A bitter and lonely woman, 42-year-old Kebbeh weeps as she relives the event that destroyed her life.
“I was circumcised against my will,” says Kebbeh, sitting in front of her little hut in a remote area of Mount Barclay. “I used to live in Monrovia with my husband and two beautiful daughters. (But then) I was forced out of my husband’s house because I was circumcised.”
Kebbeh was 22 when she returned home to her village in Lofa to attend her grandmother’s memorial feast. She didn’t know her mother had committed an offense against ethnic laws and, as a punishment, was ordered to bring her oldest child to the Sande Society to satisfy their ancestors. “One day, I took the bucket to the creek for water,” says Kebbeh. “While returning, some strange people jumped out of the bushes and dragged me into the Sande grove. My loud shouting and crying failed to attract any help because the creek was far away from the village.”
Forced to Sande Bush
Kebbeh was forced to stay in the Sande bush for three years. She admits that she learned some good things: how to take care of her husband and the home, singing, dancing, plaiting hair and cooking. But, when she returned home, her husband rejected her. “He told me to my face that I was a ‘handicap’ because I no longer had what brought him pleasure.”
Kebbeh has not seen her children since.
Female circumcision, also known as female genital mutilation (FGM), involves cutting some part of the clitoris or lips of the vagina, usually as part of a traditional ceremony. Elders argue the procedure is a rite of passage into womanhood, preparing a girl for marriage, curbing her sexual appetite, and helping to socialize her. But medical studies reveal circumcision causes pain and trauma, carries high risk of infection, endangers a woman during childbirth, and robs her of sexual pleasure.
In Liberia, circumcision is performed in secret bush schools or the Sande Society. 58 percent of Liberian women have been subjected to genital cutting, according to the 2007 Demographic and Health Survey, with twice as many women in rural areas being circumcised as those urban areas.
Members of the secret societies are sworn to secrecy, but increasingly, women such as Kebbeh are speaking out.
“My husband was offended when he discovered that I had been circumcised,” she says. Her husband was Grebo, a tribe that does not cut girls’ genitals, while she is Loma.
‘Complained all night’
“He complained all night and, very early the next morning, he demanded that my mother carry me back to her village because he did not want what he referred to as a ‘handicap woman’ anymore.”
Kebbeh’s story is not an isolated one. Many women who were forced into the Sande Society in the interior, like Kebbeh, complain that men – particularly in Monrovia – reject them when they discover the circumcision.
Esther (not her real name) says she was taken into the Sande Society when she was thirteen years old. She said that when she came from the bush, still a child, she didn’t realize what impact the circumcision would have on her life. As an adult woman, she was rejected by her fiancé.
“I was dating a man for three months who wanted to marry me. The whole time we dated, we did not go to bed because we agreed to go according to the biblical teaching, which says marriage before sex,” says the Kpelle woman.
A few days before the wedding, the couple decided to have sex. Esther says her fiancé, who was from southeastern Liberia, was shocked to learn that she had been cut, and called off the wedding.
Because some tribes practice it – Loma, Kpelle, Gbandi, Kissi, Belleh, Mende, Mano, Vai, Gola, Bassa, Mandingo – and others do not – Kru, Grebo, Krahn, Gio – there is division among men in Liberia. Female circumcision can lead to serious health problems and even death according to medical practitioner Dr. Jacob Payne, with the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare in Lofa. He says unsterilized razor blades or knives can cause massive infection.
“Many girls die during the process in the bush because the instruments are used on more than one person at a time,” explains Payne.
The girls can also bleed to death. As adult women, they can suffer infertility or complications during childbirth. Dr. Payne says women endure psychological effects, including depression and shame.
There are also social issues involved.
Girls encounter problems
Professor Morris Ken, a sociology instructor at the University of Liberia who specializes in human social behavior, says young girls from some parts of the interior will encounter problems when they travel to Monrovia for school. When they meet educated men who are not members of the Poro Society and do not support the practice, they may be rejected by them. In a country where finding a good husband is important, Ken says mothers may want to consider their daughters’ futures before having them circumcised.
“The child that is coming from hinterland may never want to go back,” says Ken. “She will go to school, go to college, only to have her husband leave her. She will definitely hate her people for it.” However, Ken cautions that many Liberian men may be using female circumcision as a scapegoat for abandoning their wives.
“Some are being dubious, using this as an excuse to cheat on their wives,” declares Professor Ken. “If a Kru man would come up and say he left his wife because of circumcision, I would understand. But, some of the very men from the same cultural background use their women circumcision problem as an excuse to be promiscuous…Abandonment is rampant in Liberia.”
But, says Ken, “it’s a new dawn” for the issue of female circumcision. He says that traditional societies must be looked at from a broader and more positive side that promotes the culture and infuses it into the educational system.
“Let’s look at the positive side of the Sande society and carry out some awareness,” says Ken. “Let’s dig deep and find the good. If we just say that female circumcision should be abolished, it would cause a social conflict.”
Old Man Momoh, an elder living in Robert King Town, is quick to point out the positive side of Secret Societies. Historically, he says, before a man married a woman in most tribes, she had to be a member of the Sande bush.
“When a young girl used to go to the Sande bush, and come out after three to five years, she would know how to take care of a home and take care of her husband,” says Momoh. “She would be trained to know that she is to speak when spoken to. She would know good manners.”
Young boys, he says, used to go to the Poro to learn how to hunt, make farm, and cut palm nuts to make oil to sustain his family.
Can barely write name
In Mamba Point, Monrovia, 45-year old Lorpu sells coals to earn a small living and admits she can barely write her name. The woman has no interest in hearing the “positive” sides of secret societies.
Lorpu was removed from primary school to attend the Sande bush school in Lofa when she was 13 years old, and three years later forced into early marriage. She says she suffered frequent infections from her circumcision, and her husband (who was not a member of Poro) began to cheat on her and eventually abandoned her.
“I got infected,” says Lorpu. “If [my husband] comes to bed and doesn’t find that, he will start to play.”
As for Kebbeh, she says her husband forced her out of the house and refused to let his daughters leave. “He was afraid that my mother would also spoil them as she had spoiled me.”
Kebbeh says it was circumcision that destroyed her life, not the other Sande practises.
Twenty years after being captured, circumcised, and abandoned by her husband, she still hopes to one day see her children.
“I heard my husband took them to his sister in the US and since than I have not heard from them,” she says. “I believe that God would allow me to see them one day and tell them the whole story before I die.”