When Ngalali, a member of the Massai people in Tanzania,...
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a harmful practice that involves removing or damaging external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. Miatta* was visiting family in Sierra Leone when she was subjected to FGM at just 12 years old.
I am a 19-year-old from Georgia that loves shiny things. I like dressing up me and my sister. My parents are refugees from Sierra Leone who fled early on during the war. They had never gone back to Sierra Leone since they moved here, but once the war was over, they decided to take the whole family back to visit. I was 12. My mum was so happy with being able to finally go back after so many years and see some of her relatives. I was happy as well, but my baby sister didn’t want to go; she is the typical American girl that believed Africa only has huts and everyone walks around naked. She thought she would have animals running after her so she kept telling my dad that she did not want to go.
When we got to Sierra Leone, my whole family was waiting at the airport, and let me tell you Sierra Leonean people can cry. My mum was crying, her dad was crying, her sisters, cousins and every dang person in her family. I looked around and almost everyone that was picked up at the airport had a reason to cry. I thought it was funny. Once they were done with their tears and embracing each other, they finally noticed me and my sister.
Evidently, we came to Sierra Leone during “bundu” season, based on what my grandmother said. When she mentioned “bundu”, my dad flipped; he told them that he will not let them touch me or my sister. He told my grandmother that bundu was illegal in America and he can get jail time for doing that to his daughters. I was confused so I asked my mum what bundu was and she told me that it was a crudely performed operation to remove the clitoris from adolescent girls. It forms a key part of the initiation ceremonies held by powerful, women-only secret societies that prepare young girls for adult life, marriage and motherhood in Africa and other places in the world. My mum gave me an explanation of how bundu is performed. She said they have bundu societies throughout Sierra Leone and the societies are not entirely bad – they do have a good meaning behind them. She said a bundu society is where they train young girls to become women. Bundu societies are also where girls are circumcised every year. I was amazed and also relieved that my parents were not going to let them do that to me. My mum said she knew how it felt because she has been through it and to this day, she is living with the consequences. She doesn’t hate that it happened to her; she sees it as a reason to not let it happen to us.
My mum and dad decided to visit my father’s village, and since his parents died during the war, they didn’t think it made sense for us to go with them. They left us in the care of my grandmother. I would be mother assistant until she came back.
As soon as they left, my grandmother went and spent all the money— which my dad had given her to care for us—in order to initiate us into the bundu society. I tried to fight it but my uncles threw me in the car and they took me to a bundu forest along with my sister and my grandmother. I tried to call my dad but his phone was not working. A lot of girls were already there.
My grandmother told the Majo (the head of the bundu society), that they should not wait on us because if my father came back he would take us away and she can’t have us running around like this. So they went ahead and held me down. I resisted, I yelled profanity that no one understood. I screamed and begged them to leave me alone but they were just laughing, saying “Americans”. It was very terrifying and mentally exhausting.
While they held me down, the Majo told me that bundu helps women become amazing child bearers. She said because of her reputation of having a good hand, she performs over five hundred bundus a year. I didn’t want to hear that, I just wanted them to leave me the hell alone. The Majo took her blade and started slicing my genitals. She only wiped my genitals with herbs before starting. It was painful, very painful. I cried for my mum and dad, I screamed hoping they will hear me. I know they would have never left us here knowing she will do this to us.
The most painful part of the process was when they finished with me, I watched them do the same thing to my six year old sister. I failed as mum assistant and it killed me watching them cut and slice her. I had laughed at her for not wanting to come here, but even I would not have wanted to come. She does not even speak clearly, like how could they have done this to her? How do you do this to a six year old?
My parents stayed on their mini vacation for two weeks and I know they called my grandmother to check on us and I am sure she constantly lied to them. When they got back, my grandmother told them where we were and my mum said my dad burst into tears. He couldn’t take the pain, he blamed my mother for trusting her mum. My dad went and got us from the bundu forest as soon as he got back. When I saw him, I was happy and sad at the same time. I knew that it wasn’t his fault but I just felt like blaming the whole world for what happened to me. As I cried, I saw him cry; he yelled at the Majo and told them that god will never forgive them for doing this inhumane act to girls.
“My daughters’ lives were ruined; this didn’t turn them into women, it actually ruined their womanhood.”
My dad took us straight to the hospital. My sister was very pale and the doctors said it was because of the blood loss. We both became anemic because of the bleeding. We were in the hospital for two days and my dad stayed by our side every second. Before we left the hospital my dad changed our flights and we left Sierra Leone right away. My mum thought my dad was blowing the whole thing out of proportion but he kept saying “my daughters’ lives were ruined; this didn’t turn them into women, it actually ruined their womanhood.”
After getting back I always wondered about what happened to the girls I spent those two weeks with, so I asked my mum. She told me that we missed the fun part of the bundu forest. After the wounds heal, the girls are taught how to do domestic skills like cooking, washing clothes, ironing and everything that has to do with being a good wife and mother.
I want others to hear my story because I don’t want other girls to go through what me and my sister went through. The bundu society bonded me and the girls that I met there because I know what they went through and I constantly thought of them. My dad didn’t want me and my sister talking about our experience; he told us that he can get in so much trouble and the government won’t understand. They will just lock him and my mum up and that we will end up in foster homes. I didn’t want that for me and my sister and I love my dad too much to make him go to jail. We made a vow then to stay quiet about it. But now I want others to hear my story because I don’t want other girls to go through what me and my sister went through.
I had nightmares about my experience and I jumped at the thought of what happened. Whenever I am alone in my room I cry. I decided to join rooms with my sister, so we can keep each other sane. She needed me as much as I needed her, all I wanted to hold her forever and make sure nothing else ever happens to her. Me and my sister grew a bond unlike any other. My mum saw the way I was taking care of my sister and she said the bundu society brought responsibility out in me. She didn’t realize it had nothing to do with the bundu forest or what I learned there. It was more about what I saw my sister go through. I will never let anything happen to her ever again.
Learn more: FGM in Sierra Leone and secret societies
Learn more: What is "vacation cutting"?
*name has been changed
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