Fuambai’s strength

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Carlos David Londoño Sulkin. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau6.3.011


Fuambai’s strength

Carlos David LONDOÑO SULKIN, University of Regina

Despite Fuambai Ahmadu’s upbringing in the United States, she accepted at the age of twenty-two her mother’s invitation to return to her Kono people in Sierra Leone to undergo their secretive initiation ritual to transform her into an unambiguously female, marriageable adult and a member of the women’s secret Bondo society. The most dramatic part of the ritual involved having the external part of her clitoris and her labia minora1 excised by a sowei, a woman in charge of such ceremonies. This ritual, known as Bondo,2 was the feminine counterpart of the Poro initiation for boys, in which these were circumcised and given instructions on how to be men. Proud of her initiated status, she has struggled over the past two decades to correct and contest Western anti–Female Genital Mutilation (henceforth, anti-FGM) critics’ overwhelming, indignant imaginary of African initiation rituals as torture and mutilation, and of initiated African women as sexual cripples and weak victims of cruel patriarchal traditions. This essay draws a moral portrait of her; in the process, it engages with the anthropological study of moralities and advocates for a liberal pluralism with relativistic entailments.

Keywords: morality, ethics, liberalism, female genital surgeries, FGM, Africa, ethnography, biography

I met Fuambai very briefly in 2006, at an American Anthropological Association meeting. I was charmed, finding her charismatic, stylish to the point that I suspected my criteria for judging this were insufficiently sophisticated to do her justice, and beautiful. Her professional credentials also impressed me: a PhD from the London School of Economics, consultancies with UNICEF and the British Medical Research Council, and an ongoing postdoctoral fellowship at the University of [108]Chicago. Our meeting was brief, and as she left, another friend who was there said, “That Fuambai . . . she’s a strong woman.”

Intrigued, I followed up on her name and read her compelling ethnographic account of traditional African female genital surgeries (henceforth FGS3), including the intense and very personal story of her own initiation process (F. Ahmadu 2000). At the first opportunity, in 2009, I invited Fuambai to the University of Regina to give a lecture, and then again in 2015 for a weeklong one-on-one open interview on her life story. Between her visits, we kept an email conversation going, and I followed up on her reading recommendations, namely ethnographic and medical research that sought to paint a more nuanced picture of the contexts, meanings, and entailments of FGS practices, independently of authors’ interest in the continuation or disappearance of the practices in question (e.g., Shell-Duncan and Hernlund 2000; Hernlund and Shell-Duncan 2007; Shweder (2000, 2009, 2012, 2016; and Obermeyer 1999).

Since the mid-1990s, Fuambai made it a defining life project to contest the (mis) representation of FGS in Africa by media and by organizations such as the WHO and the UN, which tended to be informed mostly by anti-FGM activists. She explicitly claimed that there lay her greatest aspirations, and that her academic interests were subordinate to and served these. In publications, conferences, and interviews, she and a small but growing group of scholars (a number of whom came to constitute The Public Policy Advisory Network on Female Genital Surgeries in Africa (2012)4 have called for more rigor and evenhandedness in cultural representations of non-Western others and in public policy debates about their practices. Many of their arguments were nicely summarized in their 2012 public policy advisory, where they contested mainstream portrayals and explained that men and women in societies that practiced genital surgeries overwhelmingly found these to be aesthetic enhancements, and definitely not “mutilations”; they also published data to show that the great majority of women who had undergone such surgeries had rich sexual lives that included desire, arousal, orgasm, and satisfaction. Medical and reproductive complications as a result of FGS were infrequent exceptions but were nevertheless much sensationalized by critics (The Public Policy Advisory Network on Female Genital Surgeries in Africa 2012: 22). Finally, they showed that these practices did not have a single, shared, patriarchal purpose wherever they took place but rather had diverse and multiple meanings, just as they had diverse forms (The Public Policy Advisory Network on Female Genital Surgeries in Africa 2012: 23). Fuambai’s and her colleague’s efforts were an uphill climb, with a heavy onus of proof on them, against widespread, deeply felt social understandings in the West.

Broaching the topic of FGS—more the traditional versions than the medical ones—seems to require from speakers an explicit normative ethical declaration, at least in Euro-American milieus. It’s a topic to which many people react viscerally [109]with indignation or heartrending pity, and too often with claims to know what “FGM” is all about that would sound intolerably presumptuous and dogmatic if they pertained to a less loaded topic. Even Charles Taylor, a champion of tolerant, critical multiculturalism, subscribes to the claim that includes “FGM” among “clearly reprehensible practices” (Bouchard and Taylor 2008: 68, my emphasis). These attitudes extend to the social contexts of academic disciplinary endeavors, where critical research on the topic is difficult and sometimes impossible (see, for example, Boddy 2007: 55; Johnsdotter 2012: 92, 108), and of the courts, where legislation is often based on mono-dimensional, poorly researched representations of the practices (Rogers 2016: 235–37). As Carla Obermeyer put it, “the harmful effects of female genital surgeries are so often assumed to be indisputably true that they are rarely posed as questions to be investigated” (1999: 24).

Fuambai’s arguments and bibliographic suggestions made me realize early on that I had bought casually into—and reproduced—simplistic, harrowing anti-FGM portrayals of FGS, without bothering to study the matter more carefully by way of doing or reading ethnography. After engaging with Fuambai, my response was to embrace more pointedly than before what Richard Shweder calls “liberal pluralism”: a “taste” for ways of life that allow and indeed encourage persons to live in accordance with their own evaluative understanding of how they ought to live and what kinds of persons they should be, tied to the recognition that others’ preferences and convictions may be underwritten by diverse, worthwhile values that may nonetheless conflict with the liberal value of unimpeded choice (2009: 250).

With most anthropologists today, I dismiss a dated cultural relativism premised on isolable cultures that mold people’s subjectivities, and the kind of ethical relativism that stems from that. Perhaps James Faubion is right to further question the sheer extent of human ethical diversity that some relativists might posit exists. As he notes, there are “striking similarities among persons of similar class and status everywhere, and the basic schematics [of the ethical imagination] are considerably fewer than the relativist allows” (2011: 9, 10). Many anthropologists champion their disciplinary practice of providing thick descriptions that suggest what sense practices that we may find foreign or immoral might make to the people who indulge in them, thereby helping temper the more immediate, condemnatory gut reactions of outsiders to these practices.5 Their sense is that this is compelling not because it relativistically underscores cultural differences but rather because it reveals the commonalities among human beings that underlie diverse, apparently alien forms.

While I agree, I would highlight that the moral differences between groups and between persons are not radically reducible to an ultimate sameness, and that the concept of relativism, taken with self-conscious irony, can still do useful work to gainsay claims undergirded by any theological or metaphysical order purporting to function as an absolute measure for truth or for the good (pace Laidlaw 2014: 224). Our evaluative understandings of responsibility, the estimable, and the despicable involve meaning-generating semiotic associations, which like all semiotic processes have an intrinsic, unavoidable proclivity to differ between persons, groups, and generations, and furthermore to change. They are causally, even if not univocally, [110]interrelated with our biographies in the context of our relational networks, practices, and institutions. Evaluative criteria and practices are thus historically contingent, and our moral judgments, to the extent that they depend on such contingent products, are thus relative. I think of anthropologists’ thick descriptions as historical gestures that create commensurability between moralities (Overing 1987). I must say that what I find most intriguing about such an endeavor is the reminder of the possibility of innovation, new kinds of footings of relationships, new kinds of subjects, and new moralities resulting from new or transformed vocabularies and symbolic practices.6

Unlike Fuambai herself, I have no driving interest in seeing FGS (or for the matter, male circumcision, tattooing, or piercing) thrive. But then again, neither am I keen to see it change or disappear. I am keen to nudge fellow freedom-and-equality-loving consociates, and beyond them, others, to adopt liberal pluralist attitudes. I also hope to erode the appeal of a sclerotic liberalism that disavows the contingent character of its own historical development, and makes universalizing assumptions to the effect that liberal ways of life are in some objective sense more valuable than illiberal ways of life. I hasten to add that such a stance does not preclude defending one’s own views fiercely, even if one is ironically aware of their contingent character.

