By Hilda Twongyeirwe
This is a true story of Yemo (Not true name due to sensitivity of details in the story from Ethiopia) from Ethiopia. It was first published by FEMRITE – Uganda Women Writers Association in Beyond the Dance in 2010 and republished by Un-cut Voices Press, Germany, in Taboo in 2015.
“Most husbands sodomise their circumcised wives because the wives cannot handle the normal sexual intercourse. That has become the norm for most of the circumcised women. But no one can talk about it. Each wife is silent. Silent so as not to shame her husband, silent so as not to shame her society, silent so as not to shame herself. It is heart-breaking. Every married woman knows that bedroom matters are very personal and very private. As I talk to you now, I feel as if I am making a confession in front of a Catholic priest. I feel as if I am undressing right in front of you. But it is ok. I want to tell you my story.”
I encourage Yemo to speak. I tell her that together we have to break the silence. I tell her that it is not right that social norms continue to silence women in matters that affect them so seriously.
“I agree with you,” she responds. “But these are things I have never talked about to anyone before, not even my fellow circumcised women. We are all silent. When I tried to talk to my mother, she just told me to be patient; she did not give me her ear. I had hoped that maybe she would share with me her own experiences. But she did not. She did not treat it as a matter of any importance. ‘Just be patient’ she said to me and changed the subject. She sounded as if we were not supposed to talk about it. I pressed on but she just did not talk.
“After that attempt, I decided I would live with it silently and that is what I have done for the ten years of my marriage. Silence. I have kept quiet and pretended that all is well. Tell me, what else can I do?”
I do not respond to Yemo because I am not sure what else she should have done. It is difficult to respond to issues about which one does not have first-hand experience. Sometimes we hurt people when we tell them what they know better. So I keep quiet and just listen.
Yemo and I are seated in her hotel room in Cape Town where we both meet on different missions. She is here on a social scientist’s trip and I am on a publisher’s trip. Her friend from Ethiopia, whom I had met before, had introduced Yemo to me and as we chatted I told Yemo of a project we were doing, to record voices of women on female genital mutilation. ‘I could add my voice,’ she had said matter-of-factly. ‘Sure,’ I had responded but I was not sure because the project was almost coming to the end. Indeed, Yemo’s story was full-term and needed to be born.
“I have three young sisters. I am the first born in our family. Fortunately they are all not circumcised. As I looked at them growing up, I was very inquisitive, especially when we would be in the bathroom or in our bedroom dressing up. That is when I realised that they were not like me. Sometimes my mother would ask me to help her bathe them and I would jump at the opportunity to discover them in order to discover myself. But when I discovered what I discovered, I fell silent. I did not ask anyone to explain, much as I felt a strong urge to ask. Later I started hearing about circumcision and I got to know that I was circumcised. Slowly I started becoming a very withdrawn child.
“My early childhood was not exciting at all. As we were growing up, there was a very distinct difference between my sisters and me. While I was very reserved, they were very free-spirited. As a result, my mother started mentioning my circumcision as if to confirm what I already knew. She would shout at my sisters and insult them that they were stubborn and not well behaved because they had not been circumcised. On the other hand, she always commended me for my calm behaviour.
“According to my mother, and maybe according to custom, I was sensible, and well behaved because I was circumcised. Of course she is right because for the bigger part, my lack of spirit, my silence, was a result of my recognition that I was different, the recognition that something was wrong with my womanhood. I don’t hate my mother and I know that I am my mother’s favourite daughter but I feel sad that she looked on as a knife changed my life. I fail to understand how a mother gives birth to a normal child and then offers the child to be disabled. To tell you the truth, I have a great sadness that sits deep in my heart. I have an anger that makes me calmer than my sisters. An anger that makes me resigned. An anger at what took away what I should have been.”
I tell Yemo that she should not be resigned. That life is about fighting to the end. I want to get up and hug her and reassure her but I feel the wall that she has built around herself and I respect the distance between us. I instead hold my hands tightly to support my drooping chin as I listen to her small but strong voice. The red-wine-coloured blouse that she wears hugs her waist tightly, exposing her fine figure. She is a very beautiful woman.
“What reason do I have not to be resigned?”
Yemo almost raises her voice. She stands up, walks to the electric kettle and fixes me a cup of Five Rose’s tea. She also serves me tasty biscuits from a little tin sitting on her table.
