Keeping the Culture and Dropping the Knife

6 min readOct 31, 2023

Authored and edited by Purposeful team members

I grew up in a small village in the Eastern part of Sierra Leone. Here, the Bondo society — the female secret society where girls and women undergo Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) — was regarded as a rite of passage for girls, signifying that they were now full-grown women ready for marriage. In my early years, the Bondo society was sacred. Those who join the Bondo society are expected to never talk about what happens there, and if they do, they might get a heavy penalty or punishment.

I felt peer pressure to join the society. A classmate my age who had joined the Bondo society was considered our superior — more knowledgeable and mature than the rest of us. Hailed as a ‘’complete’’ and ‘’clean’’ young woman, we were not supposed to exchange words with her. We were certainly not to confront her — such daring actions could result in being summoned by the Soweis — the FGM practitioners — who might levy a heavy fine on one’s parents or, worse, get them forcefully initiated.

The Bondo society had its share of glitter, new outfits, cash and other gifts that came after one had completed the rites. For teenage girls who hardly had resources or attention from their parents or community, this was a way to get both. At the height of this allure, girls would hide to join the society. Of course, many were unaware that once you go in there, you don’t return without the clitoris being mutilated, or other forms of FGM (you can watch this short film Wati Kura for a greater understanding). Being the naive, obedient girl I was, I listened to my parents’ advice not to hide and join Bondo society. Their fears were not a result of the dangers of FGM; rather, they were not financially ready. Yes, Bondo is quite expensive for many families.

I was still hoping to join the society in Junior Secondary School, but my parents were still not financially ready. In Senior Secondary School, I told my parents I would not join the Bondo Society until I sat the West Africa Senior Secondary Certificate Examination. At this time, the main event of the society was already an open secret to me (cutting off the clitoris, or more). Yet, I never objected to the idea of joining the Bondo society because I was with the knowledge that it was our culture, and I didn’t know the gravity of the pain I would feel.

I finally joined the Bondo Society at 19, after my exams. I recall that day like it was yesterday. I remember the women, including the Sowei, taking me to a place. My eyes were blind-folded, and only my pants were left on. How they told me to sit down, and how quickly I obeyed. They were forceful — laying me down, stripping off my pants and tying my two hands together, and widely opening my legs. Some sat on my thigh, pressing my body and shoulders against the floor. I felt someone (probably the Sowei who did the cutting) opening my labia and gripping my genitalia. I felt the sharp cutting of my clitoris. I fought, but I couldn’t stop them. I shouted, yet nobody could hear me because my mouth was filled with cloth.

They finished the cutting, spread some grind leaves on the cut, tied a rope on my waist, tied a piece of cloth, and put my pants back on me before they could release me. They told me to get up, but I couldn’t. I have never felt so much pain in my life. They took me up, but I could barely feel my feet. They held me on their shoulders, leading me to another room to rest. It took me a month to heal completely. To speed up the healing process, my mother had to seek external medication, like buying some antibiotics and penicillin.

I felt so much pain when they cut my clitoris. No, I never once spoke against it. I didn’t have the words to name this as harm. All I could tell myself was that I would never allow my daughter to undergo this humiliation and hurt. I became more confident to speak against FGM when I joined Purposeful. Working with girls and other survivors has made me aware of all the advocacy needed to end this practice. Imagine that day when I heard one of the girls we work with say this;

’Me this small thing wae ar dae enjoy so, ar nor go gree leh anybody cut am’’

(For me this small thing that I enjoy so much, I am not going to agree to let anybody cut it.)

A colleague and I were conducting a support visit to CARL, one of our Girls’ Circle Collectives partners from Western Area Rural, during skills sessions with mentors and girls. As the girls settled in for lunch, I overheard a serious conversation at one of the tables, which sounded like a debate on FGM. I quietly eavesdropped, intrigued by the various perspectives they held on FGM. Some argued over the negative impacts, while others held on to my previous belief that, ‘’It is our culture’’. I admired one of the girls who seriously tried to convince the others, saying this specifically in Krio;

“The Bondo society e fine as a culture, but we for dae against de cut-cut.”

(The Bondo society is good as a culture, but we are against the cutting.)

Her gestures and the way she stated these opinions almost made me laugh. I had to compose myself as I didn’t want them to notice that I was secretly listening to them. Unfortunately, the conversation ceased when they were called back to continue their session.

This short moment made me realise that girls do discuss FGM in their spaces. Whether they are for or against the cut, there is awareness around the issue. This affirmed my belief that girls are not too scared to discuss FGM, and the narrative is changing. I was also reminded of another supporting visit we made in Falaba. There, the mentees took us to the acting Girls Empowerment Facilitator in the community, who happens also to be the community mammy queen — the community leader. During our conversation, four little girls were standing at the window of a locked house, staring at us. I felt disturbed. I noticed that the girls had just been cut. To be sure of this, I asked the mammy queen, who confirmed that they were new FGM initiates.

What surprised me then, was what one of the girls told me as we left. She mentioned that the family of the initiates hired a Sowei from another community. This Sowei comes in to do the cuttings and then leaves the girls to their parents to continue treating them until they are healed. I asked her if they had ever listened to the “Kapu Sens”, our Purposeful Karo Kura debate show series on national radio. She replied that she had. I was surprised when she told me that they had invited the Sowei into their safe space and played the series to her. Although this particular girl was in support of FGM, she was keen to continue the conversation.

Girls are brave. In their own ways, they have made me question my silence over the years. In their actions and words, they have enlightened me to speak up against FGM. I know better now. I might support the idea of keeping the culture and dropping the knife. In fact, in my early years, this was a practice, which they called in Mende as “Gbowa Jandi”. (A Bondo society when a group of girls go through a Bondo society without cutting) for some ceremonial purposes, as requested by the paramount chief or Sowei themselves. I hope this movement will persist and there will be an end to the cutting.

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