A case study for an anthropology of morality

My work with Fuambai was motivated by my longstanding interest in studying morality anthropologically. Reading Fuambai’s (F. Ahmadu 2000) story immediately made me zoom in, surprised, on the kinds of social world within which FGS featured as necessary, respectable, or estimable procedures, and how these surgeries featured in the distinctions of worth that Fuambai and other actors in such social worlds made regarding themselves and others. Furthermore, I felt deep curiosity regarding such a colorful, charismatic, controversial character.

What were her aspirations? What stood out in her horizons of concern, such that it would demand her evaluative attention when it swam into view? How had she become the woman that she was? What had happened during her childhood and later that could account for what she esteemed, cared about, or despised? Who had influenced her ways of thinking and feeling, and how? Had her evaluations changed over the years? And if so, how and why?

This is one of three moral bioethnographic case studies that deploy a framework I propose for the anthropological study of morality. I am paraphrasing Faubion’s (2011: 210) term “ethical bioethnographies” here; like him, I pursue life histories and contextualize them socioculturally, with particular attention to semiotic fields he calls “ethical” and I call “moral.” Though bioethnographic accounts are not the only application of this framework, at the core of each of my case studies is an extended interview, interpreted in the light of ethnographic accounts of the person’s contexts. In Fuambai’s case, I sustained email conversations with her over several [111]years, interviewed her for eight days in October of 2015 about her childhood, family, loves, education, and struggles and dilemmas, and was in regular contact with her through social media until the very moment I signed off on this article for publication. In contrast with the other cases (that of an indigenous Amazonian man, and that of a Colombian science writer7), for which I had many years’ worth of ethnographic familiarity, I had no experience with Fuambai’s African and diasporic social networks that would allow me to contextualize with thick description many of her expressions as citations of shared symbolic forms from those milieus. For that, I depended on her own ethnographic account of Sierra Leone and The Gambia, and to some extent on other literature on peoples among whom there are traditional female genital surgeries (e.g., Boddy 2007; Boone 1986; Gruenbaum 1982; Hardin 1993). Then again, I converged much more in intellectual background with Fuambai than I did with my other interlocutors; it could be said that a significant part of my research with her was an animated conversation between British-trained anthropologists. She certainly had a much more thorough grasp of my overall research project than did the others, and my analysis was more shaped by explicit feedback from her.

In my framework, much inspired by philosopher Charles Taylor (1985, 1989), moralities are persons’ understandings and sensibilities that involve their making strong distinctions of worth concerning the qualities of actions, thoughts, emotions, relationships, ways of life, embodiments, persons, human groupings, and sundry other aspects of personhood and sociality. They feature centrally a motivating sense or picture of the kinds of being persons themselves and others around them are, can be, and should be, of the footings of the relationships they have, can have, and should have with others, and of the world within which this all takes place. Moralities are semiotic and historical: persons develop and maintain them in the very processes of picking up and citing—redeploying in their thoughts, emotions, and interactions—the symbolic forms and their dynamic systems or webs of associations, most centrally language, made available to them by their interactions with members of their social networks, from earliest childhood and over their lifetimes.

Symbols are material forms—perceptible things such as images, sounds, sensations, feelings, places, and objects—that “mean something” because people associate them in various ways with other forms. Persons acquire and redeploy linguistic and other symbolic forms in the processes of living their lives in society. These redeployments are very much like Judith Butler’s (1993) cited interpellations that, throughout people’s lives, performatively constitute them as subjects and make symbolic forms available anew for others to pick up and redeploy.8 Biographies in overlapping social contexts where similar forms are reiteratively deployed account for why people tend to speak, make moral evaluations, recognize and enact certain characterological types (Agha, via Keane 2016: 144), and establish interpersonal [112]relations that are more similar to those of our consociates than to those of foreigners. Nevertheless, biographies are always historically unique, and so the associations between symbolic forms will, unavoidably, differ somewhat between persons, between social groups, and between generations. This entails that moralities, like their partly constitutive webs of symbols, are somewhat shared within social groups or networks, and yet experienced intimately in unique ways by individuals. In other terms, and pace Taylor (1985: 10) and Keane (2003: 412), I embrace Jacques Derrida’s concept of slippage or indeterminacy of meaning, finding it a limit to the human capacity for mutual understanding and to the mind-structuring and consequent group-homogenizing efficacy of symbolic deployments. It is also a source of the noise, movement, and opaqueness to reflexivity that renders semiotic systems mutable.

Scholars on the topic have paid a great deal of attention to the contrast or range between tacit, inarticulate, or habitus-like aspects of morality and more self-aware and explicit aspects of it (e.g., Zigon 2008). Some consider some form of freedom, tied to reflexivity, a diacritical aspect of it (e.g., Faubion 2011; Laidlaw 2014). Webb Keane (2016) has made amply clear that innate propensities that are not fully in our ken play a fundamental part in “ethical life,” and that everyday interactions, which he makes the case are intrinsically part of ethical life, flow smoothly precisely because the actions involved are habitual and beneath actors’ awareness. I would add that nobody has a thorough, clairvoyant grasp of the webs of associations that feature in their constitutive self-interpretations, or of the biographical processes by which these come to be. Despite this opacity of aspects of the self to reflexive awareness, however, my own bias is that when it comes to human beings, even tacit, inarticulate experiences are the experiences of subjects whose self-interpretations are constitutive and involve language; more or less articulated distinctions of worth will play a role in shaping even habitual human interaction (see Taylor 1985: 74, 272).

I am called to address reflexivity and freedom in Fuambai’s case precisely because her explicit accounts of herself were the object of so much second-guessing and doubt by members of the public and media, and by people with whom I discussed her. Could she have been brainwashed? Did she really have clear insights into her own values and life? Was she lying? Did my own account not accept at face value too much of what she said? Could she not have been particularly successful at strategic impression management?9

I have no doubt that Fuambai evaluated herself, others, and her interactions with intelligence, and planned her gestures with some strategic, reflexive intent. In fact, she valued this as an ability and a resource of people generally, and of the African women she admired particularly. But by my account, she was not a free, utilitarian agent with a clairvoyant, controlling grasp of her own innermost workings and constitution, because nobody can be. What it was that truly, deeply mattered to her, that which stood out in her horizon of concerns, was not her choice, and could not be a choice; the symbolic forms that articulated her fundamental distinctions of worth and constituted her self-interpretations were not the choices [113]of a preexistent, willful subject. They were constitutive. And her constitution was such that she simply saw that these things mattered.10 There is room for self-interpretations to be questioned reflexively and critically, but again, the new and critical distinctions of worth for doing so are themselves not a matter of radical choice.

I could still be suspected of being a subject of “ethnographic seduction,” that is, of having been influenced by Fuambai in ways I could not recognize, and such that they impacted on my understandings and research results (Robben 2007: 160). For instance, my friendship and emotional alignment with her could have made me unwilling to ask incisive, uncomfortable questions or otherwise probe critically into her discourse, which I trust sincerely expressed her thoughts much of the time, but equally certainly, at times invited my collusion in the construction of her own self-image, as interlocutors do (see Keane 2016: 275). I cannot remember such discomfort or unwillingness, except perhaps when we broached the topics of income and wealth, but then she seemed quite pragmatic and straightforward when speaking about these matters. Late in the writing process, I concluded that I perhaps too readily dampened my curiosity and avoided inquiring into other secrets of Bondo, in the name of respect for what the women in question wanted to keep secret and private. Fuambai may have helped me do that, keeping my interest riveted to other matters. But against an image of seduction, I believe that my own more secular and pragmatic understandings of the cosmos and of knowledge, and my aesthetic preferences regarding gender relations, differed sufficiently from Fuambai’s that I could remain capable of engaging critically, if sympathetically, with her.

