Globally, over 200 million women and girls have undergone Female Genital Mutilation. This story addresses this controversial issue, with the genders flipped because I wanted men in particular to squirm.
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Feda admired his father. Gurion was a woodworker and joiner of a skill unmatched this side of Ngoro. He could make a plank straight and level enough to satisfy the gods themselves – the elder women demanded it to show their dominion over nature – but he was happiest, as now, making peasant furniture that respected the grain of the wood.
The backrest of the chair he was working on now was a single slice from the base of a red sapele tree, its concentric age lines drawing the eye hypnotically into its centre. Gurion had sheltered and smoked the piece for over a month to dry without cracking. In the humidity of the jungle, it was said, the driest things were Gurion’s wood and Mother mRoto’s humour.
Gurion knelt, bracing the slice of wood between his legs, cutting precise notches into one edge with a chisel and hammer, being careful to apply force in just the right direction. Feda had learned his father’s trade and hoped one day to be as skilled a craftsman as he, but for now his job was to gather the shavings for kindling.
This was to be Feda’s ritual chair. It would be complete by sundown, but it would not really be finished until it had been splashed with Feda’s blood. Gurion shifted his weight into a squat. Feda knew that his father found it uncomfortable to kneel for too long since having undergone the ritual of manhood himself, many monsoons ago.
Once, he had asked his father exactly what the ritual involved. Gurion had slipped with his plane and ruined a fine headboard. In all the cursing and scolding, Feda’s question had been lost, but he knew better than to ask again. Feda knew only that the ritual involved a cut, a cut in his most private and sensitive part, and it was bound up in his head with desire, pain, fear, belonging, becoming.
Feda asked his father, “Does it hurt for long?”
A gobbet of the paste Gurion was using to glue the joint fell to the ground. “The pain is the price of manhood. You’ll be given to a wife. You’ll make a home. You’ll have a profession.”
Feda wondered what it felt like to be a man. He knew there were secrets between grown men and women, and he was curious to see how this cut would help him discover them.
At that moment Mother mPene appeared. “Gurion!” she reprimanded. “Why are you still working on the ritual chair? Tromo is coming tomorrow.”
“I know, I know. I’ll make eight more chairs.”
“Make them now!”
“Tromo’s chairs will not be sat in tomorrow. Feda’s will. The glue needs as long as possible to set.”
Tromo with his big-city clothes, his computers, his smell like a carrion flower.
“Make ten more chairs!”
“I’ve only planed the wood for eight.”
“Make twelve more chairs!”
Gurion looked at his feet. “Yes, Mother.”
mPene gave a curt nod. “Feda, walk with me.”
“But I need his help,” Gurion protested.
“Gurion, come to bed tonight when you’re done. Don’t wake me. Feda, walk.”
Feda obeyed, head down. mPene held Feda’s hand and led him through the vines, past the children playing with hoops and sticks, around the big cooking pit and into her hut.
She sat Feda down and fixed him with a disquietingly benign gaze. She was silent for a long while. Feda kept his back straight and tried not to fidget.
“Tomorrow you’ll become a man. Prior Lami will administer the cut.”
“But why?” Feda asked, and immediately regretted it. He knew that women had their own blood rite bestowed upon them by nature, and to challenge the necessary act of balancing was churlish. But mPene was not angry.
“Your penis is a disgusting thing, young Feda, and as you age it becomes far worse. The most evil sins in your soul become concentrated upon it and manifest as scurf beneath your foreskin. Lust, anger, greed, envy, pride. By cutting these free your soul is released to allow you to take your proper place in the community, as a man serving his Mothers and his wife.”
“Who will be my wife?”
“Mother mRoto’s eldest granddaughter, mFana, has chosen you.”
Feda’s ears burned red. Mother mFana! Surely the most desirable young woman in the village. Certainly beautiful. He felt his crotch stir with excitement and was immediately ashamed.
“I feel… fearful.”
mPene became stern. “Don’t let me down, Feda, my child.”
She stood and Feda took his cue to leave.
