By Ben Barber
I was taking a walk around the fascinating streets of Ibadan, Nigeria, some years ago when I noticed a poster showing a smiling man under the banner title “Olola.”
Ololas are unschooled men who cut the clitoris and labia off of girl babies to be sure they will not enjoy sex so much when they grow up and they will not be unfaithful to their husbands.
I found the whole idea of such cutting to be deeply disturbing.
I was in Nigeria to deliver a month-long series of journalism training workshops, sponsored by the U.S. Information Agency – later absorbed into the State Department as the office of Public Diplomacy. After the end of the workshops, I wrote articles for publication. So I was always looking to learn as much as I could about the country.
I turned back to the sign and find the Olola standing next to his small surgery with its concrete floor and walls. He was very friendly and urged me to sit and chat. He seemed so certain his cutting was serving a useful function for his customers, who began to arrive holding babies who soon began a chorus of screams.
The first baby to be cut that morning was stretched out on a plastic sheet on the floor of the otherwise empty room. Her mother held her still while I leaned over the shoulder of the Olola. He poured some red liquid into a ceramic pot full of water, and he washed two razor blades and his hands in he solution.
When the baby was firmly held down, the Ololoa cut off the clitoris, a small button of flesh that is the source of much of the pleasure of sex. He poured some of the red liquid over the wound.
The Olola also cut the cheeks of the month-old girl, etching tribal marks that would remain on her face the rest of her life.
After these cuts, the baby was picked up by the mother and allowed to nurse, silencing her screams.
Outside the surgery, I met the baby’s grandmother, who told me she had pressed her daughter-in-law to have the cutting done, lest the girl grow up and be unable to find a husband.
She told me she believed in a myth that supports female genital mutilation (FGM): that if the clitoris is not cut and the girl grows up to have children, they will die during childbirth if the baby’s head touches its mother’s clitoris.
After the cutting I witnessed, I contacted the gynecology department at the top Nigerian medical school. I learned of struggles by educated women and wives of heads of state across Africa and the Middle East. They try to change these cultural traditions, not always with great success.
I spoke to a woman gynecologist who said she spoke to people around the country, urging them to abandon FGM. She brought her two sons, both of them doctors, and said she had not been cut and her sons did not die from their heads touching the clitoris in birth.
Still, top medical authorities and modern science have been unable to fully counter myths attached to this cultural rite.