Fuambai’s case offered the interesting complexity of migrants and other people in diaspora, who cite in their speech, actions, and very emotions a dazzling diversity of symbolic forms from their geographically dispersed and culturally diverse social networks’ members’ interactions. I recognized from her self-portraits and evaluations of others that she valued qualities of persons and of ways of life that most readers would likely find familiar: class, prestige, wealth, intelligence and education, political power, family loyalty and love, unselfish maternality, femininity, and beauty and sexiness. In these regards she was self-assured, a person with a clear sense that she was of high standing in the public eye. Less familiar, but expressed in much of her talk and demeanor, was her deep investment in a picture of “strong” or “powerful” womanhood that seemed to be eclectically tied to her African background, to her American upbringing, and to a complex religious understanding of the cosmos. Her struggle against anti-FGM misrepresentations in particular put on the line for her whether she was indeed the kind of strong African woman she aspired to be.

Growing up African in America

Fuambai’s Africanness, her Kono ancestry, the prestige of her parents’ clans and of her immediate family, and the virtues of cosmopolitanism, education, intelligence, and beauty were foci of concern for her, and came up in her telling of her childhood [114]and early adulthood. She spoke very highly of her parents, and in accounting for herself she often portrayed them, their lives, their treatment of her, and her sense of how they thought of her. She painted a broad-brush picture of their privileged standings in the Kono district of Sierra Leone, manifest among other ways in their elite high school education in Krio11 schools in Freetown. Fuambai’s parents, Komba and Finda (Janet, in English), moved to the United States in 1963 or 1964; Komba had a USAID scholarship and support from Tamba Songu-Mbriwa, the paramount chief of the chiefdom of Sandoh, to pursue his education further. This was a time when many African nations were gaining their independence and when many of the children of the elite were being sent to Europe and the United States to prepare themselves for leadership, and the expectation, Komba told Fuambai, was that he would return one day to be a leader.

Fuambai was born in the United States in 1967. When she was almost one year old, Janet moved back to Sierra Leone for a few years with Fuambai and her older brother. The family returned permanently to Washington, DC, in 1973, when Komba received his master’s degree. Over the next decades, according to Fuambai, the Ahmadus rallied a community of expatriate Sierra Leoneans around themselves, beginning with Janet’s family but expanding much beyond. Komba and a friend also founded the Kono Union in DC, Maryland, and Virginia (henceforth, DMV), of which Fuambai would become president in 2014. This involved some struggle, and in her public statements at the time, and later to me, she made frequent references to her parents’ historical importance in establishing a Sierra Leonean presence in the DMV.

Fuambai variously described Komba as handsome, wise, humble, and unpretentious. She adored the man, and expressed no doubts that the feeling was reciprocated: “I was his favorite! . . . I think he projected his love for his mother on me. He always expressed ambitions for me. He wanted me to go to Stanford, and to become a broadcaster. There could be no barrier to me, professionally. He didn’t want me working in the kitchen, and would fight with my mom when she made me work. He never saw me as eventually to be somebody’s wife.”

Fuambai portrayed her mother as the more determining parent regarding the state and direction of their household. Janet, according to Fuambai, was not as concerned with Komba’s ambitions as she was with her children’s interests and those of her own family of birth, and she imposed those interests on Komba. She had insisted on bringing some of her siblings with her when they moved back to the United States in 1973, and brought more over the years; in fact, Janet’s mother, Gbessay, lived with them as well. This sounded to me like a household that was closer to matrilocal ideals (where couples move in with the woman’s family) than to the ideals of the Kono, who conceive themselves as made up of clans in which membership is passed on by male line, and where couples supposedly live with the man’s family. She made sure her husband helped her family, for which, as Fuambai put it, “he really had to hustle,” working at different times as a cab driver, as a professional statistician, and by running his own investment company. Janet also [115]went to great lengths to ensure her children went to private schools; with time, her siblings contributed to her children’s education as well.12 Just as Fuambai admired her mother’s strength and impositions, she valued her own feisty assertiveness. She explained that she was a rebellious and disobedient teenager, willing to incur punishment as long as she got to do what she wanted. She would go to the movies against her mother’s prohibitions, question the latter’s arbitrariness, and stand up to her mother’s lashings when her father was not there to intercede indulgingly on her behalf. When there was collective punishment for her and her siblings—and it was always her mother who dealt it—Fuambai would demand to go first; she also figured out that she could threaten her mother with American laws against child abuse, which reduced the physical punishments.

In a related vein, Fuambai also seemed to identify with her father’s mother, though they never met. They were namesakes: Fuambai’s name was an Americanized version of the old woman’s name, which was pronounced “Fwambeh.” Fuambai explained their name came from “fande,” a Kono term for a type of resistant cotton thread for country cloth (see also Schön 1884). As a name, it honored the capacity to keep the family together and close knit. According to her granddaughter, Fwambeh had been light-skinned and beautiful (“everybody thought she had to be a Fula, because of that”), stubborn, hyperactive, and argumentative. At some point or another in our conversation, Fuambai described herself, or spoke about having been described, with each of these expressions. “[Fuambai] is a good name for me because I am rebellious, stubborn, don’t conform, and do keep family together.”

Fuambai recalled as a child wanting to eat like the kids on American TV rather than on the floor, and being mortified when her parents revealed too much of their African background in public, with their heavy accents in English and with her mother’s head ties. Still, she underscored that she grew up thinking of herself much more as an expatriate African and a Kono than as a black American. “My dad was an intellectual, sensitive to ideals of African identity . . . he hoped to return to Sierra Leone. He did not allow us to identify as Americans.” Komba told Fuambai that Chief Songu-Mbriwa used to speak of the Kono district as an Israel or a Zion, a place with an important destiny, and that he imagined Komba to be important for that; Fuambai was sure this had greatly influenced her father, for he never abandoned his strong sense of being Kono rather than American. She too professed great attachment to Kono, and considered her ties to it to define who she was. Her school, populated by a cosmopolitan mix of children of diplomatic, aristocratic, and otherwise wealthy families from all over the world, likewise served to make her identify more as an African than as a black American.

By the time Fuambai was a young adult, studying International Affairs at George Washington University, she did have a sense of herself as black. However, she pointed out that she did not feel at home in the Black Student Union, feeling that some of her peers there thought she was fake because she wasn’t “hood” enough and did not feature their own accent. (She and her siblings could switch at will to [116]African American Vernacular English; it sounded to me like this was something they used with some humor to mark intimacy.) She felt more at home with the African and Caribbean students, and ambitious as she clearly was, she soon became president of the African Students Association.

Another important aspect of Fuambai’s moral constitution that I can tie to her childhood was her deep religiosity. She had a strong, reflective sense of the intimately manifest presence of God in her life, and reported a history of eclectic comfort in Methodist, Muslim, and Pentecostal liturgies and of engagement in theological discussions with practitioners of these religions. Doubtless her attitudes were related to the fact that at home, she witnessed or participated in a diversity of religious rituals. Her mother had converted to Christianity in her childhood, and had joined a Methodist church upon arrival in DC. Some of Komba’s folks were practicing Muslims, and Fuambai and her siblings became comfortably familiar with their practices.

The power of women

Fuambai expressed a deep admiration for certain aspects of women among the Kono and other West African groups she grew up with or studied as an anthropologist. She reiterated to me, as she had in publications and talks (e.g., F. Ahmadu 2000: 301, S. Ahmadu n.d.), that she had sought to undergo the Bondo ritual because she wanted to be powerful, like her mother, aunts, and other initiated women. But it was Fuambai’s account of how her mother garnered scholarships for Fuambai’s siblings that carried home for me the gist of the power or strength that Fuambai saw in the African women she admired so much. Fuambai had been, her mother told her, a precocious child who had walked at nine months and from very early on had been clean, quiet, and thoughtful. A teacher at the prestigious and expensive Washington International School in DC caught on to Fuambai’s intelligence, and had her tested. She passed with flying colors and was awarded a full scholarship. Janet made the case to the school authority that Fuambai had three siblings who couldn’t go to a different school than Fuambai, and that she was a poor immigrant who could not afford a proper education for her children. The school considered this, and gave all the children scholarships.