That night as Feda lay on his bed, he pressed his nails into his foreskin, trying to persuade himself that the pain would pass quickly. Then he thought of mFana’s silken skin and felt himself becoming aroused. He turned to lie on his stomach, pressing his growing shame against the rattan, willing it to recede again.
The ritual the next day was performed with little ceremony. Gurion, his eyes swollen, presented Feda with his chair; the chair was carried into Prior Lami’s medical tent and Feda followed feeling numb to his fate.
Lami was a skinny man with hollow eyes, skin like biltong, and a permanently amused expression. He had been administering the ritual cuts for this village and the next for two decades. He smelled faintly of iron.
“You must be completely naked,” he said, facing away from Feda and laying out his tools. He turned a moment later. “Come on, come on.”
Feda took his clothes off and sat. He took comfort in the chair, knowing that his father had expended much effort and love making it for him. He looked down at his genitals. A sorry-looking slug hiding in straggly moss. At that moment he hated them and they did not feel part of him.
Lami pushed Feda’s knees apart and knelt between his legs. Deftly, he tied a string tightly around the middle of Feda’s penis. Feda gasped at the sudden constriction. Sweat pricked at his brow. Lami produced a tool that looked like Tromo’s cigar cutter, a miniature guillotine.
Feda’s penis was threaded through the device, which pushed his foreskin back so that the tip of his penis was fully visible, looking like a closed cup mushroom. There was a smart clicking sound like a hammer tapping the end of a chisel, and Feda had the sudden sensation that he had wet himself. Dismayed, he moved his hands to cover himself, but Lami batted him away.
“You’re bleeding,” said Lami flatly, preparing a hasty poultice. “Be still.”
Feda focused and saw that where the end of his penis had once been, there was now a river of blood. He jumped out of his seat, tugging at the severed stump between his legs.
“You cut off too much! You cut off too much!”
“Idiot child!” scolded Lami. “Sit on your hands and let me stem the bleeding. You’re aggravating it. Sit down!”
Feda sat, not out of obedience but because his balance felt suddenly compromised and his vision became dim – or rather, white, as if the sun shone directly in his eyes. His legs squirmed beneath him as he struggled to bear the agony in his groin, which sucked up his whole being like a black hole.
Feda was vaguely aware of Lami talking as he pulled and pinched at the terrible wound. He forced himself to hear the words.
“Crazy child,” Lami muttered, shaking his head and half grinning. “You think I’d cut too much? I’ve been doing this since before you were born. I cut every man in this tribe. I cut your father, just the same amount. Now, hold still.”
Lami might have said more, but just then a stab of pain more severe than Feda could have imagined possible consumed his very soul. He threw his head back and uttered a soundless howl. He felt his consciousness falter, but it stubbornly remained.
“OK, all done,” said Lami. “Now get up.”
Feda jerked his head forward and, sweating and grinding his teeth, he glared wide-eyed at Lami’s face. Had he heard correctly?
“Come on, up, up. Go to your father. I will bring the chair so you can rest a while.” Lami hoisted Feda to his feet, helped him into a robe and escorted him out of the tent.
As he crossed to his father’s hut, Lami at his side dragging his ritual chair, Feda cast his eyes about like a wounded dog. Could it be that all these men, casually going about their business, had each been so violently trimmed? It seemed impossible that he would ever be able to function normally again.
Upon reaching Gurion’s hut he staggered to his room and sat on the proffered chair, swallowing the bile that rose in his throat when he saw the jagged trails of blood that now decorated the wood.
Lami took his leave and Gurion appeared. For a few seconds father and son locked eyes, but such was the vehemence of the unspoken words that passed between them, Gurion had to look away.
“Father!” accused Feda.
Gurion looked pained, but could not speak. He rallied, but again the words did not come. In the end, he nodded, eyes still downcast, and he left.
Feda gingerly transferred himself to his rattan bed, and then a moment later back to the chair, and then he stood and leaned his head against the wall, and then he crouched, and lay on the floor, and repeated the whole cycle again. Relief utterly eluded him. Each passing minute stretched for an hour, an hour felt like a week.
