Daughter of Dust

Bint al Sudan; Daughter of Sudan, Daughter of the Dust… In telling a delightful story of her life, written for the abandoned everywhere, Leila Aziz inscribes the good things that happened to her on a piece of stone, and the bad ones in the sand. The author Wendy Wallace admirably captured the days of Leila’s life growing up as a ‘child of sin’ on the dusts of Sudan. Beginning as a toddler in a cot who survives the Mygoma Orphanage, she welcomes us into the circle of children in the ‘Institute of the protected’ where her elder sister Zulima, her adopted sister Amal, adopted brothers and many other children are abandoned. Some as a result of a culture that is intolerant of pregnancy out of wedlock, others by the death of one or both of their parents.IMG_0170

But for Leila, her parents weren’t dead, life happened to them. She never stopped yearning, smelling or imagining MOTHER in everything good. Someday Nanny Samia was like Mother; when she hugs me I feel happy. It reminds me of something… a familiar smell of bitter oil mixed with perfume. Arms that encircles me, a face I know. She continues to construct an imaginary father, even the smoking stranger in the market place could have been him.

Leila’s story presents the emotional and physical realities of abandoned children in Sudan as they battle with their label Awlad Haram, Bint Haram; Forbidden Children, Daughters of shame. In a very symbolic way, this novel captures the plights of children in the orphanage through their experience of re-adoption, stigma, discrimination and other vulnerabilities like forced or early marriage as in the case of Zulima who was married to a security guard. For Leila, her identity as an abandoned child enclosed her in a state of unfuture; a state of emptiness, of waiting that never ends, of wanting that dwindles to hopelessness.

Beyond these themes, this book became most relevant to me in its description of female genital mutilation which Leila and Amal had undergone as a part of the tradition in Sudan and many other countries.

“All the mothers (Nannies) are there, and the two women I have never seen before. The fat one- she has big hands- tells me to hurry up and take my knickers off and lie on my back on the bed. She says she’s wasted enough time with the other one fighting like a cat and that if I’ve got any sense, I’ll keep still and everything will be finished before I know it.

Mama Luban sits by my head, half on top of me, she covers my eyes with her fingers and two of the other mothers yank my knees apart and hold them so tight I cannot move. I start to shout for help- it’s all happening so quickly, I’m not ready. I feel a slap on my leg and hear Mama Hajji, the old one, say there is no need to cry, no one has touched me yet. After that, I don’t know exactly what happens but I feel a horrible sharp pain between my legs and Mama Luban says it’s an injection. Straight after that, I feel a different kind of pain, a sharp agony that drives the breathe out of my body. I try to kick the women off me, but two of them have got my legs trapped between their arms so that I can’t move. The room is full of noise: drumming, women’s voices shouting out to me to be strong… I think they might be killing me. I screamed at them to stop, as loud as I can. Mama Luban splays her fingers to clamp them over my mouth as well as my eyes as I glimpse the woman standing at the bottom of the bed with a curved needle held in fingers covered with blood. She pulls the needle away from me with a length of bloody thread behind it…The fat woman drops the needle into the bowl and wipes her hands. She kisses her fingertips with a smacking sound.

‘Just like a watermelon,’ she says. ‘No way in at all’…

There is a burning pain between my legs. My body feels as if it doesn’t belong to me. My throat is raw… I think of getting out of the bed…I realize my legs are tied together. Amal is whimpering on the other bed. I call her but she doesn’t answer…

The next day it’s still agony, although I can get off the bed and move around the room and eat the special lunch Mama Luban makes. Amal develops a fever. At night she doesn’t make sense when she talks. She has to be taken away in the Director’s car. She doesn’t come back to the village for a week and when she does, she can’t stand up… she spends most of the school holidays lying on the bed…

Mama Amaani says that Mama Luban chose the wrong woman (circumciser) to do the purification, and that if she had taken her advice and brought a younger person, there wouldn’t have been any problems… Mama Luban shouldn’t have employed an older woman who can’t see the moon in the sky, let alone the bud in a rose.