Fuambai saw in this a manifestation of African women’s power to get what they needed and wanted from the world—often something for the good of their children or families—by dint of eliciting others’ friendliness, desire, pity, respect, fear, or whichever attitude was necessary. To achieve this, they had to be adaptable and resourceful, deploying, as needed, drama, argumentative acumen, charisma, sex appeal and amatory competence, trickery, and when necessary, violence. I see in this notion a transformation of traditional Kono understanding of power (gbaseia) as the ability to “harness knowledge, medicines, witchcraft, and other supernatural means in socially appropriate ways” (Hardin 1993: 192), to the extent that it is not only the supernatural that is harnessed instrumentally. As with her stubborn, argumentative, and beautiful grandmother, Fuambai likely identified a great deal with her purpose-driven, resourceful mother. Like Janet, Fuambai had gone to great lengths to ensure that her son received an elite education.[117]

Another story that I found revelatory of Fuambai’s admiration for what I would call the “savvy resourcefulness” of African women concerned her Auntie S.13 In 1998, in yet another turn in the 11-year civil war that rocked Sierra Leone from the early 1990s, the Nigerian army had wrested Freetown from the rebels, and Sierra Leonean citizens in exile were being repatriated. Auntie S. traveled from Washington to visit Fuambai, who was doing anthropological research in The Gambia. Auntie S. wanted to hitch a free ride on the repatriation buses, to check on two houses she owned in Freetown. Fuambai marveled at her aunt’s ability to slip back into African modes of interrelating with people, and her sheer ability to blend in and get what she wanted. “You would never imagine that she had ever left. She was in her element. I wanted to see the village through her lenses. She would go to people’s houses and they would put out food on the floor for her . . . she blended with people wherever she was . . . she was charismatic [and . . .] could connect. . . . I let her talk and put us on the bus.” Her aunt’s presence and attitude garnered for Fuambai the possibility of listening to the talk of women in exile, in different camps. Auntie S. would solicit their stories, ask about missing relatives, and generally spark conversations. From such conversations, she learned the secret that these women had performed initiation rituals even when on the run.

It was clear that Fuambai had had to think and speak often in her life about gender inequality; in TV interviews she reacted against popular images in the West of African women as pitiable victims of patriarchal family and religious systems. In our conversations, she acknowledged that sometimes African women would strategically deploy such images themselves, and stressed that she sympathized with their needs when they did so—but in the context of anti-FGM activism, she resented them. To counteract them she underscored her own memories of growing up in a large expatriate family, surrounded by women who seemed to her to be running the household and making all the important decisions. I loved an image she used, of women “tying up their lappas” in the face of a challenge. Lappas are wrap-around skirt cloths, and Kono women foreseeing a physical scuffle would tie them up firmly lest they be easily ripped off. The image was used in demands for loyalty, as in “I tied my lappa up for you!” (I fought for you!). Her mother and her aunts— like initiated women in Kono—were fully willing literally to tie up their lappas to tackle any man who would threaten them with violence but also metaphorically to address conflicts of different kinds. Fuambai stressed that women who had undergone Bondo—and even more so if they had undergone it together—were expected to rally to each other’s aid against men, outsiders, and others who might infringe on their interests.

(Feigning) subordination to men

Fuambai described herself as an African feminist, but also as in some ways conservative and traditionalist, to the point that she often sympathized with the values of religious Republicans in the United States, though she voted Democrat and loved [118]the Obamas. She knew that some aspects of her picture of sex and male-female relationships were such that feminists and many Westerners would reject them. For instance, she expressed in a televised interview her articulate support for polygyny (Badawi 2015). Earlier, she told me she would have been willing to be part of a polygynous marriage herself, with the understanding that it would have to be with a man with the wherewithal to make such an arrangement a dignified, politically and economically advantageous arrangement. She was unapologetic and frank about what she called her philosophy: “I will respect you, worship you, take your shoes, cook for you, do your laundry. . . . Your house is clean. . . . [An African woman] is in a man’s house. . . . She goes into her man’s house. . . . I do think a man should be paying the rent, sustaining me. . . . My choosing a man means I am giving up on other men who are economic possibilities. Tradition says ‘This is your wife—you have to provide housing for her, provide for her.’”

Kono and surrounding groups Fuambai was familiar with treated marriage as a pragmatic arrangement, a matter of people finding a complementary gender counterpart that would allow them to achieve sustenance and reproduce patrilines and clans. This did not preclude emotional closeness, but there was actually some condemnation of women who “loved their husbands too much” and therefore ceased to demand that men provide for them and for their own families (Hardin 1993: 64). Delicious sex and infatuated love were in some cases reserved for lovers rather than spouses, though there was supposed to be an expectation of appropriate reciprocity from lovers as well.

Fuambai loved the idea of powerful women manipulating men, pretending to be dutiful wives, but wresting sexual pleasure, affection, and fecundity from lovers. She used this image to contest the picture of African women as spineless, ignorant, or brainwashed victims of patriarchy that anti-FGM seemed to her to promulgate. Nevertheless, she did not enact this feminine ideal all the way herself, expressing personal ambivalence about the instrumental attitude to marriage, noting that she had been raised in the United States and that this had also shaped how she loved and engaged in relationships. She noted that among Krio in Freetown, and certainly among Kono and other Sierra Leonean expatriates in the United States and London, there was an increasing preference for the model of monogamous “true love,” associated with status, education, and Westernization. Monogamous “true love” had considerable appeal for her as well. She brought up a female cousin’s good-natured contempt for her in this regard, and her laughing injunction to Fuambai to stick to American men, because she didn’t have what it took to deal with African men. We delved into this in conversation, and concluded that for her, a man could be her main source of companionship and emotional support, something less likely in Kono itself, with the stronger separation of the sexes.

But my sense is that the footings of male-female relationships in government and academic institutions in North America, where men and women were supposed to downplay or disarticulate many previously established differences between them, simply didn’t fulfill Fuambai. She certainly participated in such milieus competently, and indeed benefited from them, but at another level, more intimate yet self-aware because much more problematized, she bought into the beauty and the desirability of a social life in which there was a more marked differentiation of genders, to some extent along traditional Kono lines. She spoke enthusiastically about [119]how Kono understood the sexes to be different, exclusive, and complementary; each was its own milieu, with its responsibilities and privileges, and with its own hierarchy (see also F. Ahmadu 200: 298, 299). She underscored that the Kono female initiation ritual taught subordination of young women to female elders, and the art of feigning subservience to men in their verbal communication, body language and gestures, and the performance of domestic duties.14 Kono women would consistently seek to maintain a myth of male dominance that ultimately enabled them to protect their female prerogatives (especially against increasingly masculinized religion and culture in Africa) (F. Ahmadu 2000: 306).

But even as she respected and defended traditional gender roles, Fuambai made space for changes. She spoke with admiration about expatriate women in the DMV who worked hard and bought their own houses. More to the point, in March of 2014, she was elected president of the Kono Union of the DMV. She was the first woman and the first American-born Sierra Leonean to occupy that office. Media-savvy and competent with accounting, she worked hard to inject vigor and optimism into the ailing association. As she portrayed it, running the Union entailed much dealing with coups, betrayals, retaliations, bad press, working alliances, triumphs, and blunders. She ferociously demanded that some much-loved kin show their loyalty to her and to her father and mother as community creators and philanthropists, and whenever it was not forthcoming, she was willing to burn bridges in defense of her family and what she felt was best for Kono and Kono women. At one point, an elderly, politically active auntie of hers remarked that Fuambai’s contenders were Fuambai’s seniors, and were furthermore men, and that therefore Fuambai should capitulate to them. The auntie stated that there was or should be no difference between Kono Union and Kono life, and that a woman must be under a man. Fuambai did not yield: “I would argue that the Kono Union is not a traditional Kono organization, and in this setting, if a woman is in charge, let her be in charge.”

