The writer’s weaving of first person into a larger social issue created a piece that is both lovely and haunting. It raises questions with no easy answer about cultural divides, a person’s role in the face of violence and the end of the innocence we have before our worldview is challenged. The lack of a tidy resolution made it rise beyond many pieces that try to tackle this subject.
—Maggie Jones, contest judge
Pégué village is a small community of rock and sand near the border of Mali and Niger. Yaya and I arrived on a market day, Dogon women buying and selling onions and tinned tomato paste, shriveled oranges carted north from Ivory Coast and dried fish. Chickens with bound claws squawked, immobilized but alive – how else to keep meat fresh in the 95? heat? Fulani women strolled in perfect posture with covered gourds of fermented milk balanced on their heads, scooping a ladle full for less than a nickel. It smelled like hay and tasted like sour yogurt only lumpy and warm, and usually had bits of floating debris to be picked out.
The odor of indigo permeated everything, sweet and sour all at once. Cotton is hand-spun and hand-woven then dyed and worn as wrap skirts called pagnes, some with fringes, some with crocheted edges, some with resist patterns that tell a story about the woman wearing it. The dye process is not unlike coloring one’s hair. Once again on this two-month journey, I thought about how far we go to belong.
Our living quarters were the usual: a low mud brick building with three small rooms and a dirt courtyard large enough to unroll a couple of sleeping mats or to cook in, walled against the narrow pathway. We were over the wall from several women sharing a compound. One of them, Fanta, had an older sister named Marietou, but the word ‘sister’ could have meant any number of biological or social relationships. Fanta swept out our rooms, brought us water and was enormously pregnant. For two days it was as if she held up her stomach with one hand when she entered our rooms with a broom to sweep with the other.
On the second day, I insisted. “Not with that belly of yours.” I took her broom and did the job myself.
She was the youngest of four co-wives and had been appointed to prepare, cook, and carry our meals of rice and chicken. She left the enameled pot of food with a cloth over it just inside our compound door. I hoped she kept a piece of chicken for herself.
The third morning, Marietou filled our water jug. She said to Yaya, “Fanta gave birth last night. She brought us a girl.”
“Mother and daughter are well?” asked Yaya.
“Yes. Yes. Yes,” said Marietou, “Everyone is happy.”
I asked to see her but was told to wait. I pulled a five thousand CFA note, about fifteen dollars, out of my bag. “Would you give this to the new mother? For the baby.”
Toward evening of the same day, Fanta hobbled into our compound, carrying her daughter. She smiled as she unbundled the girl from an infant’s blanket printed in English: Made in China. She counted for me ten fingers, showed me the baby’s clear eyes, even let me brush my palm over the pale down of hair on her head that would give way to dense, dark curls. Fanta gazed at her first child and was happy, her first live birth after two miscarriages.
Through Yaya’s interpretation she said, “I’ve named her after you.”
“Oh, Fanta,” I said. “You should give her the name of your mother or your grandmother.”
“No,” she said. “I’m calling her after my sister Rachelle.”
Was the naming because of the five thousand CFA?
Fanta said something else, but Yaya simply nodded and remained silent.
“What did she say?”
Yaya shrugged and shook his head. “It was nothing.”
“Je t’en prie, Rachelle,” I beg of you, Rachel. “It will upset you.” He closed his eyes.
“That is so unfair.” I stepped back, angry, shut out, again.
Almost two dozen languages and many more dialects are spoken in the Republic of Mali. Yaya spoke seven.
He looked up. “She wants me to tell you something.”
“I told her it wouldn’t be a good idea.”
“How do you know?” I was outraged. How could he speak for me?
“Because I know.”
He shook his head.
I stared at Yaya until he looked back.
“She used part of your gift,” he said, chin down. He stood directly in front of me, “to pay for the girl’s circumcision.”
“What?” I said.
Yaya placed his hand on my shoulder. The pressure from his fingers cautioned me to react carefully. “She wants,” Yaya said, “to thank you for her daughter’s children.”
“What?” I had paid for a baby girl’s mutilation and now the mother wanted to thank me for the bloody carving-up?
“Please,” I said to Yaya. I was shaking. “Tell Fanta I’m happy that she’s happy. That I will see her later.” I tried to smile. A day-old infant? Hurt, sliced up: excised. Fanta was proud and grateful. For my help.
Excision. The myth is as old as once-upon-a-time. In the beginning, Ama, God, came down from the heavens to procreate with the Earth. He wanted to make humans. But there was no place for Ama to have intercourse with the Earth until he saw a termitier, a termite mound.
