? Is it really that simple?” we joked that the boys we’d been with didn’t know what they were doing. The truth, however, for me at least, was that I didn’t know what I was doing either. Any sexual knowledge about my body or assertive sexual behavior would have been confirmation that I was a harlot and deserved what I got. The research I was doing now could be justified because I was doing it for Fatouma, not myself, and that made it acceptable.
“Do you ever touch your breasts?” I asked Fatouma when I returned. We were back in the office, facing each other. The blinking leaves in the forest behind her flickered with light. Never in my life had I spoken so directly about sexual pleasure. No, said Fatouma, she did not touch her breasts. “Do any other parts of your body feel good when they are touched?” I asked. She looked bewildered. She didn’t think so.
“Why don’t you try?” I said. I wanted her to feel pleasure. I wanted the healing to be that simple.
Fatouma nodded uncertainly as a shadow came over her face.
The Republic of Benin outlawed excision in 2002. When I visited Bembèrèkè that same year, a former colleague told me excision was still practiced clandestinely; the law wasn’t enforced, though in a few villages CI-AF had organized ceremonies where those who performed the cutting turned in their razors and knives. When I asked Fatouma what she thought of the new law, she looked toward the ground, balling up her hands, as if I’d violated her by asking the question. Don’t push hesitant women, I told myself and didn’t press. Mothers soon arrived with babies strapped to their backs. Ten women became twenty, filling the benches beneath the shady paillotte where they sat in a circle, waiting for a workshop on making soap to begin. Fatouma lit up among the babies and soon had one in her lap, a little girl with gold studs in her ears. “A meerimo? A meerimo?” she said to the girl, pointing into the distance. You see? You see?
Erica Cavanagh’s nonfiction has appeared in the Missouri Review, North American Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Gastronomica, Off Assignment, and elsewhere. She teaches nonfiction writing and food studies at James Madison University. More of her work may be found at ericacavanagh.com.