On Bondo and becoming a woman

In 1991, while she was still an undergraduate at university, Fuambai’s mother, aunts, and grandmother invited her, her sister, and other girls in her family to “join Bondo.” She was twenty-one years old at the time. I think she was ambivalent about avowing the extent to which she had consented to the ritual. Perhaps this stemmed from valuing both the principle of consent and the courage to consent, and yet deeming the value of consent not to trump other values that the ritual enacted. “I did give consent to join Bondo. . . . Some would argue I didn’t give consent because I didn’t quite know what would happen.” Still, Fuambai did know that it involved some cutting “down there,” because a young aunt had described to her the secret goings-on and the cutting that she’d witnessed when she’d spied on a Bondo ritual. The young aunt had backed down from travelling to Sierra Leone to be initiated, but Fuambai’s own response, in her own words, was one of “Show me this thing I’m supposed to be afraid of.” She was unsure of her memories, regarding whether [120]prior to undergoing Bondo she had “read something” or not by the Nigerian physician Olayinka Koso-Thomas, who had worked in Sierra Leone and condemned FGM fiercely; she had no knowledge, however, of the careful ethnographic analyses of the cultural significance of these practices published by Ellen Gruenbaum (1982), Janice Boddy (1982), and others, or of the more explosive, activist-minded denunciation by Fran Hosken ([1980] 1982). For local Kono girls back then, there certainly was no “full and informed consent” to the ritual; in fact, there was an attitude on the part of some of the older women to the effect that the ritual involved intentionally tricking girls. Kono girls nowadays, Fuambai noted, did tend to know that the ritual involved cutting and pain.15

Fuambai’s account of her decision to undergo Bondo pointed to her childhood. She had memories from her early years in Sierra Leone of frequent wonder and delicious tingling fear and fascination with the dancing, the masquerades, and the secrecy surrounding the Poro and Bondo initiation rituals for adolescent boys and girls respectively. She remembered growing up in the United States surrounded by a set of strong women—her mother, aunts, older cousins, and her friends—who seemed vigorous and knowledgeable, and who clearly spoke about secret matters of import among themselves, but would change the subject when Fuambai arrived. She had very much wanted to be a part of it all, informed, strong, and decisive. She took for granted from early on that to achieve that, she would one day have to join Bondo. Her aunts and grandmother sang Bondo songs around her and spoke about it as a wonderful celebration. “For me the awesomeness of Bondo was the lure. Not being part of it was a problem. I’d heard women arguing in terms of the right to open your mouth that Bondo gave you. . . . You came into a conversation on sex, and they stopped talking. . . . And I wanted IN.”16 She yearned for access to the secrets of these women, and for the right to speak and be hearkened to as a full-fledged woman. As if preempting imagined critics, she added that for her it was never a matter of [ethnic] identity, of being “truly African” or gaining a sense of belonging. Neither was she buying into the Kono sense that there was something childishly unappealing or androgynous about her genitals, nor that she needed initiation to truly become a woman. “No, what attracted me was the power.”

Again, I must note that I was struck by the sheer frequency with which Fuambai’s claims in this regard were subject of disbelief or second-guessing by people reading her work or hearing her stories. Her explanation of why she sought initiation, and of its importance to her, was a focus of such doubt. In a TV interview (Sackur 2016), for instance, anti-FGM activist Nimco Ali suggested that Fuambai had been traumatized by the initiation, and had come up with a legitimating story [121]when the time came to pick a cultural identity. Several people to whom I told Fuambai’s story were similarly persuaded that she displayed false consciousness or something like a Stockholm syndrome. Skeptics’ premise was that unquestionably, something horrible and irredeemable had happened to Fuambai and to every initiated woman; Fuambai has often protested that most of those women would argue that it had not (F. Ahmadu 2000: 284; Sackur 2016). It’s as if, for skeptics, genuine choice for Fuambai could only have led to her rejection of practices that skeptics disapproved of. Her choosing otherwise—even if Fuambai felt that she was making a thoughtful choice for her own edification—could not be considered autonomous or free.

As Fuambai told the story, the initiates and several of the older women flew to Freetown in December of 1991; one young aunt who was afraid to undergo the initiation opted out. Fuambai’s oldest aunt determined that the main house for the initiation of Fuambai, her sister Sunju, and a cousin should be in Koidu, the capital of the chiefdom; Fuambai’s other cousin would undergo it in her father’s village. The women had Fuambai’s uncles clear a bush behind the house in preparation for the event. The sowei, who was charged with protecting the initiates from witchcraft and other dangers during this physically and spiritually vulnerable time, would have chosen an auspicious site and “fortified” the space spiritually. Before being secluded, Fuambai and the three younger girls were taken to Fuambai’s maternal grandfather’s village, her father’s village, and others, to seek blessings.

The ritual started, and Fuambai knew it was too late to turn back when she found herself naked with other girls, by a river, their clothing out of sight. She heard the women talking about their bodies. They were fascinated with Fuambai, because she was fully physically an adult by then, and because she had come back from the United States to undergo the ritual. “She looks like Finda!” one woman said. The women bathed and shaved them, and the fact that it would definitely involve her genitals became absolutely clear. Fuambai figured out later that the medicinal leaves they had been given for analgesic effect were making her high, because everything seemed great.

That night they were all sitting in a hut, lit with a couple of candles. Everybody was being quiet, though there were lots of women. Fuambai was miffed that all the women were checking out her vulva; a few times that the sowei came and opened her legs, all would peer, curious about an adult, uncircumcised clitoris. “They looked like ‘Oof! This needs to be cut’. . . but also surprised that it wasn’t as ghastly . . . they probably expected a little dick.” At that point, a woman whom Fuambai knew as Auntie J. came. She worked as a nurse in the United States, and Fuambai’s mom, very worried about her daughters’ pain, had arranged for Auntie J. to give them some anesthetic. Auntie J. told Fuambai that because she was an adult, she should know that what would happen was that some of the flesh of her vulva17 would be cut off, but that Auntie J. would anesthetize her first. Fuambai recalled wondering whether she would enjoy sex as she had in the past, and thinking “Well, if I don’t enjoy sex and orgasms again, I’ll just study more.” She added, “The idea that a woman won’t enjoy sex is Western . . . very improbable.”.[122]

I opened my legs. Sunju opened her eyes wide. They were holding me, but I had to appear calm. Auntie J. injected me. Sunju cried. They held her down and injected her. Then at the break of dawn they hoisted me up and bolted through the door and rushed to the clearing. There was drumming. I knew pain was coming, but thought the anesthesia might help. These women had me lifted with my legs spread. I felt this kgggg [Fuambai made a noise to represent the sensation] on one side, and I screamed bloody murder. Then there was another cut on the other side. Then they went for the labia, both sides. I felt blood gushing, and threw up. The women were horrified at this. “This is not bad! [Not disgusting],” they protested. I fainted. Just before fainting, I saw them bringing my sister out. . . . I was saying, “No!” and thinking, “These savages!”

When Fuambai came to, she was lying on the floor with her head cradled on her mom’s lap. Her mom was wiping away her tears. She was in great pain. She looked around for Sunju, and saw her and her little cousin walking around and laughing. The cousin was only seven years old, tiny and beautiful. Some of the women had found her too small, but Fuambai’s aunt, the girl’s grandmother and primary caretaker, had not wanted to miss the opportunity to have her go through Bondo. The child had been inordinately proud of this, and Fuambai later heard that she hadn’t flinched when she was cut. Then a sowei instructed Fuambai to get up and go pee. The pain throbbed when she stood up. Sunju accompanied her. Urination stung brutally, and Fuambai cried. She remembered that Sunju (“She was so cute!”) thought she was crying because the toilet was a mere hole in the ground, and tried to console her: “Don’t cry! It’s because they’re poor that they don’t have toilets!”

Fuambai described how the local girls felt sorry for her, and how some who had already been initiated left school early to come and look at her. Many of them referred to her as “the white girl,” because she came from the United States. The attitudes of the women present varied, something Fuambai later saw in other initiations she witnessed. Some were very empathetic with the girls’ pain; Fuambai imagined that they were reliving their own. Others’ attitudes seemed to her to be more along the tough-love lines of “Come on! Get over it!” Some of the women took on the attitude that they’d successfully tricked the girls, “kind of like telling them you were taking them for ice cream but actually got them vaccinated instead.” Adding to her thick description, she noted that the message to the girls was that as a result of the ritual, they were now real women.