At some point Gurion brought him food, for which he had no appetite. Despite a scorching thirst he refused to drink any water. He must have slept for he woke startled by nightmares of peeing a painful spray of urine and blood.
Eventually – it might have been the next morning, although Feda had lost track of time – he was able to persuade himself that the pain was becoming a thing outside of him, a thing he could begin to put aside. He began to be able to think of other things. He toyed with the idea of leaving his room and getting something to eat.
But then he received a visitor.
mFana sashayed into his room while he was trying to dress. He put Lami’s robe back on and turned to greet her. Her face was round and inviting, with a smile that could coax a blossom from a stone. Feda started saying something but his tongue became fat in his mouth.
“Feda, you’re to be my husband,” she said. He felt a childish love for the dimples in her cheeks. Her beaded hair and scent of shea nuts. Her body like a wood-carved sculpture. “If you’re loyal, I’ll repay you with a thousand kindnesses. I’ll protect and defend you. I’ll satisfy you and make you proud. Help me to make a home and it will be our spring of contentment.”
Feda wanted to say a hundred things, but one rose above the others.
“I’ve been cut.”
“Yes, I know. It’ll take some time to heal. And then we can start our family.” She rested a hand on her midriff. A flash of endearing mischief crossed her face, and she quietly closed the door to the room.
She gently pushed Feda down into his chair and stood above him. With one fluid movement she removed her camisole. Her skin was smooth as a wax leaf. Her breasts a perfect handful. Her nipples like kola nuts.
But Feda’s lustful trance was quickly overtaken by sudden alarm. He felt his penis becoming erect, and panicked, leaping to his feet. mFana laughed at him. He could feel the wound reopening and felt sick with the anticipated pain. With urgency she put her finger to her lips, dressed herself and left.
Again, the sensation of having wet himself. A crimson stain spread quickly across his robe. He whipped the robe off and stared at the blood pumping copiously out of the hole. He screamed. Loud enough to boil the river, he screamed.
He was only dimly aware of what happened next. His mind swam with disturbing visions; his body writhed constantly as if he were a snake shedding its skin. He allowed himself to be moved and manipulated without thinking to question why or who. Despite the oppressive heat, he shivered with cold. Trembled with thirst. Swam in sweat.
In brief moments of clarity he knew that he had succumbed to fever, brought on by an infection. The infection manifested in his mind as a parasitic scorpion in his lap. Several times he brushed the beast away, but the pain of its sting persisted.
At last, after some days, he woke feeling terrible, but once again present. A soothing compress rested against his forehead. Gurion sat by his bedside, holding his hand.
“Welcome back,” whispered Gurion.
With his father’s help, Feda was able to get out of bed to eat, wash and relieve himself. He could no longer pee standing up, he had to squat, and even then it was impossible not to get urine on his legs. He cleaned himself carefully, neglecting only the truncated stub of his penis which was still too tender to touch.
He found himself walking with shorter strides, even long after the pain had subsided. His whole stature had been somehow altered. He started helping his father with his woodworking again, lamely at first like a decrepit elder, but then increasingly with his former youthful vigour.
One day Mother mPene declared him fully recovered, and announced that he and mFana would be married that weekend. mFana had not seen him much, having been busy harvesting coffee and qat, but with the wedding date set she became attentive, visiting him every evening and quietly watching him plane wood with Gurion. They were shy with each other.
On the morning of the wedding, there was electricity in the air. All the women of the village wore wraparound trousers of white linen, and ruched tops that accentuated the white teeth of their smiles. The men wore three-quarter shorts and diaphanous shirts in bold colours. Everyone had a dance in their step.
mFana held herself with grace and pride, frills at her sleeves and dyed feathers in her hair. Feda felt real awe at the sight of her; fear and wonder in equal measure. She was beautiful.
As was the tradition, the marital tent was designated. The people of the village stood by it in a circle, with Feda and mFana on opposite sides. Gurion and Mother mRoto led their respective offspring into the middle, nodded solemnly to each other, and entered the tent to negotiate the terms of the marriage.
