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Sierra Leone’s ritual society breaks away from female mutilation practices

In Tonkolili and Port Loko, a new type of ritual is emerging in which girls are initiated by the Sowei, but are not “cut”

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Sierra Leone's ritual society breaks away from female genital mutilation practice
Bondo women's secret society dance during a performance in Kroo Bay, Freetown. (Photo by LYNN ROSSI / AFP)

Wearing a fading Mickey Mouse T-shirt, her knees hugged to her chest, eight-year-old Musu Kamara sits in a corrugated shack in Sierra Leone’s capital waiting for her initiation into a secret society.

Kamara will live for two weeks in the bush with a sisterhood called Bondo.

There, she and other girls will learn ritual dances and chants and how to confront spirits as the group is groomed for adulthood and tribal duties. And Kamara will also have to endure female genital mutilation.

For youngsters in Sierra Leone, the end of the school year often means passing through initiation into a Bondo or, for boys, an all-male group called a Poro.

The ceremonies have deep roots and are jealously guarded in many villages, where they are defended as a vital moment in life.

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But many of the children who take part in them will be scarred, physically, as well as mentally.

Boys, whose retreats can last months, may be sliced on the back with razors to leave the “mark of the teeth” of a spirit that swallows them.

Girls face “cutting”: the removal of their clitoris, a practice found in other parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia — and increasingly reviled.

Social status –

Secret societies have an entrenched role in tribal and political life in Sierra Leone, as in other parts of West Africa.

Membership confers social status and respect, even opening doors to tribal chief posts and government jobs.

Joe Alie, a professor of African studies at the University of Sierra Leone, said more than 90 per cent of the country’s population was involved in ancestral and secret rites.

Bondo and Poro societies “still play a leading role in the social, religious and political life” of communities, he said.

But President Julius Maada Bio’s government faces a delicate balancing act over how to manage these influential organisations and their traditions.

The pain of ritual, especially female genital mutilation — FGM — is increasingly under attack.

Even Bio’s wife, Fatima, was caught up in the debate early this year.

She provoked a huge backlash after publicly declaring she was not against FGM, which practitioners call circumcision.

The first lady later said she had been misunderstood and that she condemned the forcible excision of girls aged under 18.

Yambundu Oile, who has initiated thousands of girls like Kamara, said “cutting” was only part of the initiation.

“It is not only to circumcise them, we also teach them to be a woman, to cook, to respect the elders,” she said.

“After the initiation, they return to their community to continue their education until their marriage.”

Under pressure –

The societies are under pressure after a string of kidnappings and even deaths, forcing the government to temporarily ban them. 

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Now, rituals cannot be imposed on minors without their consent, and any discrimination for non-membership of a secret society is prohibited. 

But analysts see little impact.

“The challenge is to eliminate female genital mutilation, but not the Bondo culture,” which plays an important role in society, says Rugiatu Turay, a former minister who supports a ban on FGM.

“We have more Bondo sites than schools in Sierra Leone… But it’s hard to convince people to reform their practices because politicians fund circumcision ceremonies to win votes.”

Despite this, the outcry against FGM is leading to change.

“I want none of my daughters to undergo genital mutilation, which leaves a mark for life,” says Mabinty Bangura, who endured FGM 20 years ago — a ceremony whose pain, she said, “never seemed to end”. 

“One woman covers your mouth, another is holding you by the chest and two others by the legs,” she said.

“Then they spread your legs, remove the whole clitoris and apply a tissue impregnated with medicinal herbs.”

No-FGM rituals –

In the northern regions of Tonkolili and Port Loko, a new type of ritual is emerging in which girls are initiated by the Sowei — the head of a female secret society — but are not “cut.”

It is the initiative of a Swiss aid worker, Michele Moreau, who in 2010 became the first European to join a Bondo, taking the name of Shema Roko. 