As she admitted that the pain had been excruciating, Fuambai added that Kono people think of it as instructional. “You are introduced to the beauty but also to the harshness of womanhood. You learn to cooperate with other women, and to bear the pain of pregnancy and birth. The sowei will also be your midwife and your supporters [in initiation] will be your supporters [when giving birth]. . . . You are dead when cut, and then you are born again. It’s a liminal space of supernatural transformation. One anthropologist wrote that the cut puts senses in disarray, and that you become very vulnerable, and in that state you can learn ancestral values.” The Bondo ritual enacted, as it purported to instill, key virtues of women—virtues that reflected the strength that Fuambai so admired. Soweis themselves were exemplars in this regard: wise, unyielding, and unsentimental, and responsible for inculcating novices with “stoicism, which must be displayed during excision; tenacity [123]and endurance, which are achieved through the many other ordeals a novice must undergo; and, most important, “dry-eye,” that is, daring, bravery, fearlessness, and audacity, qualities that will enable young women to stand their ground as adults in their households and within the greater community” (F. Ahmadu 2000: 299).

The most dramatic part of the initiation was the cutting, of course, but there was more to it. For one thing, as Fuambai said she would realize later when doing research on similar rituals in The Gambia, there was much chance for the adult women to indulge in sexual liaisons and to break certain everyday rules of propriety during the public part of the ceremony. Initiates, once cut, were taught songs with layers of meaning, and somehow it all involved lessons on how to be good lovers, and to control men’s penises and sexual actions for their own pleasure and eventual fertility. It was a time to learn about that, and about much else.18 After pointing this out, she expressed clearly her ambitions for the practice: “We need to bring back the sexual education aspect, the separation of men and women.” In an earlier publication, she had stated that she would describe herself as “neutral” with respect to the continuation of the practice (F. Ahmadu 2000: 305); by 2015, her position was less neutral. She explained in an email that her position had changed because of the sudden popularity of labiaplasty and other forms of FGS in Western countries.19 She wanted to see the whole package return with its tradition and meaning, and for it not to become like current, secular male circumcision, which she found too clinical, or like much female genital cutting in The Gambia, which took place in people’s homes, with little or no ritual. To her—and here I underscore that these are the views of a woman who both underwent initiation as a native and who carried out participant observations as a trained anthropologist—the old rituals, with long periods of seclusion and an intense learning process, seemed most worthwhile.

Fuambai did not benefit fully from that aspect of her own ritual. Her mother had arranged for them to recover in a friend’s big, beautiful house, where they were luxuriously taken care of. Fuambai remembers beginning to smile again when the pain subsided somewhat, and receiving more visits from schoolgirls. The sowei and her entourage would come every so often, ensure the wound was closing properly, change their bandages, and comment on how it all looked good. Another auntie, a Mende woman, commented on what a great job the sowei had done on Fuambai. Fuambai’s mom said she’d gotten the best one, likely to produce the best-looking surgery with the least bleeding and the shortest healing period. A cousin later told Fuambai that that sowei’s reputation increased hundredfold after Fuambai’s operation, for having cut a “white” woman and doing a good job. Several years later, Fuambai met a woman in the bush in The Gambia who told her she had heard of [124]the Gandhorun children who had been brought from the United States, and of the sowei who had cut them. “If you’ve got money, you get her.”

Fuambai’s mother did not wish to wait for the “coming-out” aspect of the ritual, so they unceremoniously left for Freetown. There, they stayed at another aunt’s place, and got more painkillers and antibiotics. Fuambai told me she had felt worried and sad at the prospect of never enjoying sex again. In Freetown, she met a young, beautiful, flirtatious Mandingo man who persuaded her to sneak out and go to the movies with him; her desires came back and she knew it was going to be ok. She returned to the United States three weeks after her surgery. “I got up courage not long after, I looked with a mirror, and I could say ‘wow, this is pretty!’ I liked how it looked. I wanted to show it off. I had thought I’d never have sex again. . . . But then it was gorgeous.” She reported that her American boyfriend found her beautiful all the way, and thought that the rope with amulets and leaves tied around her waist was very sexy. When they had sex, she felt some numbness in the site of the cut, but she could still achieve orgasm. The numbness soon went away.

Talking about initiations and sex

Initiates were strongly enjoined to protect the secrecy of the Bondo ritual. In an email elaborating on this, she wrote, “I knew initiates were made to take an oath of secrecy—but I don’t recall that I was made to take any oath. I was also told that the herbal medicines they gave me would make my mouth ‘heavy’ whenever I wanted to talk about what happened in Bondo.” The injunction to secrecy eventually created a dilemma for Fuambai: she could continue to respect the secrets of Bondo as she had for years, at the cost of letting only negative accounts of it make it to public light, or she could seek to correct the overwhelmingly negative popular account of female genital cutting, at the cost of breaking the vows of secrecy. It seemed to me that she did not depend for economic and emotional purposes on the set of companions who underwent Bondo with her quite in the same way they depended on each other, and that for this reason she could afford to break with tradition in order to defend it. And she did. She claimed that for this she was at times questioned in public by men who knew she wasn’t supposed to speak about Bondo. Her response was that she had spoken to several soweis and to many women who had undergone the rituals, and that they had blessed her for defending them while protecting their own secrecy as a cultural right.20

In several of her public lectures, and much more intimately when I interviewed her, Fuambai spoke about her sexual experiences and about her own body with considerable candor, revealing more about these than most people usually do outside close relations. But she did not appear at all confessional or affected, or moved by some drive to make public an image of herself as somebody totally comfortable with her own sexuality. To me it seemed something she did instrumentally, to participate effectively in a struggle that mattered deeply to her, over African women’s personal and cultural rights; she framed her own sexuality, presenting [125]certain aspects of it in a certain light, in order to reframe the initiation rituals for a hostile public.

One explicit message was that she had sufficient practical and theoretical knowledge of sex and orgasms prior to undergoing Bondo to have a point of comparison with her experiences afterward. She could thus begin to shed suspicion on strong anti-FGM claims that cutting damaged women’s genitals’ functionality and rendered orgasms difficult or impossible (e.g., Gele, Johansen, and Sundby 2012; Reyes and Thuy Seelinger 2013; and Thabet and Thabet 2003). She explained to me that she had grown up in the 1980s and, in her own words, had “had no hang-ups about sex.” As a teenager she had had ample opportunities to read about sexuality, had talked about it a great deal with cousins—some of them initiated, and for the most part cheerfully vulgar and detailed in their accounts of their vigorous sexual exploits— and so had good theoretical knowledge of intercourse, oral sex, and orgasms (see F. Ahmadu 2007: 281). By her sophomore year at university, she also had a boyfriend— a very tall, handsome (and white) former varsity athlete. “I got the hot guy . . .” Summarizing the relationship, she wrote to me that with time and mutual trust, the relationship became sexual, and he introduced her to foreplay, oral sex, and so on.

Of course, she was also explicit about her continued ability to achieve orgasms through oral or manual stimulation, or heterosexual sex, after undergoing Bondo. She was interested in underscoring that orgasms for her were most intense and pleasurable when achieved with heterosexual intercourse, and that this was as Kono thought it should be. She argued that this was because of the famed G-spot. She took it to be something that’s situated differently in different women, and stated that hers was deep-set, almost cervical, and hence the superiority, for her, of orgasms achieved through skillful vaginal penetration.21

This was yet another matter concerning which Fuambai’s accounts and those of initiated women who approved of FGS were disbelieved (e.g., 2007: 280–84). In her sister Sunju’s documentary (S. Ahmadu n.d.), a skeptical, uncircumcised Sierra Leonean woman expressed doubt about whether a circumcised woman who claimed to have experienced orgasms really had: how could she know that what they experienced really was an orgasm? The circumcised woman’s eye rolling in response said it all. Of course she had. Along these lines, Fuambai wrote that “unlike these ‘mutilated’ African women, no one seems to question the credibility of Western women with surgical ‘designer vaginas’ who report increased psychological and physical satisfaction after drastic genital operations” (2007: 284).