“I have every reason to be resigned. I will tell you that since I got married ten years ago, I have never enjoyed sex. To-date, I still bleed every time my husband and I meet. No matter how many times we have done it, no matter what we do, it never ceases to hurt. Tell me the truth my sister, what brings a husband and wife together? You and I know that all other reasons that we always give are an apology for the real reason. So, tell me, why shouldn’t I be resigned?
“I was circumcised when I was six months old. And my mother tells me that I was a baby of slight build.
“My great-grandfather was a medicine man. He was very influential and was believed to be very knowledgeable about almost every cultural and medicinal issue. That is what I was told about him. Thank God that I never met him in my adult life because by the time I grew up, he was long dead.
“I was his first great-granddaughter that came among several great grandsons. When I came, the family celebrated my arrival. My great-grandfather was especially happy. As a special child, therefore, I had to get special and preferential treatment. I was the lucky child and so I had to be circumcised by the renowned, knowledgeable medicine man. I was cut by my great-grandfather.
“What I have always asked myself is how he found and cut the little parts. I look at my little daughter today and the parts are too small and slippery. How that man gripped and cut me at six months of age is not comprehensible.
“My only joy comes from the fact that FGM is now a crime in Ethiopia. But of course it still goes on behind curtains. The target is small girls and babies, who, they know, will not talk or report. But at least criminalising it makes it easier for those who are fighting it. But there is need to sensitise women so that they can fight for their daughters without waiting for things to go wrong like it was for my mother and I.
“After my great-grandfather cut me, he went back to his home. He was from my mother’s lineage. My father, I understand, was not aware of my circumcision. My mother had hoped that she would nurse me quietly and I would get healed without involving my father. Unfortunately for me and my mother, my wound festered. My mother gave me antibiotics and the great medicine man also sent the best of his collection but the infection dug deeper and wider. My mother has told me several times how she almost lost me to the infection; a tiny baby with massive, massive wounds. How, during countless moments, she sat and held me in her hands and cried over my tiny and formless body. How she saw me slip through her fingers and regretted the act of circumcision. What am I supposed to do? Sympathise with her?
“After several weeks of trauma, she took me to hospital where we spent several more weeks. The most incredible thing is that my mother’s relatives said that I got the infection because I was visited by an evil spirit. The baby was blamed. They said that I had a bad omen that attracted the evil spirit. It was disgusting as I listened to my mother explaining to me about the evil spirit. She too believed it. She still believes it. As if my pain was not enough, my father also denied me. He said that I was not his daughter since my mother and her people were doing whatever they wanted without his involvement. My mother suffered so much with me. When I finally recovered, she swore that if she got more daughters, she would never have any of them circumcised. Interestingly, my father has never accepted me to-date. ‘You were the sacrificial lamb,’ my mother always tells me.
“When I got married at the age of 21, I did not have the slightest idea of what lay on my bridal bed. I had kept myself pure and had never had any sexual intercourse. When my boyfriend proposed to me, I was very excited and I wanted to be his wife because I liked him a lot and we had been friends for some time. Shortly after that, he proposed that we inform our parents and seek their blessings so that they could help us to organise our wedding. We, especially him, did not want to have sexual intercourse before we were officially wedded, officially husband and wife. And so by the time we were wedded, we wanted each other so much. I had looked forward to our wedding night. I had waited for him just as he had waited for me.
“It was funny when on our wedding night, we remembered that we were not supposed to share a bed. So we slept in different rooms. Our religion prohibits sex after wedding for at least seventy-two hours! That was too long but we waited patiently. After the seventy-two hours, although I don’t remember whether we quite spent all the seventy-two hours, we sought each other. I had not at all thought that it was going to be tough, but as we locked and rocked round and round without success, I sensed danger. It was as if the task was to pull down the moon with our bare hands. By morning I was tired, he was tired and we had not reached anywhere. Our hearts were sore, our eyes were sore, our bodies were sore. We were consumed by a fire of desire and pain. The second night came and went just like the first one.
