ZIMBABWE: Yes, Be Proudly African, but Be Proudly Anti-FGM too

By Chenjerai Chitsaru

CULTURE is dynamic; that doesn’t sound too original, although it has the enormous virtue of being the truth, the opinions of many traditionalist Africans notwithstanding.

For me, it has always assumed a certain poignancy because it was Bertha Msora who said it, many years ago. She did not say it in relation to Zimbabwean culture per se, but to Zimbabwean urban music.

Yet Bertha, a playwright of some distinction could have been referring to herself: her father, the mercurial Kenneth Mattaka, was originally from what was then Nyasaland , her mother a Zimbabwean: this is a cultural mix which has often traumatized some of the offspring.

Both cultures have their own weird and, quite often, disgusting aspects. Yet in Zimbabwe the circumcision of both girls and boys has not assumed the frightening, controversial proportions that it has in other African countries.

I have no idea if Bertha, who once lectured at Ranche House College in Harare, was a casualty of this blend of cultures. She died at a relatively young age and was sorely missed by all who had come to know her openness and her honesty.

Kenneth Mattaka, his wife and their two children featured on many radio programme as The Mattaka Family, hosted by Ephraim Chamba, whose death occurred quite unexpectedly, in Harare only a few days ago. 

But culture is what concerns me today. I am specifically concerned about Female Genital Mutilation, in which two African children have featured as victims in two celebrated cases in the United Kingdom and the United Stated.

In the first incident, the British government granted asylum to a woman who pleaded not to be sent back to her home in Africa because she feared for the future of her clitoris her people would inflict female genital mutilation on her body. 

In the second incident, the father of a three-year-old girl was sentenced to ten years in jail for cutting off her of her clitoris. Both incidents would have been unusual in any African setting.

For a start, female genital mutilation is described simply as circumcision; in many cultures, boys are similarly circumcised. The removal of their foreskin is not pilloried as male genital mutilation. So, to the African traditionalists, what‘s all the buss about?

Basically, the fuss goes something like this: the clitoris is lopped off because of its capacity to excite sexual satisfaction: without it, the girl would feel absolutely nothing if she had sex.

The removal of the male organ foreskin has a drastically opposite effect: to some people, it elevates he sexual act to a magical level. For most women or so the pundits tell us the circumcised male organ has the equivalent properties of God’s gift to women.

If all this is a bit disgusting to your cultural sensitivities, please feel free to switch to a religious website.

Quite bluntly, there is a huge element of male chauvinism in all this. In most African cultures, the girl child is treated as if she was a terrible accident of birth.

Perhaps this is not so peculiar to Africa; in one Asian culture, female newly-born children may be routinely killed because…well…because they are not male.

African culture has changed since colonialism; there may be diehard, head-in-the-sand fanatics who insist that we are still what we were before the white man set food on our shoes, but they are whistling in the end: we have changed and will to change as we get absorbed into the global village, not only economically and politically, but also culturally.

Western culture itself haws undergone drastic changes recently: take the effects on the culture of two people, Benjamin Spock and Sigmund Freud.

After Spoke published his book on how to look after the baby in the 20th century, the child-rearing habits of the American people were transformed for ever. American cultural influence is pervasive. It was inevitable that other cultures would follow their example.

Freud revolutionized the entire field of psychiatry: anyone studying either psychiatry or psychology is bound to come across his name and that of his one-time partner, Carl Jung. Much as they would come across Alexander Fleming’s name in  the field of medicine.

The effect of these people’s practices on the culture of the world cannot be overemphasized. On a very mundane level, the US Surgeon-General’s report on smoking changed the sold vied on that horrible habit for all time.

One day soon, someone is going to open our eyes to the evil that is practiced on the girl child in the bloody practice of female genital mutilation.

In fact, the time may soon come when one of the most traditionalist rulers on the continent, King Mswati III, will get his comeuppance too.

This man, who is only in his 30s has so many wives, he once told an interviewer he could not remember exactly how many they were.

He insisted that the custom that allowed him to choose a new wife at every “reed” ceremony was one which the people of Swaziland were quite comfortable with. This doesn’t ring really true; many of the people of Swaziland have become open supporters of a political party which is campaigning for democratic change in the kingdom.

In 2003, the results of a referendum of sorts on what kind of political system the people wanted ended up with little change to the status quo: the king said simply that the people did not want too much change. He would remain an absolute monarch and that would be that. Yet you have to feel sorry for the young king. South Africa, right next door has seen such cultural upheaval, it is hardly unlikely the some of the fall-out will not land on the king’s palace doorstep.

Like most other African countries, Swaziland must have virtually serialized the fascinating sexual chi Jacob Zuma, the former SA deputy president, was embroiled in. including the controversy he generated with his rather naive, unsophisticated comments on homosexuality and the HIV/Aids pandemic in South Africa.

It’s all very well of us all, as Africans to proud of our race and our heritage, yet if we insist that such practices as female genital mutilation cannot be tampered with because they go back to the beginning of our culture, then the world is bound to wonder: are we being realistic in this 21st century?

Zimbabwe is particularly vulnerable because it has a political leadership so wedded to the past, it has raised the issue of homosexuality to such absurd heights of controversy most of the progressive world must bed wondering where we were when questions were raised and continue to be raised today about the sexual preferences of Cecil John Rhodes, the arch-capitalist who raided this’d country and gave his name to the country until the homophobic African nationalists seized it in 1980.

As if to remind us of that brief bit of history, the ghost of Rhodes must have chortled when the first black president of the new country, Canaan Banana, was caught in a web of deceit and duplicity which featured what was called “buggery”.

Among some of our ethnic groups, female genital mutilation is practiced no doubt about that. Perhaps, like the circumcision of the boys, it is kept so secretive, only a few elders of the tribe know about it or can speak authoritatively of what goes on in the remote camps set up for it.

Zimbabwe, unfortunately, may be the last of the African countries to open up about such disgusting practices as female genital mutilation. A country whose leadership agreed to the progressive Age of Majority Act with what someone called “massive reluctance” has little faith in anything that advances the cause of the girl child.

In fact, a country which is hardly excited about introducing genuinely democratic reforms in every sphere of life yet is so lily-livered about the fight against corruption is unlikely to emerge from these Dark Ages, without a big thump on the head.

(c): Zimbabwe

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