The circle was quiet and still. In the centre, Feda and mFana locked eyes, but they were not permitted to touch. At first it felt uncomfortable to look so directly into a woman’s eyes, but with infinitesimal gestures she coaxed him to relax.
mFana’s eyes were deep and soft, full of intimacy, reassurance, perhaps even love. Feda asked those eyes a thousand questions, and the answer was singular: Trust, Feda. Trust.
Feda was stirred from his reverie by a sudden restlessness in the assembled crowd. mRoto and Gurion emerged from the tent, laughing gaily. Old Mother mRoto, her kindly face lined like windblown sand, raised a banana leaf above her head and muttered a prayer in the ancient tongue.
With the leaf she bound the couple’s hands, and thus they were joined.
Immediately, the circle broke into cheers and dance. A fire was lit, food appeared, music played – djembe drums. The party would be wild and long. But Feda would not join in the revelry, for he had an important obligation to fulfil. A gentle pull on his arm from mFana told him that she was very keen to fulfil it.
She led him into the marital tent, which was empty save for a washbowl and a makeshift bed. Feda’s stomach constricted. He only vaguely understood what was going to happen next, and the thought of it made him want to flee.
“Come,” said mFana, sitting on the bed. “Kiss me, my husband.”
Feda obliged. Their lips touched and opened. Her tongue flicked out like a snake’s. Feda found himself distracted by the raucous sound of celebration just outside the tent. mFana laughed and the kiss was broken.
“Feda, husband, you are stiff as one of Gurion’s planks. Come to me. Forget yourself.” As she said this, she put her hand between Feda’s legs. Feda knew he should submit, but he could not help squirming away.
“I don’t want you to see,” he said.
“Nonsense.” She pulled his shorts down. She examined him, smiled tightly, and held his severed member tenderly. Feda stood stock still as if facing down a lioness. His throat was dry.
mFana removed her top and untied her wraparound trousers, letting them fall to the ground. She began touching herself, caressing her breasts. In her growing excitement she grabbed at Feda’s penis.
“Sorry. I’ll be gentle.” But she persisted, tugging at Feda until he became firm. Feda looked at his erect half-penis with bile in his throat. It was purple, lumpy-scarred and disgusting. But mFana didn’t seem to notice as she guided Feda to lie on top of her and enter her.
Her eyes closed. She pressed his hips into her, and massaged her clitoris furiously. Feda’s teeth gritted. He matched her rhythm, to help her reach satisfaction as quickly as possible. He tried closing his eyes, but saw a ghostly vision of his wound reopening and then had to check several times to convince himself that the moisture he felt was neither blood nor urine but mFana’s natural lubrication.
She moaned; her face creased into something like an expression of pain. Feda realised his face was similarly creased and he made a conscious effort to relax, without success. But there was something, despite the discomfort, something primal and attractive about this difficult, sweaty act. It reminded him of the one and only time he had tried smoking a cigarette – it had been revolting, yet as soon as he had finished he had been tempted to have another.
At last she climaxed and released him. He immediately sat up and inspected himself for damage. He turned away, ashamed to let mFana see his distress.
“You didn’t finish,” breathed mFana.
“Sorry. I’m a little sore.”
“Ah, well, it’s your first time.” mFana sat up and hugged him. Her voice was affectionately mocking. “But you’re going to have to do better next time, husband, if I’m to become pregnant.”
Feda tried to take comfort in her embrace. He listened to the sounds of the party outside, and watched the flickering shadows cast against the sides of the tent by dancers in the firelight.
Married life started well. mFana was loving and considerate, and seemed pleased with Feda. He moved into her family residence, a large clay-brick house with individual bedrooms for Mother mRoto and three of her grandchildren: mFana and her younger sisters mGele and little Kampa. Feda was not used to the household’s noise and bustle and welcomed the relative peace of his daily work with Gurion.
mFana became increasingly aggressive during their lovemaking until they found a reliable way of making Feda productive. When at last mFana fell pregnant, Feda wrestled with his conscience until he could no longer allow propriety to hold him back; while they rested in bed, he blurted out his ultimatum.
“If we have a son, we must not cut him.”
