African Stories by African People

There is no ‘African’ story, just stories of Africa by Africans. There is no ‘African’ problem just a diverse set of dilemma that impinge on the lived experiences of African people. Africa is the most diverse continent on the planet. The top 20 most diverse countries are all in Africa. How can an singular African identity exist? The adjective ‘African’ may of all adjectives most tortured!

‘The system of storytelling on Africa is too often incomplete, stereotyped – and specious…Media reporting on Africa rarely focuses on everyday matters or the curiosities of daily life…Rather than “the African story” there are very many African stories, and what I can do, as a journalist, is to tell some of them. Africa is not rich or poor, educated or illiterate, progressive or archaic. What Africa is depends on which part of it you are referring to. No single story can adequately reflect that, but a multiplicity of stories can and should broaden our received wisdom about the continent. With more platforms and opportunities than ever before, there has never been a better time to challenge that confusing and costly concept of a single African story.’ – Nancy Kacungira who won the first BBC World News Komla Dumor Award for Africa-based journalists.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Losing the War against FGM in Africa: The Battleground over African bodies that Ignores African Minds

6th of February is the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. The theme for 6th of February 2016 was “Achieving the new Global Goals through the elimination of Female Genital Mutilation by 2030.” However, current statistics casts doubt on the possibility of achieving this. It is estimated that at least 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone some form of FGM. If current trends continue, 15 million additional girls between ages 15 and 19 will be subjected to FGM by 2030. Therefore it seems that despite the best intentions of the global civil society, the international community is still losing the war against FGM.

I argue that the main reason for this is a failure to engage with women of Africa and issues arising from intersectionality. This is akin to trying rescue someone who is stuck in mud but not wanting to get dirty. To remove a rotten tooth, you have to stick your fingers into the affected mouth. If you plaster over a septic wound, the infection will persist. There are two pitched camps in the FGM debate and the African woman’s body is the battleground over which this war is fought. Without accounting for the intersectionality of the existence of the African woman’s existence the war against FGM will be slow and ineffectual. Intersectionality is a concept often used in critical theories to describe the ways in which oppressive institutions – racism, sexism, classism, etc. – are interconnected and cannot be examined separately from one another. The vast majority of women who undergo FGM are black, African, uneducated, lower-class and poor. This has caused the voices of the victims of FGM to be silenced by a debate as positions are taken on their behalf.

First Camp: Global Civil Society

This camp is populated primarily by the UN and its component bodies as well as concerned NGOs. This camp prescribes criminalising FGM as the first step to eradication. The term ‘mutilation’ was adopted to encourage criminalisation, by indicating that harm had been visited on someone contrary to the shared values of humanity. Nothing in the literature suggests any understanding of the culture in which FGM is practiced.

FGM is (rightly or wrongly) perceived to be necessary to preserve morality and therefore ensure marriage, and marriage is seen as necessary for social acceptance and identity; marriage is a sign of community responsibility, as part of the attainment of personhood within African philosophy.  FGM thus becomes part of the path of the accepted process of becoming – becoming a person, becoming a woman, becoming a significant part of society. The movement to criminalise FGM denies African women their social acceptance without seeking or accepting other comparable means for ensuring social acceptance. If as is suggested, the culture itself is discriminatory in terms of gender, the culture will just find new ways to discriminate. Criminalisation of FGM, would then not resolve the underlying issues of violence against women in Africa. Historically it has been difficult to ban cultural practices. Non-enforcement of laws banning FGM indicates that the laws are ineffective because they impose an extraneous morality. The first step then should not be criminalisation but fostering a morality that proscribes FGM.

The use of language in this camp is also unhelpful. The language is deliberately intended to invoke revulsion.  ‘Mutilation’ ‘barbaric’ ‘savage’ has been used to describe what some see as a cultural practice integral to their way of life and integral to achieving personhood. Revulsion is invoked, but not in the people who are agents of FGM. Only external revulsion is invoked.  We cannot refer to 200 million women as mutilated, without reducing their humanity in the eyes of the rest of the world to their FGM experience. It is this type of language which informs the ‘Savage-victim-saviour’ metaphor identified by Mutua. We are all first human.

