6 May 2015

FGM is everyone's business

Guest blog by Chris O'Hanlon.

How did it come about that I was interested in doing something about FGM? Well I have to say it is not an easy subject for me to talk or even think about. I am not a saint or crusader for good causes just an ordinary guy like anyone else. Like many I am inclined to sweep things like this under the carpet, forget about it, enjoy life and have as much fun as I possibly can. In fact it was in the finding of these pleasures that the fact that these practices take place forced its way into my life. Where previously I had thought of this as something that went on in some unknown foreign lands and that I never needed to think about.

Some years ago, interested in meeting people and looking for new potential girlfriends, I used the internet to go on dates with women who I might not normally meet. At the time the possibilities of the internet were beginning to come into being. A channel of communication between communities which might in the past have never of crossed paths was now open. So it was that I went out with girls from many different backgrounds. On one such date I met a girl from Sierra Leone who would later become my wife (now ex, before we get too romantic but that doesn't change the story). 

When we first met she was soon to go into hospital for an unknown operation with the explanation "women's problems" the phrase that is sure to shut most men up from asking any further questions and that most definitely included me. However as our relationship grew I came to know the full story. The traumatic events of how it happened and the health issues that followed. 

The vague idea that I had of FGM seemed senseless to me and not anything comparable to 'circumcision' as is practiced on males. FGM was not something that I thought much about from my comfortable life and I had too many of my own problems to want to do anything about it. But now here was somebody in my life that I cared about profoundly who was affected by it. So I learned that it clearly still goes on and in certain countries it is still an accepted and prevalent practice.

So why am I interested in doing something about FGM, when I don't want to think about it and that person is not really in my life anymore? It is just that when I think or hear something of it in the media, I find myself shuddering with upset and outrage at the senselessness of it all. In that it awakes enough passion in me to motivate my actions. I think of Victor Frankl’s words 'it is not what we expect of life but what life expects of us' that stirs me to do anything I can to make a change. Especially when we think we haven't really given much at all up to now. 

Not long before we were married we took a memorable trip to Sierra Leone and as one of the few white men to be seen around I was followed everywhere. I recall one day in particular when we travelled out of the capital to visit a family friend of my ex-wife’s.  I truly was the only white man to be seen anywhere and a crowd of children followed me shouting ‘oppotto’ which meant white man I later discovered.  It was an exotic sight for them and a bewildering but funny experience for me. The village was next to the sea and when watching the small two man fishing boats head out as the sun set over a sparkling sea as I sat on the muddy bank with my new African friends I felt there was something special about that moment. That beautiful scene has stuck in my memory.

The days were hot and the nights too. Wandering around there were lots of sights to be seen, bright coloured birds that darted through the air, lizards climbing the walls and occasionally coming across insects that were as big as your hand. The people could be seen carrying improbable loads on their heads without the aid of their hands. We wandered around Freetown taking in these scenes.  One day we came to a piece of wasteland not far from our hotel, with makeshift tents and small shacks made of corrugated iron and old bits of wood it was more basic than the rest of Freetown but there seemed to be some sort of festival going on which looked like it might be worth investigating. 

There were drums beating, music playing and an occasion definitely seemed to be being celebrated.  However, the atmosphere did not seem so friendly to me, the welcoming faces that had greeted us all over Freetown were not to be seen here. Instead there was a sense that we had invaded some private place where strangers were definitely not welcome and suspicious glances seemed to be saying ‘what is a white man doing here’. Indeed this did turn out to be when there was a horrific realization for both of us as my girlfriend turned to me abruptly and said ‘they are going to do a circumcision here’.  All of a sudden it was clear why we were not welcome and that the indefinable atmosphere was now clearly hostility. She had not realised what this was when we wandered in and had been as curious as me. We left as quickly as we could but I do remember thinking if there was anything we could do to stop this?  After mentally rehearsing that I might somehow presume to tell these people to stop what they were doing, I came to the conclusion that a white man interfering in a local ceremony would not go down well and was likely to be futile.  I was left with uneasy feelings of helplessness, sadness and frustration.

Perhaps it was on that day that the inkling came to me that I should pour some energy into to doing anything I could to help the fight against this practice.  A culture can be changed by one story, one family at a time, and that one person can make a difference. I will take this as the inspiration for my own efforts.

If you want to take action, you can learn more about 28 Too Many's work to end FGM and how you can help at www.28toomany.org. You can donate to support our research and campaigns and follow us on Facebook for updates on the global movement to end FGM.