Fighting the good fight

As a young woman, Fuambai had aspired and fully expected one day to become, as she put it, “a hotshot international lawyer or banker” at the International Monetary [126]Fund (IMF) or World Bank. She was still on that path from 1992 to 1994, during which time she got a master’s in African Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS/University of London). Early on during her stay in London, however, Fuambai attended several meetings of the still young anti-FGM movement, read Alice Walker’s (1992) book, and watched Walker’s and Parmar’s film, Warrior Marks (1993). Book and film both represented female genital cutting as culturally endorsed, mutilating torture, a brutal betrayal of women by their mothers, and a practice likely to cause deadly hemorrhages and difficult births. “I felt outed, humiliated, disappointed, angry with that book. It made us look like our mothers were crazy . . . psychologically damaged.” She changed direction, and in 1995 started her MSc/PhD program in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics, under the supervision of famed Africanist and feminist professor Henrietta Moore. She went on to do six years of doctoral fieldwork on male and female initiation rites among Mandinka peoples in The Gambia, time during which she also consulted for UNICEF and the British Medical Research Council. She received her doctorate in 2005.

In 1995, Fuambai published an article in Pride magazine that described Kono female initiation rites and contested Walker’s picture of brutalized African women, their traitorous mothers, and the deadliness of FGM. Expanding on this later, she explained that contrary to most Europeans and Americans, who understand being a male or a female to be an innate given and a matter of nature, Kono thought about this differently (F. Ahmadu 2000). They saw young children as somewhat androgynous beings in need of transformation or completion through social practices that made them fully, properly male or female. The prepuce in boys was held to be a feminine remnant, vagina-like and unseemly, and similarly the external part of the clitoris and the labia in girls were deemed ugly and masculine. Only with the appropriate rituals that included the physical removal of these tissues that made children androgynous, would they be able to become fully sexed, to reproduce properly, and to become part of the world of “culture” (F. Ahmadu 2000: 295, 296).

In our interview, Fuambai told me that as an activist, speaker, and occasional consultant for Sierra Leonean government offices, she was privileging arguments about equality and universal human rights, rather than the more relativizing arguments I was prone to want to discuss, to defend her people’s practices and to question anti-FGM rhetoric. She protested, for instance, that it was intolerably discriminatory that a white woman in London or Los Angeles could request a surgical transformation of her vulva for cultural, aesthetic reasons, but an African woman was not free to do the same. She could not legally find someone from her own society who was a recognized expert at such surgeries, to transform her vulva according to the aesthetic values of her society (see F. Ahmadu 2007: 284). In fact, she could not get one with a Western doctor if she argued that she was doing it for her own traditional cultural reasons. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume that her interest in defending FGS and initiation rituals against zero-tolerance legislation was only in the interest of equal rights to individual freedom. As I interpret her, she respected and appreciated the collectives of initiated women, found these to contribute to the beauty, quality, and fairness of social life for both women and [127]men among Kono, and very much wanted to maintain the conditions that allowed those collectives to be reproduced.22

In 2006, Fuambai spearheaded the creation of the Miss Sierra Leone USA pageant; then in 2009, she founded the magazine SiA. Both engaged with culture, fashion, and the lifestyle of Afropolitan women, and Fuambai intended them to carry a positive message about admirable African womanhood. She explained that in the years that followed she was hurt by attacks from younger Sierra Leonean expatriate women who were willing to be insultingly critical of their circumcised mothers (F. Ahmadu 2014: 18). Concerned over these women’s reproduction of anti-FGM rhetoric, she rehashed the magazine completely in February of 2014, to be more pointedly the voice of empowered, circumcised women, and to educate internal critics. She furthermore ran successfully in 2014 for the presidency of the Kono Union in DMV, on a platform that called for respect for Kono women.

Despite the harshness, the stereotypes, and the misrepresentations of anti-FGM rhetoric and of direct critics, Fuambai’s public demeanor and speech seemed always to remain calm and well informed. This was in stark contrast to the often-insulting indignation of critics and opponents.23 When I commented on this, Fuambai responded that she knew that she represented a large number of women who would never get a chance to appear on TV and to be hearkened to, and that even in her case, opportunities seemed to be one-shot deals. “So I have to be very careful. In North America there’s this stereotype of the ‘angry black woman’ that is used to exclude some voices. . . . You’re not going to get anywhere being angry.”

My perception is that Fuambai has been relatively successful at undermining, at least among the public who have heard her speak, the more simplistic misrepresentations of FGS, and at urging caution when judging the unfamiliar. Yet she confided that her struggle had been at a cost to her career, her finances, and her emotional tranquility. She had turned down an offer of a well-paid, secure, tenure-track job at a university, in part because it came with friendly but pointed advice from the prospective employer that she put her activist work aside and focus on academic publications instead. I remembered that she had also had to be exhaustingly careful in her public lectures while employed by the National Institutes of Health in the United States. The question came up as we discussed this: why keep struggling? “I don’t feel I have a choice. I have to engage, to defend [FGS]. . . . If I could stop and do something else, I would.” Her motivation was religious, at least in part. She spoke about her faith in similar terms, as involving no choice: at one crucial moment in her adult life, she had suddenly felt the presence of God with absolute immediacy, awe, and relief. As she portrayed it, His obviousness to her rendered questions of choice about belief irrelevant.

In another episode that Fuambai deemed critical, she discovered an ancient Egyptian creation story according to which the first androgynous being was created through the blood of circumcision. She was struck by this being’s names, Sia and Saa, because these were also the names given respectively to the first girl and boy born to a Kono woman. “Sia” was in fact part of Fuambai’s own name, as her [128]mother’s firstborn daughter. She took this spirit, who in Mande peoples’ accounts was also generated in an original act of circumcision (e.g., see Boone 1986: 8, 9), to be somewhat akin to the Holy Spirit of the Christian Trinity. For her, these connections were no coincidence but rather a strong suggestion of the historical precedence, and perhaps founding originality, of Kono and neighboring people’s circumcision rituals, which she considered could have been the foundation for circumcision in Abrahamic religions like Judaism and Islam. She also took her discoveries to be an intimate affirmation of her purpose to be a voice for Sia and for her female ancestors. Hence her protests when she felt that certain dramatic anti-FGM gestures disrespected that spirit egregiously (F. Ahmadu 2014: 30–32).

Fuambai’s picture of a universe characterized by the immediate presence of a (mostly) benevolent God, and in which gendered personhood, identities, divisions, and virtues stemmed from, were modeled on, and were prescribed by that God, was what philosopher Charles Taylor would call a “moral source”: something the love, respect, or contemplation of which empowers [persons] to do and be good (1989: 83, 94). Fuambai identified as a child of such a God, and this provided some of the frames within which she determined what was good, valuable, ought to be done, or ought to be endorsed or opposed (Taylor 1989: 27). Engaging in her struggle was, in the context of such a frame, inseparable from being the strong, resourceful, African woman she aspired to be.

