I asked if it was her decision and she said she did it for her mom. Not even her dad could convince her mom otherwise. So she and her 13 yr old sister had gone through the initiation. I didn’t ask about what happened in the bush but I did ask if she would send her own daughters there. She said no. I changed the topic to talk about Physics and Maths since she's in the sciences, as we continued our walk circling around our home.
I have read and listened intently as the topic of female societies and female circumcision has taken over Sierra Leone. As the father of a girl and uncle to several others, while my lens for this topic is personal, it is primarily societal: what would I want for my own children and broadly any other girl? What will make Sierra Leone achieve its potential as a stable, and productive society?
This is a complicated discussion informed by anthropology, female rights activism, cultural and economic arguments. While there are novel and intriguing positions trying to find a common middle ground, I find it to be a very polarizing debate often reduced to cutting vs no cutting; total cultural preservation vs modern progression; African views vs Western views.
And yet, in all of this intense debate, what gets missing is our clear unified understanding of what our ultimate goal is for women in our society. I will propose two guiding principles that I have found to be true at the extremes and everywhere in between:
Girls and women need safe, secure and healthy spaces where they can develop their full human potential to contribute to society.
We absolutely must respect and celebrate our cultures and our values; AND cultures do in fact evolve.
Based on these principles, I want to present a different viewpoint: Take Back the Bush.
In this thought experiment, I focus on rural Bondo Bushes where young women go for weeks at a time to join the society. Also, I do make an assumption that the Bondo Bush, to the best of my knowledge, is the ONLY WOMEN-ONLY space where intergenerational (great grandmothers and 6 yr olds), interfaith, interclass, poor and rich, educated and illiterate, community leaders and farmers, and women of all types interact. If we assume there are a couple physical Bondo Bush locations per chiefdom, then this network of women present the largest network of women in the country.
So, the idea is this:
Make the Bondo Bushes Centers of Excellence where young women learn 21st century life skills needed to become civic leaders and entrepreneurs.
Make the Bondo Bushes into a network of social spaces where young girls can be mentored by their grandmothers and also get peer mentorship.
Make the Bondo Bushes into safe spaces where girls learn sexual education; where sexually active women access contraception and quality reproductive care; and mothers access resources for their children.
Make the Bondo Bushes spaces for keeping culture and arts alive through music, theater, and other creative activities.
Make the Bondo Bushes digital hubs where young women can access connectivity and learn coding.
Yes, I did go there. Make the Bondo Bushes fully networked, power sufficient digital and economic hubs.
The thing is, all of this is possible. We can keep our culture, protect our girls, empower our women and build the human capital of our society. Some might argue that guardians who preside over the ceremonies are often illiterate, rural women who learned their craft through vertical transmission of cultural knowledge on midwifery, child care, native medicine-pharmaceuticals, and civic leadership. That is precisely why they must remain central to this idea.
How? It’s simple. We must:
Learn the culture of the societies and develop a curriculum that celebrates our history and prepare our young girls to be fully equal contributors in our current society. This process should be led by current women leaders of the Bondo Society.
Engage young women, and mothers about what they imagine for women in their societies in the future.
Provide training and curriculum for current women leaders in Bondo as leaders in learning and literacy. Implement literacy, numeracy, computational thinking courses and remedial courses in facilitation, negotiation and counselling for those who need it.
Provide connectivity and data to each society with strong broadband internet signal. For those children within walking distance, they can use the space as resource centers (library and connectivity) within day hours.
Provide power (renewable energy) and digital devices for members of the society.
Compensate the women leaders for their roles and pay them excellent wages.
Upgrade the conditions of the bushes, and make them the holiday camps they could be for girls.
Provide or train community health workers who can offer guidance counselling, provide contraceptives and other female reproductive care. Include existing Bondo leaders in this skills training.
Provide seed capital for ideas and inventions that come out of camps. Put a timeline for camp sessions that align with school calendar.
Provide every cohort of girls and women with access to a community fund for arts, celebrating and honoring their participation in style and color.
No, there's no catch. Every one of these spaces must be certified with health and safety licenses; have trained staff on site and provide all support for participants. There will be no cutting at these centers. All violators will lose their license, get punished, and dismissed from their paying jobs as stipulated by Government and the laws of Sierra Leone.
While the current public discourse may be engaging with passionate viewpoints, it is definitely not centred on girls receiving the skills they need to become women able to compete in the global economy. The idea presented above to Take Back the Bush is one that recognizes our history and culture, and imagines a bright future powered by women who are digital revolutionaries even in remote rural areas. This year saw Donna Strickland win the Physics Nobel Prize- the first woman in 55 years and only the third in history. It could be one of our daughters from Sierra Leone with that Medal in a decade. I do believe that the Bondo Bushes may just present us the scientists, artists and leaders who are the women we need to transform our nation – if we make the Bondo Bushes safe, secure and economically vibrant places for learning and human development