I’m sitting by Amal’s bed under the palm-leaf shade of the ‘rakuba’… I still don’t know what purification is, except that I can’t go after the ball in goal properly anymore. I can’t jump from one stone to another either… Peeing takes me a long time. It comes in drops, where it used to come as if from a tap.”

While I appreciated Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s highlighting of this theme in her book Infidel, I found Leila’s narratives of her experience of infibulation (a type of FGM) more detailed and moving, capturing the immediate consequences of female genital hacking as I will put it.

In the past months, while searching pages of different books for a fictionalized story on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), I have also travelled through many regions in Nigeria researching the trends of  FGM with support from United Nation’s Population Fund (UNFPA). Like Leila, I still do not know what justification can be given for FGM. For the girls who were not lucky to be circumcised in infancy, each time they shared their story with me, they sound like Leila, their eyes soften with tears.

Trans-generationally, many culture deceive their women into believing that their clitoris if intact will cause them harm. These harms are interpreted diversely in sync with the value system of each community. Where a community values virginity and sexual purity, women are meant to believe an intact clitoris makes them promiscuous and un-marriable. Where the value system is Fertility and children, especially the male child, women are made to believe the clitoris will make them barren or kill the male child if his head touches the clitoris during birth. In some communities, it is all of the above. Not minding similarities, no two communities have exact same reason or an exact same process for mutilating their women’s genital.

The only thing practicing communities have so far shared in common is an enmity with the clitoris pioneered by some unknown ancestors who though no being scientists, knew where and what a woman’s seat of sexual pleasure is and so hacked it off.

female-genital-mutilation-1It is estimated that every year, three million women and girls will be circumcised around the world. While the practice is not global, the consequences are. In trying to dampen our women’s sexuality, we at the worse cause them death. Otherwise, circumcised women become likely victims of severe pain, vagina tear, excessive scaring, tetanus, septicaemia, dyspareunia, urinary obstruction, stenosis leading to loss of flexibility in the vagina causing obstructed labour, fistula, still birth and most of all increased maternal mortality rate.  The most common cause of maternal death is obstructed labour; over 80% of women who suffer obstructed labour have undergone one or more forms of FGM. Hence where maternal deaths remain a global issue, FGM also remains on the table.

At the root of female sexual oppression and denial of their reproductive health right is the FGM. To Wendy Wallace who wrote this book Daughter of Dust and Leila Aziz who has shared with us some pieces of her life, I say thank you for contributing to the global campaign to end FGM. I hope that one day, people of all land and clime will come to understand that tradition must stop being the shield for hiding these murderous practices. Female circumcision is not a daughter’s love gift, when we circumcise our women, we castrate them, we kill them.

Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

INFIDEL!

ayaan_hirsi

The author Ayaan Hirsi Ali

When you lose the terror of hell, you become free. But to lose that fear isn’t an easy matter. The book Infidel is about how a young girl grew into a freedom fighter, nurturing herself from a world of faith to a world of reason, leaving god, satan, angels, heaven and hell behind, finding a moral compass within herself and no longer within the pages of any sacred book.

Born in a once peaceful Somalia, conflict in Somalia sent her family fleeing as refugees. Ayaan then lived her childhood across Saudi-Arabia, Ethiopia and Nairobi. Between these spaces, she narrates her different experience of the Islamic religion as it is diluted and mixed with culture. It was for her a world cut between honour and shame, where women were pious slaves struggling and working under a long veil, constantly reminded of the necessity of covering female limbs and face to avoid chaos for men sighting the female flesh. Girls were shamed for being kinterley; she with the clitoris, thus ending with hacked vaginas. It was a world where a Virgin’s only response to a marriage proposal was dignified silence; it is honourable. For many women, a lost honour would mean death in the hand of their father, brother or husband.

Soon Ayaan became familiar with the concept of Difference and silently questioned it as shared in the interesting scene involving her father Abeh below.

‘Abeh would always protest and quote the Quran: “Paradise is at the feet of your mother!” But when we looked down at them, our mother’s bare feet were cracked from washing the floor every day, and Abeh’s were clad in expensive Italian Leather shoes.’