On ethnography, commonalities, and difference

Engaging with Fuambai opened windows for me into her unique, cosmopolitan, richly evaluative understandings of the kinds of persons and relationships there are in the world, of sexed bodies and proclivities, and of the footings of relationships among women and between spouses. Through her ethnographic and personal accounts, I grasped the diversity of ways in which FGS could fit, reasonably and with positive moral valence, into Kono and surrounding people’s lives. Getting there depended on our exchanges leading me to recognize certain commonalities between us, such as for instance, aspirations to physical courage, admiration for the competencies that lead to the achievement of valued results, including, at times, the willingness and ability to break rules, deploy drama, or otherwise skillfully manipulate relations; a loving interest in shaping children well and a desire that they share at least some of our values; clear and motivating (if different) preferences regarding the looks of genitals and bodies generally, and feelings and memories of sexual enjoyment; and a comparable sense that at least some conventional hierarchies, some of the time, are justified. We both could recognize critical moments in our history in which we felt that our eyes had been opened, that we had achieved insights that not everybody had access to, and we both had sufficient experiences with diverse groups’ footings of gendered relationships to have a comparative sense of which we preferred.24

Nevertheless, working with Fuambai also underscored for me that people’s understandings of the kinds of beings and persons they can possibly be (e.g., a child [129]of God, an androgynous woman in need of ritual perfection, or a diasporic citizen), the kinds of relations they can be part of (e.g., fellow initiates in rituals, matriarchs and underlings, opponents in public debates), what stands out in their horizons of concern (e.g., elegance in demeanor, fear of God, or equal treatment) differ and have differed in important, motivating ways between social groups and between persons. So have the considerations and criteria regarding what a good life would be. Fuambai’s own grasp of and dynamic redeployments of Kono, North American, and academic anthropological values or distinctions of worth are an example of how people reproduce, mix, and transform moralities. So it still makes sense to me to claim, pace James Faubion (2011: 9), Webb Keane (2016: 4), and James Laidlaw (2014: 224), that persons live in different moral worlds, and that their criteria for judging persons and actions are relative to those worlds. Living with other people sometimes requires us to establish commensurabilities between different worlds, but this is always a creative act of translation.25 So are ethnographic thick descriptions.

Much (but not all) anti-FGM legislation and action now seems to me a somewhat violent, morally absolutist imposition in the face of incommensurable moral worlds. My pluralist preference has been to engage instead in ethnography or similar efforts to come up with new, creative formulations that render such worlds mutually commensurable and intelligible. Fuambai and fellow scholars have engaged in such efforts effectively. The parties can then take stock, decide whether the differences are still unlivable, and reconsider their options—be they further attempts at creative mutual understanding, compromise, or violence. In a recent email, Fuambai reported from the front lines to her friends on a recent compromise along those lines: that the Government of Sierra Leone and leading soweis had signed MOUs “to prohibit under-18 female initiation and circumcision,” but allowing the “Bondo society and other [soweis] to self-regulate, create awareness and implement this policy nationwide.”


My research was funded by a Dean’s Research Award (Arts) and a Humanities Research Institute fellowship at the University of Regina. Christie Hubbs assisted in reviewing the anti-FGM literature, and I thank Marcia Calkowski, Philip Charrier, Michael Lambek, Rick Shweder, Eldon Soifer, and participants in the University of Regina’s Department of English OMAD lecture for comments and suggestions. I thank Fuambai herself for her generosity in engaging with me in this project.


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La force de Fuambai

Résumé : Bien qu’elle a grandi aux Etats-Unis, Fuambai Ahmadu accepta à l’âge de vingt-deux ans l’invitation de sa mère à rendre visite à ses proches du peuple Kono en Sierra Leone, pour recevoir les rites d’initiation secrets qui marquent la transition vers un statut de femme en âge de se marier et d’être un membre de la société secrète Bondo. La partie la plus notable du rite implique l’excision de la partie externe du clitoris et de la labia minora par une sowei, une femme en charge de ces cérémonies. Ce rituel, que l’on appelle Bondo, est le pendant féminin de l’initiation Poro pour les garçons, dans lequel ils sont circoncis et instruit comment être un homme. Fière de son statut d’initiée, elle s’est battue durant les vingt dernières années pour corriger et contester l’imaginaire des critiques occidentaux de la Mutilation Génitale Féminine représentant le rituel d’initiation comme un acte de torture et de mutilation, et les femmes Africaines comme des femmes mutilées et victimes de traditions patriarcales cruelles. Cet essai dresse le portrait moral de Fuambai et ce faisant, il aborde l’étude anthropologique des morales et défend un pluralisme libéral, ainsi que ses implications relativistes.

Carlos David LONDOÑO SULKIN is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Regina and the incoming President of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America (2017–2020). Since 1993, he has carried out ethnographic fieldwork among People of the Center (Colombian Amazon), mainly with Muinane-speaking clans. He is the author of People of substance: An ethnography of morality in the Colombian Amazon (University of Toronto Press, 2012).

Carlos David Londoño Sulkin
Department of Anthropology
University of Regina
Classroom Building, CL 306.3
3737 Wascana Parkway
Regina, SK S4S 0A2


1. This would be classified as Type 2 FGM in the World Health Organization’s typology (WHO 2016).

2. Bondo, Bundu, or Sande are equivalent terms in Mende and other Sierra Leonean languages that connote secrecy and privacy; they also refer to women’s secret initiation society. Other terms are Suna, Susu, and Serere (Hardin 1993: 35; Boone 1986: xxiin6).

3. “Female Genital Surgeries” is the preferred term of the Public Policy Advisory Network on Female Genital Surgeries in Africa (2012). The term “mutilation” presupposes that the practices in question are harmful, contrary to the judgment of the majority of the women who undergo these.

4. Though a relative newcomer to the topic, I was invited to be a signatory to the 2012 document.

5. See Keane (2016: 121, 122); Laidlaw (2014: 32); Lambek (2010: 13); Robbins (2012); and Shweder (2012) for discussions.

6. For discussions of such changes, see Keane (2016); Rorty (1989: 9); Kulick (1992); and Robbins (2012), among many others.

7. For my purposely “lite” report on him, see Londoño Sulkin (2015); on my deeper Amazonian work, see Londoño Sulkin (2012).

8. With this, I begin to address Faubion’s requirement that analytical frameworks accounting for enduring systems of ethics must reveal how these systems engender their own reproduction in time (2011).

9. See Boddy (2016: 41, 42), on uninformed and patronizing attributions of false consciousness to cut Hofriyati women in Sudan.

10. For a thorough argument along these lines, see Taylor’s critical case against Sartre’s concept of radical choice (1985: 28–30).

11. The Krio (or Creole) are people descended from slaves in the British colonies who were freed and resettled in Sierra Leone in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

12. Hardin notes that matrifilial ties are less apparent than patrilineal ones but are equally important facets of Kono identity (1993: 57). Kono women marry into their husband’s households but nonetheless maintain allegiances to their own patrilineages (1993: 59).

13. Fuambai called most African women of her aunt’s generation “aunties”; her mother’s sisters, however, she addressed as “mom.”

14. Fuambai was not persuaded that women’s having to feign subordination was evidence of a real power differential between men and women.

15. In recent years, Fuambai came to see ethical sense in the call to change cutting practices so that they take place later in life, and with full and informed consent. What compelled her was a discussion of cases of children whose reproductive or sexual anatomy did not fit typical definitions of female or male, were surgically “disambiguated,” and later resented caregivers’ choice of sex for them.

16. See Boone’s (1986: xi–xv) clarifying account of the institutional significance of secrecy among Mende peoples, and the series of distinctions of worth between the initiated, who possess an informed intellect, a widened vision, and deepened discernment, and the incomprehension and dumbness of the uninitiated.

17. Fuambai did not remember the exact terms Auntie J. used.

18. Shweder (2016: 146) reports on a Kenyan man’s similar account of his month-long recovery from a painful circumcision as a time during which he learned the history of his people, what it meant to be a man, and how to treat women, have sex, care for cattle, face up to painful ordeals in life, and be fearless.

19. See Boddy (2016) on this specific topic. On inconsistencies in Australian legal treatment of cosmetic genital surgeries, religious male circumcision, and FGM, see Rogers (2016: 236).

20. In 2016, a set of (Shia Muslim) Bohra people from Gujarat, India, thanked her for these very reasons.

21. The part of the clitoris that is cut in so-called Type 2 and some Type 3 FGM is the external, visible part; a much larger proportion of the organ, made of erectile, potentially orgasm-triggering tissue, is hidden under the labia majora, and is untouched by FGS. For a discussion on the extent of knowledge and ignorance about female genital anatomy in debates about FGS, see Shweder (2013: 216, 217).

22. See Taylor (1994: 52–61), on a “politics of recognition” that can protect the interests of a collective in creating the conditions for its own reproduction.

23. See, for instance, Brockie (2013).

24. For convergent discussions on shared feeling being fundamental to mutual understanding, see Laidlaw (2014: 224) and Taylor (1985: 61, 62).

25. Rorty’s treatment of “passing theories” (1989: 14) converges with this account of commensurability.