One of the first Wolof words I learned upon arriving in Senegal at the start of my year working for Tostan as a Regional Volunteer was teranga. Senegal is known as the country of teranga, which means hospitality. I have been fortunate enough to have experienced a great deal of this famed hospitality during my time accompanying Tostan social mobilization (SM) teams, helping to document their work during visits to villages in southern Senegal. The teams spent two days in each village, culminating in a community-wide meeting. They would speak about different human rights themes and then open up a discussion about the practices of female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage.

Even though they had never met us before, people in these communities always welcomed us into their homes. We would immediately be offered water to drink and invited to sit as tea was prepared for us. People would give up their beds for us, spending the night on mats outside so that we could have the most comfortable places to sleep. Often, the team would receive three dinners a day, each from different members of the community who wanted to show their appreciation. Occasionally a community member would even present the team with a chicken, a significant gesture given that meat in the villages we visited is eaten on rare occasions.

The examples of teranga that I have experienced in these rural communities are endless. When I went on my first mission, however, I was uncertain of how the social mobilization team and I would be received. We were going to communities to talk about the deeply rooted traditional practice of FGC, which is a taboo topic in certain Pulaar and Mandingue villages in the region.

In order to be effective, the SM teams must approach the subject delicately and objectively. If they enter a community and accuse people or threaten legal action against them if they continue to practice FGC, the community may perceive the teams’ efforts as an attack on their customs and will refuse to hear what they have to say. The team’s goal is to educate communities about human rights and the consequences of FGC so that they, along with other communities in their social network, can decide for themselves to abandon the practice. Their approach relies on an unbiased delivery of information, starting out with less controversial topics like child vaccinations, women’s rights, and keeping kids in school before bringing up the subject of FGC and child/forced marriage.

Based on everything I had heard and seen about FGC before coming to Senegal, initially it was difficult for me to avoid feeling some anger towards those who were resistant to abandoning the practice. Knowing the dangerous consequences that can result from being cut, I perceived the practice’s continuation as a flagrant disregard for the health of women and girls. I assumed that FGC was a practice propagated by men to encourage the submission of women and to solidify male dominance in the community.

My assumptions about FGC were first called into question when I learned that it is women in Senegal who do the cutting of these girls and that many mothers choose for their daughters to be cut. I had assumed that men were the ones carrying out the practice. Upon learning otherwise, I could not understand why a mother who had undergone the traumatic and painful experience of being cut herself would want to continue the cycle.

But then I went into the communities. I expected my preconceived notions of conservative individuals who valued tradition above the health and wellbeing of women and girls to be validated. It did not fit, then, when I saw the affection that the mothers had for their children, or the generosity of the communities towards strangers (such as our SM team), or the way individuals worked together to prepare meals, build homes, or work in the fields. It would be naïve of me not to recognize that the presence of an outsider can alter the behavior of a community and that people would want to show themselves in a positive light when others are present. However, the community members’ concern for the wellbeing of others, whether or not they are from the community, is unmistakably genuine. I realized that my idea of FGC as a malicious tradition practiced explicitly to harm and degrade women did not match my experience of the warm, generous communities in Kolda and Sédhiou.

During the community meetings facilitated by the SM team, participants often told us that they had heard over the radio, or by other means, that FGC should be abandoned, but no one had explained to them why. They did not realize that hemorrhaging during childbirth could be a result of FGC, as could menstrual and urinary difficulties. They had never been given this information. So rather than deliberately choosing to continue this harmful practice despite the consequences, these communities did not know the consequences. In addition, some people believed, incorrectly, that FGC is a practice required by Islam and found in the Koran. They continued the practice not because they wanted to degrade women, but because they had been taught that it purifies women and is a requirement of Islam. They had never learned otherwise.

I now also understand what was most inexplicable to me, the fact that some women choose for their daughters to be cut. I was not aware of the weight carried by this social norm in many communities. It is believed that if a girl has not been cut she cannot marry, nor can she prepare food for others or clean. She is isolated and ostracized. For this reason, many mothers, as well as the girls themselves, see being cut as a necessary act in order to be accepted in society. Mothers who have their daughters cut do not make this decision because they don’t love their daughters; they make this decision because they do. They want the best life possible for their girls, and with the social norms established in their community, they feel that this is the only option.

Knowing what I know now makes me all the more excited about the work that Tostan and the Orchid Project are doing to promote the abandonment of FGC. The SM teams have the potential to be the first people to ever come to a community and explain what can happen as a result of FGC. The community may not decide then and there to abandon the practice, but receiving the information is a critical first step. I feel privileged to have been able to witness firsthand the incredible work that these SM teams do and look forward to continuing to share with others the experiences and the impact that they are having in Senegalese communities.

Story by Allyson Fritz, Tostan.