“Twenty-five Soweis have vowed before leaders to stop the circumcisions. They replaced their red scarves with yellow ones, creating the ‘Yellow Bondo’,” said Moreau, whose association supports the schooling and health of young girls. 

Since then, around 700 girls have been initiated in Tonkolili without undergoing FGM. 

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Some applaud the initiative as a way of enrolling secret societies into the fight to stamp out mutilation. 

Others, though, oppose it as disrespectful.

“I hope that circumcision continues, but with the consent of the girls,” said Sento Kamara, a Bondo member. “It is part of our culture and our tradition.”

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East Africa News

International election observers flag concerns over Mozambique’s polls

The country voted in general polls on Tuesday after a campaign marked by violence and claims of electoral fraud

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International election observers flag concerns over Mozambique polls

International observers on Thursday said Mozambique’s election was conducted in an “orderly manner”, but expressed concerns about voter registration irregularities and “an unlevel playing field”.

The country voted in presidential, parliamentary and provincial polls on Tuesday after a campaign marked by violence and claims of electoral fraud.

President Filipe Nyusi’s Frelimo party — which has ruled Mozambique since independence in 1975 — is widely expected to again beat its civil war foe, Renamo, a former rebel group turned main opposition party.

Election day was seen as largely peaceful, but tensions have risen with uncertainty over when the results will be released.

The final results must be published within 15 days of the vote, but the electoral commission has indicated a provisional tally — which had been expected on Thursday — would not be issued.

Ignacio Sanchez Amor, leader of the European Union’s OSCE observer mission, said “voting procedures were well-implemented” on election day.

However, he said the fact that there were no observers in almost half of the country’s polling stations “did not contribute to the transparency of the process”.

Amor added that “an unlevel playing field was evident throughout the campaign”.

READ: Mozambique votes in tense election after violent campaign

“The ruling party dominated the campaign in all provinces and benefited from the advantages of incumbency, including use of state resources.”

The Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) said it was regrettable that irregularities in voter registration had not been addressed before the vote.

Local non-profit observer groups had reported the presence of 300,000 “ghost voters” — names not aligned with real voters — on the electoral roll in the southern Gaza province.

“Key aspects of the process such as the security challenges, voter registration, the campaign and selective accreditation of citizen observers posed challenges to the integrity of the elections,” said EISA Mozambique head and former Ghana President John Dramani Mahama. 

Former Kenyan Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka said the Commonwealth’s observer mission “remained concerned about the impact” of the suspected ghost voters on the election.

However, observers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) had no such concerns.

READ: Mozambique’s Renamo party says members attacked after peace deal

“The pre-election and the voting phases of the 2019 electoral processes were generally peaceful and conducted in an orderly manner,” said Zimbabwean Defence Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri, the SADC observer head.

The election has been seen as a key test of the peace deal sealed in August between Frelimo and Renamo, which fought a brutal 1975-1992 civil war.

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East Africa News

Landslide kills 22 in southern Ethiopia

Officials say the landslide in the district of Konta occurred Sunday following 10 hours of heavy rains

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Landslide kills 22 in southern Ethiopia
(File photo)

Rescue workers on Tuesday used excavators to dig out bodies after a landslide in southern Ethiopia washed away homes and killed more than 20 people, a local official said. 

The landslide in the district of Konta occurred Sunday following 10 hours of heavy rains, said the official, Takele Tesfu.

“There are 22 people dead and we have only been able to dig up 17 using manpower and machine power,” Takele told reporters.

“So far, we cannot get the others, so tomorrow we will continue to dig.”  

He said the victims included nine women and six children.

While the district — located in Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region — sees landslides with some regularity, Takele said this was the deadliest he could remember. 

“The area where this occurred is very mountainous, and this means the landslide was very dangerous,” he said. 

Ethiopia is nearing the end of its rainy season, but security forces are nonetheless relocating some families for fear that more rain in the coming days could lead to similar disasters, Takele said.

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