Female Genital Cutting, Mali

If you don’t speak the Dogon language you unfortunately won’t understand too much of this film. I hope at some point to be able to put subtitles on it and re-upload it here. This film will also be a part of the “making of” documentary.

In 2007 I was travelling with International Relations student Steph from Australia through Mali, ending up in the so-called Dogon Country; the remote and rugged but beautiful desert-lands of the 200000 strong Dogon ethnic group. They are traditionally craftsmen, herders and millet-farmers, but increasingly reliant on tourism as a source of income. Amongst them are Christians, Muslims and followers of traditional beliefs, or any combination of those three. They are known for their special fairy-tale like mud-brick houses and granaries and the fact that they “bury” their dead in the ancient houses of the people they displaced (rumoured to be forefathers of the pygmies who fled south?!) when the Dogons turned up around 1000 years ago.

Female Genital Mutilation, as most people call it, or Female Genital Cutting, as I prefer to call it as it’s less judgemental, is practised in several parts of the world but notably in a narrow band east-west across Africa along the Sahel, the area of semi-desert just south of the Sahara proper. There are many types of FGC, from the cutting and sewing up of the inner vaginal labia to the removal of pretty much everything and the closing of the outer labia, so tight that only a pencil-sized hole remains for urine and menstrual fluids to flow out. The potential physical, mental and emotional repercussions in the young girls are many, but can include infections, tetanus, bleeding, infertility, HIV/AIDS, inability to enjoy sex, death, high infant mortality, and so on.

Equally there are probably many reasons behind the practice and they probably differ from place to place, and I only know of the reasons of the Dogons. They include tradition and culture, the belief that an UNcircumcised girl can become infertile, religious reasons and, perhaps most importantly, that an uncircumcised girl is basically seen as a slut, and especially so by the other women. FGC is to outsiders often seen as incomprehensible barbarism that couldn’t possibly be justified. My time with the Dogons gave me a slightly different view. While not attempting to condone this practice (I indeed work against it) I can now at least begin to understand why it happens. And you have to see culture as a whole, it’s impossible to dissect and pick out the pieces for analysis. The Dogons have survived for a thousand years in one of the harshest climates on earth and they have a culture that exists because of that survival and in support of that survival, and FGC is one aspect of that culture. You can’t just take it out and expect every other aspect of their culture to go on as if nothing happened. A fragile culture is like a fragile ecosystem, every part depends on every other part. This is one of the reasons why it seems like most Western “development programs”, which do not work holistically, are totally useless or even counter-productive, and this is also the reason why I would almost definitely not have supported such a project if it had originated or been too heavily supported from the outside. You cannot change someone else’s culture (whether it’s with propaganda or weapons), only those that belong to it can change their own culture. One of the biggest eye-openers for me was, contrary to popular belief that FGC is based on male control of female sexuality, that in Dogon Country it was largely mothers and grandmothers who were carrying out the practice on their daughters and granddaughters, to the disbelief and horror of the fathers and grandfathers. The issue was centered around female judgement of women, and getting through to women would be the key to solve it.

It was amazing to meet Meni and his association of 12, mostly women. Lutte Contre L’Excision de Femmes en Pays Dogon is, I believe, an officially registered association but without outside support. These were Dogons trying to change Dogon culture. Steph and I were touched by their story and soon realised we were in a unique position to support them. They told us that they had started talking about the issue of FGC with people in the villages, but without much success. (The issue is a big taboo.) So they started to sing about it, traditional music but with lyrics about women’s rights, AIDS, FGC, etc., and suddenly they started getting through to people and seeing results, at least in the villages closest to their home village. To take it to the next level, they wanted to make a film about it that they could tour around the villages. TV has a big impact it rural Mali, there are very few TVs around and people will watch whatever is on, including a three hour speech by the president. So how would they react when they see their brother, their aunt, their cousin talk about FGC on a TV? It could have a real impact. How could we possibly have said no? But how could we get people to open up and share their stories in front of a camera?

Well, that was Meni’s job. Steph and I tried to stay as far back as possible and allow it to unfold without influencing it too much. That’s one side of the story, and the other is that they hadn’t given much thought to how a film is made or how to give it shape, so they needed some guidance. But I think we found a good balance, I don’t think Steph and I overstepped the mark.

For a few days we travelled, sometimes by donkey and cart in the stifling heat, around the villages to film interviews. We managed to get amazing things on camera – important women (such as presidents of women’s associations) speaking frankly about the issue, men saying they would prefer an uncircumcised wife who enjoys sex, chiefs of villages stating their support in the fight against FGC, and, very importantly, the assistant of the Hogon, the spiritual chief of the whole people, stating that there is no religious reason why a woman should be circumcised and that an uncircumcised woman is allowed to marry. This is like “breaking news” that urgently needed to be broadcast to 200000 people who live more than a hundred kilometres from the nearest place with electricity, spread out in a big desert!

So Steph and I started a fund-raising campaign on the internet and successfully managed to provide the association with a DVD-player, a TV, speakers, a microphone, a generator and an ox and a cart to transport all of it around! And of course an edited film on a DVD, which is exactly what you can see above.

For the premiere, in Meni’s home village, people walked for hours and hours to be a part of the event. Hundreds of people gathered in front of the TV and there and then it felt like a small revolution was starting. Steph and I left soon after but we have received many reports of the amounts of villages they have visited and the thousands of Dogons who have seen it. We have received reports from third parties who clearly state that the film has had a massive impact and undoubtedly saved the health and lives of many young girls. It appears that real cultural change is happening in Dogon Country, thanks to Meni and his association, and a little bit thanks to this film.

Of course, in the desert fragile electronics don’t last long. All the equipment has broken down at least once but, amazingly, they managed to raise funds to replace it. I am not sure what is going on right now but I have requested a report. Communication is slow and difficult and has to pass through third parties. Luckily we have a trustworthy ally in a city not too far away, Dutchman Willem.

When I have more certainty about the current situation and what their needs are, I might start a new fund-raising campaign right here on this page. You can help right now if you speak French and feel like volunteering for an adventure – go to Mali, stay with Meni, send me a report. Get in touch with me. Mali is not risk-free these days but the media normally exaggerates, I wouldn’t be too worried. I can get you connected and get you support.

Regarding the film, I would like it to not only change culture in Dogon Country, it could also help to give outsiders a more nuanced perspective on the whole issue of FGC. The first step in that process is to add subtitles to the film on this page, and further to insert that film into a “making of” documentary that will help to put it into context for a western audience. A rough cut already exists.

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