It was just after sunrise, I stood outside a mud and grass thatched hut and listened to a little girl crying inside. Ten minutes earlier the 12 year old girl had been sitting on a cured cow skin outside the door of the hut, naked and surrounded by a crowd of local women.
The girl, a bright pupil at school, keen on learning and with a gentle and happy character, was being circumcised. Supported by two of the women she sat on the hide, legs spread. The circumciser lent forward and, using a razor blade, sliced off the girl’s clitoris in a couple of deft movements.
The girl honoured her family by not even blinking as this happened. With rigid facial features she allowed the women to drop a black cloth around her and help her to her feet. She did not utter a sound. She did not let anything but stony concentration show on her face.
As the girl stood the blood ran down her legs to add to the pool of it that had gathered beneath her as she sat. The blood dripped from her as she was led into her mother’s hut. She did not cry out, or show any sign of the pain, as the women lay her on the bed they had prepared for her, or as they carried in the hide, careful not to spill the blood it held. She did not cry as they performed the final rituals of blood and ash and cow dung.
But now, ten minutes later, after the women have left the hut and she is alone with her mother, now she cries. Deep wrenching sobs, but muffled, even now she tries to hide the pain so that her family can feel proud.
I can no longer stand there and listen to the childish sobs. The tears I have held back until now, out of respect for the family, the girl and their traditions, come uncontrollably. I must leave before I offend. But even after I have gone I can still hear the little girl’s sobs in my head.
What was done to her this day, for the sake of her family’s honour, can never be undone. At 12 it can hardly be said to have been her choice. It will mark her and alter her for the rest of her life.
And what if that life is not in a traditional village? The modern world is fast eroding traditional culture here. When she grows up the old ways may be long gone except for as a legacy in women like her. Also she is a clever school girl, what if education takes her to a life far away, amongst people who do not circumcise their girls? How will she feel when she compares her experience to that of other girls from other cultures? How will she explain this to a future husband? I fear that she may be crying about today long after the physical pain is only a distant memory.