A West African termite mound, built by insects, each working for the benefit of all, is a metaphor Dogon people use as a lesson about cooperative social behavior. With every meter down into the soil the termites excavate, the mound rises up equally from the ground. As the mound grows both deeper and taller, it permits the colony to increase, supporting hundreds of millions of insects in the honeycomb structure that may drop as far as forty feet below ground and rise an equal forty feet high. The shape of a termite mound is phallic and functions as a monument to male virility. Ama, in a jealous rage wanting to be Earth’s sole lover, knocked one down.
When Ama knocked down the termitier, the myth says, he removed the male competition and discovered a hole in the Earth as deep as the mound was high. Ama made a hermaphrodite into a female ready for intercourse. He fathered four sets of primordial twins and those eight ancestors were the progenitors of the human species.
In excising a clitoris, the male part of a female is symbolically removed. Only then can a girl become a woman and have babies. If she is not excised, a girl remains both male and female, and it is believed she will be unable to become pregnant. This is a part of the world where a woman’s wealth rests in her children. She must bear them. They are the contribution she makes to family life and prosperity.
In some places, excision is done to female babies as naturally as cutting the umbilical cord. In other places, it is done at puberty. A country mother, educated only by her own mother, even if she only half-believes the myth, can’t take a chance on denying her daughter her own babies. The local proverb, a barren woman’s husband will never enjoy grandchildren, speaks the truth though it is primarily the women, not the men, who perpetuate the practice.
I’ve never seen the operation, but I know how it is done. Whether she is a day old or twelve years old, the girl is held down on her back by older women in the village, and her legs are held apart. Her labia are spread, a sharp hook is used to pull the clitoris out as far as it will pull, and then a shard of glass from a soda bottle or a razor-sharp knife is used to slice it off. A towel and pressure stanch the bleeding, if she’s lucky, but the knife is never sterile. Sometimes infection further disfigures the girl. Nerves never meant to be exposed are forever exposed so that for some women urinating, menstruating, and intercourse are perpetually agonizing. Sometimes more than the clitoris is cut and the loss of blood is so great it kills the girl, right in front of her mother.
Until that moment of watching Fanta with her newborn, I had been unwilling to regard an issue that was not of my own cultural experience, and claim to know its absolute, unequivocal rightness or wrongness. A huge part of my education had taught me to respect the vast array of grey areas between black and white, to look through multiple glasses, to make allowances, to withhold judgment. But I understood, at that moment, the disconnect between academic abstraction, and life on the ground: how it was to see other sides of an argument and remain open to revision of one’s convictions, but also, to recognize truth from lie and to make a stand. Understanding that comes from experience has its own authority.
Yaya told Fanta something. I didn’t know what, and he walked her back to her compound.
Rachelle will grow up. She will look forward to an early arranged marriage of her father’s choice and a life among co-wives of jealousy and strife. Another proverb: co-wives are like cow dung: shiny only on the outside. She’ll carry a pestle in her hands and pound a mortar with barely enough millet to feed the child on her back. She will make decisions about her own daughters’ physical and emotional disfigurement. Women having undergone this insult might argue they’ve not been hurt by it, but they’ve had no way of knowing otherwise. No way to know that not every woman in the world is cut, and that these other women become pregnant and have babies just the same. Had every girl I encountered had this done to her? Through aid workers, health professionals and other internationals roaming Dogon territory dispensing information and healthcare, girls and mothers must know there is an alternative. And, yet, myth is more determining than fact, faith more than knowleldge. Maybe life’s playing field will never be level. But why is it so often the poorest woman who finds herself perpetually on the up-hill climb?
The more time I spent in Mali, the more I understood how complex the social and economic issues were. This didn’t salve my anger at the cruelty of hunger, a death from diarrhea, the barbarism of excision; these things exacerbated my fury.
I did not see it at first, could not have seen it – but I remembered a mentor telling me he envied me a first trip to Africa, which, at the time of Rachelle’s excision seemed long ago, and which I took to mean he appreciated the optimism and innocence of the new, that he well understood the progressively disturbing qualms that arose on subsequent visits.
I had no wish to hurt Fanta. I hoped she had coins left to buy food or to commission an indigo pagne for Rachelle’s dowry. I didn’t want to talk further about this to Yaya. He would have tried to calm me and I didn’t need calming. I wanted to talk to an English-speaker, someone with few answers perhaps, but with comprehension my issues. I bristled for a long while then moved on to other villages. I tucked this away and slammed shut the emotional lockbox I’d open only after returning home.
“Pegue Village” is excerpted from an as yet unpublished, non-academic, 90,000 word memoir of several years spent in Mali, working through UCLA in collaboration with the National Museum of Mali, and undertaking dissertation research among Dogon sculptors and blacksmiths.