Beyond gender inequalities, sharp fragmentation of class, clan, tribes and castes existed in the different societies she grew in. But travelling secretly through the pages of fiction novels, she and her sister Haweya could conceptualize an egalitarian society where difference didn’t necessarily inform exclusion.

‘We read in 1984, Huckleberry Finn, The Thirty-Nine Steps. Later, we read English Translations of Russian Novels…we imagined the British moors in Wuthering Heights and the fight for racial equality in South Africa in Cry, the Beloved Country. An entire world of Western ideas began to take shape… later on there were sexy books: Valley of Dolls, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele. All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas – races were equal, women were equal to men.’

In such a world where there is no ‘self’ for a woman, any search for a self will remain a struggle. Life was harsh but Ayaan was lucky in a very rare manner. Her kind of luck is outstanding, marked by enormous good fortune. She captures the perils and triumphs of her life below.

‘How many girls born in Digfer Hospital in Mogadishu in November 1969 are even alive today? And how many have a real voice? … When I was born, my mother initially thought death had taken me away. But it didn’t. When I got Malaria and pneumonia, I recovered. When my genitals were cut, the wound healed. When bandit held a knife to my throat, he decided not to slit it. When my Quran teacher fractured my skull, the doctor who treated me kept death at bay.’

IMG_0146Taking a train to Amsterdam as a runaway bride, Ayaan took a chance at freedom; free from bondage to a husband chosen by her father. That act of courage changed her life completely. Ayaan will later obtain a political asylum in the Netherlands and grow to be elected a member of the House of Representatives of the Dutch Parliament.

In Holland, she found the freedom of expression; the freedom to think and choose her fight. On her political platform, Ayaan advanced her criticism for Women’s right, female genital mutilation, Religion and Islam. Her passion for what she believed in will later lead to her production of a controversial short-film ‘Submission’; a film that  triggered the gruesome killing of her producer friend Theo Van Gogh and more so her having to live an endangered life with death threats.

As with this book Infidel, Ayaan’s message in the 10mins film ‘Submissionchallenges convention. Submission presents a young woman in direct dialogue with her deity; Allah. The message was strong; men and even women may look up and speak to Allah … it is possible to free oneself-to adapt one’s faith, to examine critically, and to think about the degree to which that faith is itself at the root of oppression.

I found it challenging to review a book whose author is not only accused of racial inferiority but also known for being Islamophobic by many of my friends. The foreword written by the Late Christopher Hitchens didn’t make it less controversial either. I have chosen to appreciate her bravery in exposing her private memories in a way I could relate with. I choose to critic Ayaan based on the validity of her arguments only. Her enquiries inarguably holds water; Is freedom then only for white people? Is it self-love to adhere to my ancestors’ traditions and mutilate my daughter? To agree to be humiliated and powerless? To watch passively as my countrymen abuse women and slaughter each other in pointless disputes?

27yrs old Farkunda is a Afghan, student of Islamic law who was murdered for allegedly burning a Koran by a mob of men in Kabul Afghanistan, March,2015.

27yrs old Farkunda is a Afghan, student of Islamic law who was murdered for allegedly burning a Koran by a mob of men in Kabul Afghanistan, March,2015.

I think it is for women like the late Farkhunda Malikzada that Ayaan writes. Despite Farkunda’s devotion to her faith, she is falsely accused of burning the Quran and being an American, hence lynched to a horrific death in the name of Islam by men who should have been fathers and brothers. Such are the paradoxes that challenge our faith. Indeed such women require a vocabulary for resistance, a new lens to conceptualize the gaps between the holy book and their reality. A deconstruction of the death and abuse of many women and men alike in the name of religion can only explain why development is hindered beneath some piece of sky. The mistreatment of women and girls remains the most critical human right issue globally.

From Islam to Christianity and others, there is a growing need to unlearn and reconstruct our understanding and interpretation of faith. This book by Ayaan presents a moving narrative, contributing to the wider understanding of the growing linkages between religion, culture and development or under-development.

