REGION, Senegal — In this corner of West Africa, old women are
both ubiquitous and invisible. They feed, heal and watch the children;
settle family squabbles; and sit in the shade of thatched awnings as
the world passes them by.
Until, that is, Judi Aubel, a tall 62-year-old Californian, appears
at the foot of their huts with a broad smile like a safari-bound Mary
Poppins. Then, the old women throw up their arms in welcome, pump their
visitor's hand, and share with Aubel all manner of confidences.
Aubel, an anthropologist and community health specialist, first got
involved with elderly women in 1993 on a trip to Thailand. While parents
worked the fields, grandmothers played a crucial role feeding children.
"We have prejudices against old people when in fact they are very
wise," said Aubel. She founded a nonprofit group called the Grandmother
Project in 2004 to help development organizations take elderly women
In the Kolda region of southeastern Senegal, Aubel is using her expertise
to help abolish female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation.
Her pilot project is co-financed by World Vision/Canada, a humanitarian
charity, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Experts estimate that the partial or total removal of external female
genitalia affects 2 million to 3 million girls each year, mostly in
Africa. Its most extreme form, infibulation, can result in organ damage,
incontinence, infertility, prolonged labor or death.
Public awareness of the dangers of female genital mutilation and efforts
to ban the practice have increased in recent years, with the United
Nations declaring Feb. 6 International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female
In Senegal, the Kolda region is ground zero in the campaign to end female
circumcision. A demographic and health survey in 2005 found that 94
percent of women and girls had been mutilated there, compared to 28
percent nationwide. Although female circumcision was banned by the Senegalese
government in 1999, older women were neither consulted nor necessarily
Aubel's aim is to fix that.
Taking time to persuade older women makes sense: They wield the blade
and supervise the girls during the koyan (literally, "the test"),
the traditional rite of passage practiced by the Halpular people.
In the village of Saré Kouna, about two dozen neat huts surrounded
by pastures and peanut fields, a 60-year-old woman explained her peers'
r eluctance to renounce their traditions.
"The law scared people. We couldn't perform our rites openly —
the village chief would have been jailed," said Hawa Baldé,
her head framed by a spotless white scarf. "But our hearts had
not abandoned circumcision. We did it secretly to very young girls.
We didn't know if the act of cutting had a physical virtue or not. It
was a tradition."
In this tradition, young girls, ages 5 to 10 generally, were taken from
their families, grouped in a hut, operated on without much regard for
hygiene or pain, and then kept under the watch of elderly women for
weeks while they recovered from their wounds. Some died from the bleeding
and infections; many others suffered painful complications later in
life, particularly during childbirth.
In the nearby village of Kandia, Binta Sabaly, 51, remembers with terror
the woman who cut her when she was 10.
"I would crouch low to the ground when I saw her from afar. I did
not dare look at her in the eyes."
Sabaly is an assistant midwife who knows firsthand the complications
caused by circumcision during labor. Yet she retains a sort of nostalgia
for the difficult times she shared with about 30 other girls that year.
"We were sent to collect wood and peanuts. We learned how to prepare
meals and how to salute older villagers with respect," she said.
"We danced and sang, and learned to interpret the gestures of grandmothers
without a spoken word."
"The koyan meant that authority existed. Girls came out of it with
the idea of accepting and submitting to authority," echoed Baldé.
When Senegal banned female genital mutilation 10 years ago, the practice
went underground, increasingly performed on girls too young to remember
anything but the excruciating pain. This degradation of the rite took
place against a background of rapid social change that further threatened
Economic migration, new roads and television brought foreign ideas to
remote villages. Revealing clothes, rasta hairdos and postures copied
from Mexican telenovelas started competing with traditional dress and
decorum. Thousands of new classrooms, where lessons are taught in French,
widened the gap between generations. By going off to school —
instead of working at home and marrying young — teenage girls
also became more exposed to the dangers of flirtation and pregnancy
out of wedlock.
Since 2006, Aubel and her staff have coaxed elderly women in about 15
villages to reflect on their customs and traditions in the hope that
they will reconsider harmful practices and revive beneficial ones.
In these villages, communal storytelling nights, traditional dances
and singing are enjoying a comeback.
At a forum in Kandia in December 2009, men and women from two villages
spent two days in a classroom sharing their views, breaking into small
workshops, and bursting into song and dance to the beat of a drum. An
imam reminded participants that a woman does not have to be circumcised
to be a good Muslim. (The Koran does not condone female circumcision.)
Sabaly, the assistant midwife, described the prolonged, painful labor
of circumcised women.
"It's an approach based on respect and dialogue," said Aubel.
"What I offer is an exchange. They can't refuse to share ideas
when they feel they have so much to say."
For Baldé, a similar two-day forum in 2008 had a life-altering
She came away convinced that values such as solidarity, respect and
honor were not so outdated. Baldé promptly gathered all the inhabitants
of Saré Kouna to announce the end of circumcision and was elected
president of the local grandmothers.
Asked how she would educate 2-year-old Hawa Kandé sitting quietly
on her lap, Baldé answered she would protect her from cutting,
and teach her how to behave properly through traditional songs and tales.
"If she receives lessons both from school and her elders, she will
be set for life."
de Préneuf is a freelance journalist and photographer based in