“In the middle of the third night, I offered to divorce and free the man I loved most. But you see, my wedding was very dramatic, which did not offer me many options. When my husband and I agreed to get married, none of our relatives supported us. They thought we were too young for marriage. He was 21 years old and I was just going to make 21. But we felt ready. He was already out of school and working and I was about to complete university. I was in my final year. We were in love and we knew that we wanted to be husband and wife. When our parents refused, we did not argue with them. We had already made up our minds. His parents did not want to see me near their son and my parents did not want him anywhere near their daughter.
“After one year, my boyfriend and I went ahead and secretly organised our wedding. We went to a monastery several kilometres away from home and we stayed with monks for two days praying and getting to know each other more. We also used that time to organise with a church near the monastery, to conduct our wedding. On the third day, we went with our rings and we were wedded. We stayed at the monastery still, in two different rooms, to fulfil the seventy-two-hour ritual. When it was all over, we proceeded to his home where my real womanhood journey was yet to start.
“The major reason I offered to divorce him was not because we had failed to consummate our marriage but because he insulted me. As he hit against the rock in the middle of the third night, he looked at me with daggers in his eyes and he told me that I was a virgin not because I was a good girl but because other men had failed to penetrate me just like he had failed. He was so angry for failing to consummate our marriage. I was so angry with pain of his continuous rubbing and pressing, trying to force entry.
“I was so angry that after many years of purity on my part, the reward from my dear husband was to taunt me. That is when I offered to divorce. I got up, picked a jacket, stepped into my shoes and staggered out of his house into the darkness outside. It was not easy leaving my marriage behind but the physical pain I was suffering propelled me out of the house. See, this is how I walked home!”
Yemo gets up and walks the way she did the night her husband mocked her. She walks with bent knees and one leg cast here and another leg cast there. I stare at her, my chin cupped in my left palm. I literally feel her pain spread through my own body.
“I was in a sorry state, walking like a duck, careful not to open myself wide and cause further damage and careful not to rub against myself and cause more pain. One part of me told me to slump back on the bed and stay, but the other part was determined to leave him. Fortunately our homes are less than one kilometre apart.
“When I got home, my mother was not amused to see me – for two reasons. One, I had eloped against her wishes and so I had no right to leave the marriage I had gone into with eyes wide open. Two, she thought that I had started my marriage with a fighting spirit. She suspected that I was leaving because maybe I had discovered another girl in my husband’s life. But that was very unfair. I really needed someone to talk to and finding my mother at home had been such a relief because I knew that as a woman she would understand. You can imagine the disappointment when she bashed me instead!
“My mother did not even notice that I could hardly walk. But perhaps I shouldn’t blame her because even I, in the hurry to leave, I did not notice that I had put on a different type of shoe on each foot. One was brown and flat while the other was black and low-heeled. I noticed this later as I sat down to talk to my mother. But still I would have cared less even if I had noticed before. All I wanted was to get away from my husband’s house.
“As I talked to my mother, I was shocked by her response. ‘You are not the first woman to be circumcised,’ she said to me. ‘Maybe you are a chincha,’ she taunted further.”
The word ‘chincha’ sounds terrible on Yemo’s tongue. It is said with anger and hatred and that forces me to ask her to explain to me what it means.
“In my language, a chincha refers to a woman who is naturally frigid and runs away from men. Chinchas normally never get married because they cannot bear the touch of men. But how could my mother call me a chincha when she was fully aware of the role of the knife?”
As Yemo explained, I felt a surge of anger at the women who do not protect women. I remembered a workshop I attended in 2003 that was held by Akina Mama Wa Africa, where one woman activist, Bisi Adeleye, stated that we all need to feel the pain of other women in order to do something about their situations. My anger spreads from mothers who take their daughters for circumcision, to woman circumcisers and to the mothers-in-law, who taunt their daughters-in-law and force them into circumcision as if to avenge their own circumcision.
“When she called me chincha, the tears I had held all along the way as I came home tumbled out of my eyes. When my mother saw the pain she had inflicted on my feelings she started counselling me. She told me that I should be patient and that with time it would be okay. I did not tell my mother that it was not me but my husband that required being patient. I was determined not to go back because I did not see how anything was going to be okay.
“The following day, I was in bed when my sister came to call me and said that I had a visitor. I told her to tell whoever it was to come inside the house. When she insisted that the person was in a hurry and could not come in, I guessed it was my husband. You see, in our customs, a husband is not supposed to enter his in-laws’ house during such a time. I did not feel ready to see him and so I refused to come out. He was determined to see me and so he stayed at the gate and sent for me many more times, each time begging for my understanding. In the end, I went and met him.