While criticisms abound on her work, I hope we remember we have no right to question her narratives on how she has experienced life. In this book is a story about Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi; the son of Magan-the son of Isse-the son of Guleid-the son of Ali. It’s the story of her life. In writing her story bravely, Ayaan inspires me to stop tiptoeing around the pretence of my faith and speak the truth even if my voice shakes.

Written by~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye

On my shelf this season…

IMG_7448If you could give me just one gift for the rest of my life, make it a book. Books are gifts we never get tired of opening. They are the cheapest form of tourism I discovered; it amazes me how I travel to different parts of the world just inside one book. So I felt loved to get fantastic gifts of books from my friends Zoe, Mun, Samtito and Vicky. I did not forget to reward myself with some books I have long desired. In the same spirit, I am sharing the list of books I received and will be reviewing this season.

Nathan Filer ©telegraph.co.uk

Nathan Filer ©telegraph.co.uk

I am grateful to my inspiration Muneera Parbeen for the gift of ‘The Shock of the Fall’ by Nathan Filer. Aside appreciating that reviewing this book will partially de-list me from being stereotyped an ageist by some of my critics, I am excited about this book because it captures a peculiar group present in our society but marginalized. It projects the place of care and support in sustaining the well-being of persons receiving mental healthcare services, while sharing their realities. The author Nathan Filer is a young British writer. His debut novel The Shock of the Fall has won several major awards, including the 2013 Costa Book of the Year and the 2014 Betty Trask Prize.

10152999_10152346295389914_5621460594907841966_nMany thanks to Samtito Olatito, I will be reviewing more collections of books I have yearned for. ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ and ‘Memories of My Melancholy Whores’ by the late Colombian writer Gabrielle Marquez. When this famous writer Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez known as Gabo for short passed away last year, I felt bad I never read any work of his while he lived. But the saying that writers never die is true. Gabo still lives through his books. ‘Memories of My Melancholy Whores’ is a controversial love story weaving together the tales of a 90-year-old man and a pubescent concubine. ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ chronicles a fictional South American rural community Macondo highlighting their challenges and the fabric of their realities.

beahGravitating away from fiction, I will be reviewing memoirs that particularly focus on experiences of young men caught in conflict spaces, exploring the impact of the choices they make. I thought this will require my doing a cross-generational reading. So in the context of the older generation, I choose ‘All Rivers Run to the Sea’ a memoir by Elie Wiesel, a holocaust survivor and a man I adore. Alongside for the younger generation, I am reviewing ‘The Terrorist’s Son, a story of Choice’ by Zak Ibrahim and ‘A Long Way Gone’ memoirs of a boy soldier by Ishmael Beah.

Moving to books from Asia, I have a recommendation by Professor Grace Chin, who I admire, to read Raden Adjeng Kartini’s ‘Letters of a Javanese Princess’ a feminist book highlighting early 20th century treatise on education and the unfair treatment of native Javanese women. Raden Kartini is hailed as Indonesia’s fervent feminist writer. I am glad to finally have this book on my shelf and review list.

heart-of-darkness-paul-gauguinThe Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad brings me back to Central Africa. This controversial Novella has been notorious for its narratives which explores European imperialism, colonialism and the dichotomy between civil society and savage ones. I will be revisiting this work to officially review it here, being mindful of criticisms expressed by my beloved late Chinua Achebe who in a public lecture “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” described Heart of Darkness as “an offensive and deplorable book” that de-humanized Africans.

Thanks to Vicky my ever faithful reader and friend, I also have Chinua Achebe on my list. ‘A Man of the People’ by the late Prof. Achebe will finally grace this blog. I find this book critical to the understanding of Africa’s perception of democracy. In a season filled with burning passion and sentiments ahead of sensitive elections in the African continents, this book will give insight to the role of young people in governance within their polity.

When a writer shares a tale, we the readers receive and understand it differently according to the lens we wear. I have continued to read books, especially fiction books with my international development goggles in place. I encourage every lover of literature to join me on an exciting ride through the pages of books listed here. In the spirit of sharing, let’s all bring to the fore our objective perspectives in a constructive way to continue driving the discussion on linkages between literary fiction and international development issues.

To you my friends, I say thank you for these gifts, they will remain for a life time.

 

Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye