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Sierra Leone’s ritual society breaks away from female mutilation practices

In Tonkolili and Port Loko, a new type of ritual is emerging in which girls are initiated by the Sowei, but are not “cut”

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Sierra Leone's ritual society breaks away from female genital mutilation practice
Bondo women's secret society dance during a performance in Kroo Bay, Freetown. (Photo by LYNN ROSSI / AFP)

Wearing a fading Mickey Mouse T-shirt, her knees hugged to her chest, eight-year-old Musu Kamara sits in a corrugated shack in Sierra Leone’s capital waiting for her initiation into a secret society.

Kamara will live for two weeks in the bush with a sisterhood called Bondo.

There, she and other girls will learn ritual dances and chants and how to confront spirits as the group is groomed for adulthood and tribal duties. And Kamara will also have to endure female genital mutilation.

For youngsters in Sierra Leone, the end of the school year often means passing through initiation into a Bondo or, for boys, an all-male group called a Poro.

The ceremonies have deep roots and are jealously guarded in many villages, where they are defended as a vital moment in life.

READ: Poo Power: How dung biodigester is supercharging farming in Kenya

But many of the children who take part in them will be scarred, physically, as well as mentally.

Boys, whose retreats can last months, may be sliced on the back with razors to leave the “mark of the teeth” of a spirit that swallows them.

Girls face “cutting”: the removal of their clitoris, a practice found in other parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia — and increasingly reviled.

Social status –

Secret societies have an entrenched role in tribal and political life in Sierra Leone, as in other parts of West Africa.

Membership confers social status and respect, even opening doors to tribal chief posts and government jobs.

Joe Alie, a professor of African studies at the University of Sierra Leone, said more than 90 per cent of the country’s population was involved in ancestral and secret rites.

Bondo and Poro societies “still play a leading role in the social, religious and political life” of communities, he said.

But President Julius Maada Bio’s government faces a delicate balancing act over how to manage these influential organisations and their traditions.

The pain of ritual, especially female genital mutilation — FGM — is increasingly under attack.

Even Bio’s wife, Fatima, was caught up in the debate early this year.

She provoked a huge backlash after publicly declaring she was not against FGM, which practitioners call circumcision.

The first lady later said she had been misunderstood and that she condemned the forcible excision of girls aged under 18.

Yambundu Oile, who has initiated thousands of girls like Kamara, said “cutting” was only part of the initiation.

“It is not only to circumcise them, we also teach them to be a woman, to cook, to respect the elders,” she said.

“After the initiation, they return to their community to continue their education until their marriage.”

Under pressure –

The societies are under pressure after a string of kidnappings and even deaths, forcing the government to temporarily ban them. 

READ: Biblio-art: How Polish artist adorns Egyptian monastery with Christian designs

Now, rituals cannot be imposed on minors without their consent, and any discrimination for non-membership of a secret society is prohibited. 

But analysts see little impact.

“The challenge is to eliminate female genital mutilation, but not the Bondo culture,” which plays an important role in society, says Rugiatu Turay, a former minister who supports a ban on FGM.

“We have more Bondo sites than schools in Sierra Leone… But it’s hard to convince people to reform their practices because politicians fund circumcision ceremonies to win votes.”

Despite this, the outcry against FGM is leading to change.

“I want none of my daughters to undergo genital mutilation, which leaves a mark for life,” says Mabinty Bangura, who endured FGM 20 years ago — a ceremony whose pain, she said, “never seemed to end”. 

“One woman covers your mouth, another is holding you by the chest and two others by the legs,” she said.

“Then they spread your legs, remove the whole clitoris and apply a tissue impregnated with medicinal herbs.”

No-FGM rituals –

In the northern regions of Tonkolili and Port Loko, a new type of ritual is emerging in which girls are initiated by the Sowei — the head of a female secret society — but are not “cut.”

It is the initiative of a Swiss aid worker, Michele Moreau, who in 2010 became the first European to join a Bondo, taking the name of Shema Roko. 

“Twenty-five Soweis have vowed before leaders to stop the circumcisions. They replaced their red scarves with yellow ones, creating the ‘Yellow Bondo’,” said Moreau, whose association supports the schooling and health of young girls. 

Since then, around 700 girls have been initiated in Tonkolili without undergoing FGM. 

READ: Contents of two ancient pyramids unveiled in Egypt

Some applaud the initiative as a way of enrolling secret societies into the fight to stamp out mutilation. 

Others, though, oppose it as disrespectful.

“I hope that circumcision continues, but with the consent of the girls,” said Sento Kamara, a Bondo member. “It is part of our culture and our tradition.”

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Police, soldiers deployed to prevent banned march in Zimbabwe’s Bulawayo city

Soldiers and armed police on horseback and in trucks were seen patrolling the central business district

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Police, soldiers deployed to prevent banned march in Zimbabwe's Bulawayo city
Zimbabwean anti-riot police patrol the streets of Harare. (Photo by Jekesai NJIKIZANA / AFP)

Troops and police were out in force in Zimbabwe’s second city of Bulawayo on Monday to prevent a planned opposition march, days after brutally dispersing a similar banned protest in Harare.

Soldiers and armed police on horseback and in trucks were seen patrolling the central business district and most of the high-density suburbs. 

Using a loudhailer, police warned people against joining the demonstration, called to protest deteriorating economic conditions.

One of the city’s usually busy areas, the precincts of Tredgold Magistrate Courts, where illegal forex changers ply their trade, was cordoned off by police.

Police have also set up checkpoints on most roads leading to the city centre.

Zimbabwean police banned the protests organised by the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) after they violently dispersed protesters who had defied a similar order in Harare on Friday. 

The MDC is challenging the ban in court.

READ: Zimbabwean police fire tear gas to dispel opposition protesters

The protesters are angry over the country’s floundering economy and the jailing of a well-known government critic, tribal chief Felix Ndiweni. 

The chief who is highly revered in the western Matabeleland region of the country, was last week jailed for 18 months for allegedly destroying a villager’s property.

Police fired teargas and beat up several demonstrators in Harare on Friday after they gathered in a square where the protest had originally been scheduled to start.

Friday’s protests were the first since President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s decision to hike fuel prices by more than 100 per cent sparked nationwide demonstrations in January which left at least 17 people dead and several injured when soldiers opened fire.

Mnangagwa took over from long-time ruler Robert Mugabe, and then won disputed elections in July last year vowing to revive the economy.

But Zimbabweans say things have gone from bad to worse with shortages of bread, fuel, medicines and other goods and the skyrocketing cost of living. 

According to the UN, about five million Zimbabweans, or a third of the population, are in need of food aid.

“We are deeply concerned by the socio-economic crisis that continues to unfold in Zimbabwe, the UN Human Rights spokesman Rupert Colville said in Geneva on Friday. 

“We urge the Government to find ways to engage with protesters, and to refrain from the use of violence”, it further stated.

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Teenager with albinism found dismembered in Burundi

The teenager was found dead late Saturday in the northwest of the country along the Rusizi river

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Burundi teenager with Albinism found dismembered

15-year-old teen with albinism found dismembered one week after going missing

Case is first of such killing in Burundi for 3 years

Over 20 Burundians with albinism have been killed since 2008

A 15-year-old albino boy has been found dismembered in Burundi a week after going missing, the first such killing in the country in three years, a local albino group said Sunday. Albinos, who have white skin and yellow hair as a result of a genetic disorder that causes the absence of pigmentation, are killed regularly in some African countries for their body parts, which are used in witchcraft rituals. 

The teenager was found dead late Saturday in the northwest of the country along the Rusizi river separating Burundi from DR Congo, not far from his home village.

“The young albino was killed atrociously… His murderers cut his right leg off at the knee, his right arm and his tongue,” said Kassim Kazungu, the head of the local association Albinos Without Borders.

More than 20 albinos have been killed in Burundi since 2008, with the last case in 2016 when a five-year-old girl was found dismembered after being taken from her home. Kazungu said a four-year-old albino boy had been missing since October 2018 from the village of Cendajuri near the Tanzanian border, but that he had “no hope” of finding him alive.

Some experts believe the demand for albino body parts in Tanzania – where such attacks are the most prevalent – has fuelled such killings in border areas.

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Libyan National Army attack Mitiga airport and Zuwara airfield

Libyan National Army said it targeted a hangar “which houses Turkish drones and their ammunition”.

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(FILES) This file photo taken on April 08, 2019, shows the Mitiga International Airport in Libya's capital Tripoli. - Rocket fire on August 11 hit the Libyan capital's sole functioning airport, violating a temporary truce between the unity government and forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar, airport authorities said. (Photo by Mahmud TURKIA / AFP)

Tripoli’s sole functioning airport Mitiga and Zuwara airfield were targeted for the second time in less than 48 hours – the former hit overnight Thursday and the latter on Friday morning.

The Government of National Accord (GNA) reported that three people were wounded in the raids by forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar against the two airports under its control.

Airport management at Mitiga reported rocket fire against the runway “as planes took off and landed”. 

The UN-recognised GNA said on Facebook that Haftar’s forces “targeted employees of the airport services company” at Mitiga with Grad missiles, causing shrapnel wounds to two workers and damaging a bus.

Flights were temporarily suspended or rerouted to Misrata, 200 kilometres (120 miles) east of Tripoli.

In the attack against Zuwara airfield, Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army said it targeted a hangar “which houses Turkish drones and their ammunition”.

The Tripoli-based GNA said a member of civil protection was wounded in that attack.

Pro-Haftar forces also “targeted other hangars… located 1.5 kilometres to the east of Abu Kamach”, LNA spokesman Ahmed al-Mesmari said on Facebook.

The country’s biggest petrochemical complex is located there, near the Tunisian border.

Forces loyal to the GNA and the LNA are embroiled in a stalemate in Tripoli’s southern outskirts after Haftar launched an offensive against the capital in April.

Fighting over the last four months has killed 1,093 people and wounded 5,752, according to the World Health Organization. 

Some 120,000 have been displaced over the same period.

Libya has been mired in chaos since a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. 

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