This position silences African women by denying them their agency, and involvement in the anti-FGM movement, it also suggests that dictatorial governments become excessively involved in African family life. A single issue approach will not win the war on FGM. The intersectionality of the existence of African women has to be paramount in the war against FGM. African women are more likely to be poor, more likely to be uneducated, more likely to be married young, more likely to contract AIDS. It is strange that we do not perceive these things are interconnected. A quote cited by Obiora illustrates how the FGM debate sometimes ignores the bigger picture:

‘‘I have visited villages where, at a time when the village women are asking for better health facilities and lower infant-mortality rates, [pipeborne water and access to agricultural credit], they are presented with questionnaires … on female circumcision.’’ [page 70]

Second Camp: ‘Africanist’

Unfortunately the second camp is more insidious than the first. Ideally this should be the camp on the coalface, the camp who should be speaking up for the voiceless and the helpless. The FGM debate shows how much African women’s voices are silenced. To paraphrase G K McDonaldit is to Black men that we turn for the story of the Black race, it is White women who are listened to on issues of gender equality, it is to African American women that we turn to for the experience of black womanhood and it is African men who tell the story of Africa [page 9]. Effectively silencing the African woman.

The arguments in ‘favour’ (I write this with derision) of FGM are an extreme application of cultural relativism which emphasises the primacy of culture to the detriment of human rights or physical well-being. The culture relativism narrative contradictorily encourages intransigence of culture; yet culture is fluid. Changes in culture occur when society either distances itself from a particular ideology, or the ideology is no longer relevant to communal life. FGM is a harmful cultural practice of no relevance from which we should distance ourselves as rapidly and effectively as possible.

It is cultural extinction and the relentless erosion of traditional practices that spurs cultural relativists to dogmatically resist any legislative attrition of culture. Much of this inflexibility is due to the interconnectedness between culture and identity, where the perceived destruction of culture is felt keenly to be the obliteration of society-constructed individualism and communal identity. However, by causing culture to stagnate, no account is taken of the changes in society; traditional voids appear and some cultural artefacts remain, while other traditional practices die off. Harmful artefacts are extremely detrimental; FGM is a classic case.

FGM-infographic

Conclusion

For change in culture and promulgation of anti-FGM legislation to be effective, policy-makers have to be willing to take the debate outside ‘formal legal structures’, lending it objectivity, vitality and validity.  We need to give voice to the voiceless and word to the silenced. The tension between cultural relativism and universalism has become unnecessarily politicised; the debate has allowed states to utilise these conflicting stand-points as an attack or defence based on largely state-centred egocentric governmental ends. This is done at the cost of the well-being of African women. The bodies of Nigerian women should not be sacrificed on the altar of academic debate. There is an African proverb that says ‘When two elephants fight, it is grass that suffers.’ When two strong and dominant theories are in conflict, it is the weak and least powerful, women, who are meant to be protected, that get trampled upon… or ignored.

The War against FGM ignores the real needs of Africa and African women. FGM serves as a linchpin for the variety of issues that impact female sovereignty. A significant number of African women, have no choice in where their live, whom they marry, how many children they have. Many African women are subject to arbitrary domestic and public violence despite legislation. African women’s bodies have become battlegrounds in warfare from Nigeria, to the DRC, to Rwanda and South Africa. Without addressing gender parity, gendered violence, fair trade, true democracy, female sovereignty, the right to education, the right to development – the war against FGM in Africa will be an exercise in futility.

Read more at: Ipinyomi, Foluke Ifejola. “Where the Rubber Hits the Road: The Limitations of the Universalism vs Cultural Relativism Debate Impacting FGM Control in Nigeria.” Available at SSRN 2510352 (2014) http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2510352

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‘Lost Voices’ by D Simpson & S Bostley

 

“To tell me you know my pain is to stab yourself in the leg because you saw me get shot. We have two different wounds, and looking at yours does nothing to heal mine.

You know nothing of silence until someone who cannot know your pain tells you how to fix it.”

This poem speaks to me of the loss of agency and voicelessness of Africa’s people. This silence is heavily illustrated in Africa’s relationship with the rest of the world. Our voices are unheard, but our pains are ‘treated.’ A doctor would always ask a patient for their symptoms. Yet Africa’s ills are diagnosed, treated and dismissed without consulting the ‘patient’.

You know nothing of silence! the age-deep stifling silence of shouting, screaming, yelling, but no one is listening…

You know nothing of silence! Silence in response to a pain so bone deep it defies description.

You know nothing of silence!

The Danger of a Single Story – C N Adichie

 

Excerpts…

What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify. Now, things changed when I discovered African books. There weren’t many of them available, and they weren’t quite as easy to find as the foreign books.

But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye, I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. I realized that people like me, girls with skin the color of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognized.

Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story of what books are….

Years later, I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey.

She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.

What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals…

If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images,I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner….

So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.

It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person….

Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story…

But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes,and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story….

The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar…

Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity…

when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.