“When we talked, he apologised for his insults and said that he had said what he had said out of frustration. He begged and promised that he would be very patient with me and that together we would agree on what to do. He told me that if I agreed to go back, everything would be on my terms. I did not believe him but you will be surprised because I agreed to go back. I felt sympathetic and, also, I decided I would give it one more try. But I knew what awaited me. Whatever plan we would hatch, whatever strategy, we would have to be husband and wife.
“One day after his visit, I went back to his home. You see, being with my mother at home did not make things any easier for me. When I got there, I found my husband drinking arkie. There was a lot of it in our room. Arkie is a local brew in Ethiopia. I think his friends brought it to him to console him after I had left. From the look of things, my husband had been drinking heavily perhaps since I left.
“When I got back, he offered me arkie too. I received it and gulped it down as if I did not taste its bitterness. He was a little surprised when I asked for more. I drank more and more and he too drank with me. When I got drunk, I allowed him to touch me. He too was drunk. The more we got drunk, the more we loosened up and eventually I became too drunk to stop him. But when he tore into me, I felt my whole being ripping open! Unfortunately I was too drunk to struggle and he was drunk enough not to care about my screams that tore into the night silence. I am sure that his mother and his other family members heard me scream but they did not come to my rescue.
“He raped me and I bled profusely and I think I must have passed out for hours.”
As Yemo describes the rape, my body recoils as if I am the one being raped. My teeth grit and I curse under my tongue. God forbid.
“For over ten days, I could not give in to his sexual advances again. I was even too careful not to drink any more arkie. When I agreed to drink it the first time I was doing it for courage to be a wife to my husband. But now I had to be fully conscious. My husband begged and pleaded but I could not agree, he even told me that if I did not give in soon enough, I would close again and be even tighter. I cared, yes, but on the other hand, I did not care.
“Later, his pleas melted me and I gave in again. I had hoped that there would be less pain but that was just wishful thinking because it was still very painful. With time, it became a different pain. It shifted from the pain of tearing flesh to the pain of forcing entry into a very narrow opening, the pain of heavy pressure. To-date, it still hurts. To-date, I still literally fight with my husband before I give in to his sexual demands. I understand that there are some women who ask their husbands for sex but that is unheard-of in my life. On many occasions I cause differences so that my husband and I are not on speaking terms. When we are in such a situation, he stays away from me and that is my joy. However, he later discovered my trick and so now he refuses to stay away.
“These days I use a special Vaseline to soften me up. But every time we do it, there will always be blood, with or without Vaseline with or without force. But God has his own miracles. In all this mess, two children still found their way into us. In both cases, I delivered normally. I have no idea what happened after that because when I healed, I went back to my size, the size of fights over my marital obligations. I had somehow hoped that normal delivery would do something for me. But I guess it is also about feelings. The knife takes all the feelings away.
“After my second child, I was fed up with the marriage institution and I wanted out. I was sure that I wanted a divorce this time.”
“But you are not a divorcee, or are you?” I ask Yemo, looking at the fancy wedding band round her finger.
“No, I am not divorced, my sister. You see, my husband and I love each other very much. It is so difficult for me to have sex with him but I still love him. It’s a dilemma the two of us were thrown into by the circumcision ritual that turned me into rock. When I told him of my intentions to divorce, he begged and pleaded and I ended up staying again. And I have decided to stay. But I will tell you the truth, my sister, I cry during every single sexual encounter with my husband. But of course it is only the four walls of our bedroom that know what goes on in there. Outside, we are a very happily married couple, handsome husband, cheerful wife and two gorgeous children. But every single day I ask God why he does not perform a miracle to return my senses to me and take away the rock that I am. But I know it will never happen. But God can do it, can’t he?”
Yemo looks at me expectantly. I have read in the Bible that Jesus performed miracles but I do not tell her that. I feel her dilemma in the contradictions of her statements. Her confusion cuts deep in my psyche. I feel the mesh of intrigue get tighter round her neck. I want to tell Yemo that something can be done but I am not sure what can be done. Instead, we stretch our arms and embrace. I feel part of her and part of her dilemma. And yes, something has to be done. A lot must be done.