Bondo in the 21st Century: Female circumcision, choice and the case of Fatmata in Kono District, Sierra Leone
By Fuambai Sia Ahmadu, PhD
Anthropologist Dr. Fuambai Sia Ahmadu holding the world famous Bondo and Sande women's secret society mask popular in Sierra Leone and Liberia. These masks and the stories they tell of female empowerment were featured in a brilliant exhibition called Visions from the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone at the Smithsonian Institute and many other art museums across the western world
I was invited by Augusta Yonga, the creator of the Konomusu blog for SiA Inc, to author this week’s profile about a 19 year old woman from Kono District whose name is Fatmata. I will use Fatmata's first name only although she gave my team permission to do a story highlighting her case and how Sierra Leone Women are Free to Choose (SLWAFC), an organization that seeks to preserve and modernize Bondo and female circumcision, helped protect her freedom to say "no" to initiation. As we coach, mentor and groom the next generation of ambitious female scholars at KonoCEF, we want to make sure we are teaching them our core values - equality, dignity and self-determination - especially when it comes to traditional circumcision and Bondo initiation. We mean it when we say we are pro-choice!
All of our stories from 2019 are dear to our hearts but Fatmata's is especially compelling because it affirms who we are and that we stand by our motto #AllWomenareFreetoChoose.
Sometime last year, I saw a facebook post by a staff at UNFPA declaring her frustration about a young woman who allegedly was being coerced by her family, her aunts and uncles to join Bondo women’s society.
This UNFPA official had also gone on radio stations to discuss the case complaining that Fatmata was being pressured by family members to join Bondo and undergo female circumcision, which she referred to derogatively as "FGM".
I wrote to the UNFPA official privately and reminded her that she knew our organization existed and that she knew me personally and could have easily contacted me before going on air. I asked her for the young Kono lady’s contact information and assured her that my team in Kono would see to it that her wishes were respected. The UNFPA official forwarded me the information.
After finally contacting Fatmata, I mobilized our Kono staff to interview her, her family members, the traditional authorities as well as the social welfare office in Koidu.
Two of our staff, a male and a female, were dispatched on this mission. They met with Fatmata to listen to her carefully and, with her consent, to record her statement. Our staff in Kono and throughout Sierra Leone are trained to be compassionate, to listen attentively and to always act and advocate on behalf of our clients. They are trained not to provide any information, their views or advice about Bondo society but to simply listen, show unequivocal support and report back to our organization’s confidential advisers, some of whom are community elders.
Fatmata explained to the SLWAFC fieldworkers how she learned that FGM was a part of Bondo, that the practice was harmful and was a sin against God and her Christian beliefs. Fatmata said she did not want to join Bondo but her aunt and uncle were pressuring her because her other age mates had joined and they said she would be left out and awkward among her peers. Fatmata also explained to ours staff that she met the UNFPA official mentioned earlier as part of her training as a youth peer counselor to speak out against FGM, early marriage and teen pregnancy.
Our staff then interviewed Fatmata’s aunt and other relatives separately. Using their training and experience in culturally sensitive approaches, our team succeeded in convincing Fatmata’s relatives to respect Fatmata’s choice and allow her to make her own decision about Bondo.
Our team reaffirmed to family members the value of our traditions but counseled them that legally they could not force Fatmata to do their will and join Bondo society. To ensure that Fatmata’s choice would be protected, our team met with our advisers and elders who in turn met with traditional authorities and sowies in the local area. Our team also discussed the case with social welfare workers so that they too would be on alert and check in on Fatmata from time to time.
During this time Fatmata called me nearly every day for several months and I asked about her studies, her exams, her plans for college and for the future. Our staff continued to pay frequent visits to her home and to develop a good relationship with both Fatmata and her relatives
Eventually Fatmata shared with my staff that she was interested in one of the projects we were engaged in called KonoCEF, an honors scholarship program for a select number of top performing senior secondary female students from poor households in Kono District.
After my staff told me of Fatmata’s interest, I asked her to send me her CV and a bio so I could see whether there was a fit for her within our volunteer scheme. Seeing that she had experience in peer counseling, we decided that she could work as an assistant to our project manager visiting schools to support the recruitment process.
During that time, Fatmata was extremely excited to start and would call me several times a week. We finally decided that she would begin on the first of December, when we planned to launch our KonoCEF website; I turned my attention to finalizing our temporary employment agreement.
After our website KonoCEF was published and publicized on social media, with Fatmata’s picture included in the Team page, my project manager called me suddenly and said that Fatmata texted him that she no longer wanted to work with us because, to quote, “you support FGM”.
This came as a surprise, but then again, knowing Fatmata’s connection with UNFPA and the pressure she must have been under to reject our offer of employment, I was not really taken aback.
I contacted Fatmata and thanked her for her interest in working with us. I reassured her that she owed us no explanation whatsoever and that we would continue to encourage her academic and career pursuits as well as to monitor her home situation. I emphasized that what was truly important is for her to own her choices and decisions because this is what being an adult and an empowered woman is all about.
I also sent a note to Mrs Mimi Nonie, the UNFPA official I mentioned earlier, the friend and mentor of Fatmata who had referred her to us when I reached out – as I explained at the start of this piece. I congratulated Mrs Nonie on her recent wedding and gave her a full update on our successful intervention with Fatmata and her family. I assured Mrs. Nonie that we respected Fatmata’s decision to withdraw from our team and fully supported her decision to not join Bondo and to make her own judgments about female circumcision.
Although for privacy reasons I will not post her picture, Fatmata is our amazing Konomusu of the week because she exemplifies our mission to ensure that all women can freely choose their own path - as unburdened as possible by culture, tradition, religion, family or peer pressure or other forms of undue influence including "feminism".
This is the same freedom I had as a young Sierra Leonean-American adult woman and university student who was born and raised in the United States; and I chose differently. I chose my mother and grandmother’s culture and tradition and our ancestral identity as proudly initiated Bondo women hailing from Kono and a long line of queens - who were circumcised.
Sierra Leone Women are Free to Choose, which is operated by SiA Inc. is exactly what our name and title states, a watchdog to protect the rights and autonomy of each and every woman in our country to choose Bondo or to opt out. Fatmata has opted out and we thank her for being a leader and an embodiment of free choice!
To learn more about our grassroots work in protecting the rights of circumcised and uncircumcised women in Sierra Leone, Kenya and The Gambia, visit our website awafc.org.
If you are a circumcised woman and you know that your experience does not fit the FGM stereotype then check out siamagazine.com to learn everything you need to know about female circumcision. To connect with women of all ages around the world who are just like you - visit our page on facebook S.i.A. Magazine and on IG @sierrainternationalafrique or @S.i.A