Only after he had said it did he realise how heretical and dangerous the idea was, and yet how firmly he believed it. In the face of Mother mFana’s silence he simultaneously wanted to defend his position, and undo it. The silence stretched for so long he wondered if she was pretending he had not spoken at all. But the mien of her body told otherwise.
Then she turned away from him. “I’ve decided,” she said. “You will become a qat farmer.”
“What? But I’m a woodworker and joiner like my father. That’s my talent, that’s what I love. I’ve started making my own chairs already, and Tromo says they’re very fine. There’s good money in that.”
“You will become a qat farmer,” she repeated, in a tone that invited no response.
Feda was baffled, until slowly he understood that he had been punished for rebelling against the ritual cut, even if only by thought. He was crestfallen. Sleep was elusive for him that night as his mind revisited the injustice endlessly in a self-amplifying spiral.
Thus Feda began learning a new trade. There was much to learn, and it so absorbed him at first that he was sometimes able to forget how much he missed working with wood. During this time, Feda grew closer to mFana’s younger sisters, serving as a father figure although they were almost adults themselves. In the cool season little Kampa started menstruating and became Mother mKampa.
mKampa in particular seemed to admire Feda, and frequently flattered him with challenging questions about how the world worked, which he took great pride in answering in the most direct and practical way possible. She asked where the rain came from, and where it went. She asked why people valued money so much when it had no inherent usefulness. She asked what it was like to live in different parts of the world. Feda answered everything, glossing over details he wasn’t sure of.
Once, when they had both wakened early and were sitting together on the terrace, she dropped her voice to ask him about the ritual cut.
“It’s our way of balancing nature,” he replied. “And tempering the male weakness for ego and violence.”
“How can it do all that?” she said. “Anyway, you don’t seem convinced.”
“It’s been this way for generations.”
“But what’s actually cut? Ego and violence come from the heart, how can they be tempered by cutting a little finger – whether it’s on your hand or between your legs?”
“A penis is more than a finger. It gathers…” Feda hesitated, trying to recall what Mother mPene had said about his foreskin. “Now, see. The evil thoughts of men physically gather as pus around the end of the penis. So the end of the penis is cut off.”
He had tried to sound authoritative, but mKampa clearly saw through his act. “That’s brutal!” she spat. “Didn’t you think to protest?”
Feda blinked hard to suppress his emotion. “It’s a high price to pay.”
“To pay for what? My children will never suffer such degradation. I’ll temper their violence and ego by teaching them, not maiming them.”
Feda remained silent.
“I refuse to believe it,” she said. “Show me.”
Feda shook his head and stayed put, but did not dare to object. Even in her youth, this girl already had the practised and petulant authority of a Mother.
“Show me,” she repeated.
“I must go now,” said Feda.
He stood, but did not immediately leave. He desperately wanted to communicate how he felt: his gratitude that she too suspected the cut was an unconscionable hypocrisy; his fear that her innocent fervour would be tainted and forgotten as she grew. But how to put it into words? How to trust her?
mKampa’s bright eyes shone up at him. She nodded, and Feda’s heart bloomed with hope that she had understood. But in fact she had gravely misunderstood. Before Feda had a chance to react, she lifted her hands and pulled down his shorts.
“No!” he cried, but it was too late. She screwed up her face and grunted in disgust. Feda covered himself and sat, his cheeks flushing.
mKampa opened her mouth to speak, but at that moment Mother mRoto appeared on the terrace and shouted, “What are you doing?”
“Oma, he showed me his cut. I -”
“He showed you? He showed you?”
“She did it,” Feda retorted, but this angered Mother mRoto even more. She roared, and slapped him.
“Get out of this house! Go!”
Feda ran. He beat his fist against his forehead as he headed into the jungle, squashing the dewy detritus underfoot. Reeling, he instinctively headed to Gurion’s hut.
Gurion was there, as always, with his piles of wood ready to be cut and planed. He saw the tears on his son’s face and instinctively knew that whatever trouble this was, it was deep. Wordlessly, he handed Feda an adze and gestured for him to sit and work the wood with him.
For the next hour, neither of them spoke as they worked side by side. Then the police came.
“Police?” said Gurion.
Feda shook his head. But they were police, two imposing women, stern and sweating in their uniform.
“Feda Agbola,” said the broader of the two, “you’re under arrest for adultery and fornication.”
“I didn’t commit adultery. I didn’t even touch her.”
“You must come with us.”
“No. I refuse to accept the charge.”
“Then get yourself a lawyer. We have a telephone at the station.”
Feda looked pleadingly at his father. Gurion’s mouth was slightly open, his busy hands still. When Feda’s shoulders dropped, the police pulled him to his feet, and cuffed his wrists behind his back.
As they took Feda away, Gurion said only, “I love you.”
For the next two days, Feda was kept in a solitary cell with almost no communication with the outside world. The cage served as an echo chamber for his shame and righteous rage. By the time of his trial he brimmed with hatred, aimed both outwardly and in.
Thirsty and dirty, he railed at the police officer who escorted him to the court. There, he met his lawyer, a sharply dressed city Mother on a community-volunteering ticket. She asked for his story, which he told in detail although she looked summarily unconvinced. In the end, she advised him to say as little as possible.
The trial felt like a fantasy. Feda could not assimilate that the person being spoken of was himself. On one side of the courtroom sat most of the Mothers of the village, including mFana and mKampa; on the other side sat Gurion, Prior Lami and two strangers.
The prosecutor began by describing the events of the morning in question, concluding with: “Having seduced Mother mKampa, you prepared to copulate, with your wife’s youngest sister no less. The act was interrupted by your wife’s grandmother, but your intention was clear. You have viciously betrayed the trust placed in you by your devoted wife. What’s more, you are cowardly enough to blame Mother mKampa. For such a flagrant breach of common morality you should suffer the most terminal penalty allowed by law.”
The case for the defence rested on downgrading the charge from adultery and fornication to indecent exposure, which did not sit easily with Feda. Even the best possible outcome would be a gross injustice.
The cross-examination was particularly painful.
“Immediately prior to you exposing your genitals, were you having a heated debate about the legitimacy of the cut?” asked the prosecutor.
“She was -”
“Yes or no answers, please.”
“Were you feeling angered and resentful about having undergone the cut?”
“So you approve of the cut?”
Feda did not answer.
“Is it true that you have in the past insisted to your wife that any sons of yours would not have the cut?”
Feda looked at the floor. “Yes.”
“I put it to you that you were angry and resentful about the cut. You blamed your wife and wished to betray her out of vengeance and contempt.”
These manipulations continued, on and on, casting Feda as a lying, impulsive, conniving deviant. The spectating Mothers occasionally gasped and tutted, mFana loudest of all. Only mKampa was still, her expression inscrutable as she sat silently absorbing the proceedings. Whether she was protecting herself, or perhaps believed the prosecutor’s argument that she had been exploited, Feda did not know.
The defence seemed weak in comparison, like trying to apply a sticking plaster to a shattered soul. But, after what seemed like hours, the judge accepted the defence. Feda was found innocent of adultery and fornication, but guilty of indecent exposure and breach of marital contract. The sentence was five years’ imprisonment and mandated divorce. Feda would have plenty of time to reflect on his hollow victory.
The nearest prison was in the city, over a hundred miles away. His time there passed slowly. He resolved that as soon as he could think clearly he would reflect on how he had ended up here and what he could learn. But these revelations never came; each day was a paler imitation of the last, until his will atrophied. Five years seemed like a lifetime.
Worse than prison was returning home. He had changed. His small community seemed alien and hostile to him now. Even the things that used to comfort him felt empty. No one was uncivil to him, and he was allowed to work wood with Gurion again, yet he keenly felt his status as an outcast.
Not long after Feda’s return, his son had his fifth birthday. Feda was not invited to see him. So when Tromo came to buy Gurion and Feda’s furniture, Feda asked for a ride to the city.
In the truck he asked Tromo if he had been cut.
“Of course,” said Tromo. “Every man is cut.”
Feda sighed disconsolately. “Then the city is not far enough for me. Take me to the port.”
Eight years later, Prior Lami administered to Feda’s son the ritual cut.