Although her formal schooling ended after the seventh grade when, at 13 she was married off and brought to Paris, Khady Koita succeeded with intelligence, courage, and grit not only to liberate herself but also to enhance the welfare of others. Born in Thiès, Senegal, “just before Independence in 1959,” Khady underwent FGM at age 7, and although her education was cut short, she was literate, an advantage among her peers in the immigrant community, other brides, often underage girls in the French capital, living in tight quarters, penniless as husbands controlled the purse strings, and, like Khady, they were impregnated year after year. Of note: the French government increased allowances flowing into husbands’ coffers with each child and wife. When Khady’s husband, -- a good father, she admits, but not a thoughtful spouse--, imported a young teen to wed, Khady had enough. Responding to the outreach offered by French feminists, she left him, taking her 4 children. She trained as a seamstress; worked as a nurse; took courses in bookkeeping; attended university; and co-founded the first European-wide network to end excision. As president of the Euro-Net FGM, launched in Brussels in 2002, Khady embarked on a career as virulent proponent of girls’ genital integrity. She spoke many times at the U.N., gave keynote speeches at UNICEF conferences, and remains a much-admired leader of the global movement against FGM. She is also her English translator’s very dear friend.
Khady as a small girl graces the cover of her memoir Blood Stains. Sixty-five copies were distributed to UN GA delegates who voted on December 20, 2012, to Ban FGM Worldwide.
Blood Stains. A Child of Africa Reclaims Her Human Rights.
A best-seller when it first appeared in France as Mutilée in 2005 and available in 18 languages, this is the first English edition of a ground-breaking memoir by Khady Koïta, one of Europe’s leading activists against female genital mutilation (FGM), forced and early marriage, and unequal gender relations in the African Diapora. As poet and novelist Marge Piercy has written, “Blood Stains, a memoir of growing up in a traditional family in Senegal, presents a feisty protagonist whose illiterate mother insisted that she learn to read and write. At seven, Khady suffered genital mutilation – a concept used like tongs to handle fierce pain and brutality that would bring lifelong distress, sexual trauma and harrowing childbirths. The description is clear, direct, and moving. Married off at thirteen to a man two decades older, the teenager was brought to France where she bore five children, and, as a battered wife, blew the whistle on an immigrant community that serves men’s interests. Not content to remain a victim, however, the young woman grows stronger, educates herself, earns money, fights to be free and finally devotes her life and energies to helping other women. Her courageous battle against FGM brings her to the U.N. to urge international support. Blood Stains is a weapon directed against those who claim that trying to eradicate this practice is paternalistic.”
New York, March 2005
The glacial cold is even worse for an African like me, but I walk fast, as I have all my life, so that my mother used to scold, “Why are you always running around? Slow down! The whole neighborhood is watching.”
Sometimes she’d trace an imaginary line across the threshold.
“See that? From now on, don’t cross it!”
Which is exactly what I rushed to do, dash off to play with friends, amble through the market or peer at soldiers in formation behind the wall of the caserne. For my mom who spoke Soninké, “running around” meant that I went out too much, that nowhere was beyond the pale, and that my curiosity about the world was far too in-your-face.
It’s true that I’ve “gone far” in my life, farther than anyone ever imagined. Today I’m in Zurich as a guest of UNICEF; yesterday I attended the 49th session of the United Nations General Assembly urging members to act on women’s rights. Khady in New York at the U.N.! The activist named Khady, formerly a girl with a sand-belly, like all African kids. Little Khady going to fetch water from the well, toddling along behind the boubou-clad grandmas and aunties, proudly carrying a pot on her head filled with peanuts to be ground and responsible for bringing back a beautiful glistening paste the color of amber in oil.
... Life was sweet in the big house in the suburbs of Thiès, a town whose towering trees lined broad avenues, a peaceful place in the shadow of the mosque where, at the crack of dawn, Grandfather and the men would go to pray … My father worked for the railroad so he was rarely around. As tradition prescribes, I was given over to the care of a grandmother who took charge of my education, my grandfather’s second wife Fouley who had no children of her own. It’s our custom not to let a childless woman suffer. My mother’s house sat 100 meters away so I made the rounds between the two, filching goodies from both kitchens. Grandpa had three wives: Marie, my mother’s mother, and his first; Fouley, the second, to whom I was “given” to be brought up; and Asta, the third, whom grandfather had married, also according to custom, after the death of his older brother. They were all our grandmothers, women of uncertain age who, according to their own unique styles, loved, punished and comforted us.
My immediate siblings included three boys and five girls; the tribe supplied even more girl cousins, nieces and aunts. Where I come from, people are all either cousins, aunts or nieces of someone or everyone! Impossible to count because there are so many relatives we’ve never met. My family belongs to a noble caste of Soninké, originally farmers and merchants. In ancient times we traded in cloth, gold and precious stones. Recently Grandfather worked for the railroad in Thiès and had my father join him. In addition to planters, my heritage also includes religious leaders who are the village imams. Among the aristocracy, — ‘noble’ is horé in Soninké whose meaning has nothing to do with the concept of European nobility – education is strict. Honor, loyalty, pride and the sanctity of our good word are values and principles inculcated from an early age that guide us throughout life.
I was born just before Independence, in 1959, and would have been seven years old in October 1966 on first entering school. To that point, I had led a happy life, cushioned by kindness, taught how to garden, cook, and identify the spices the grandmothers sold at the market. At about four or five, I received my first little bench. Grandmother Fouley gave it to me because each child must have one. We sit on it to eat our couscous and put it away either in our mother’s room or in our grandma’s, the one who brings us up, washes, dresses, feeds, fusses over and punishes us. These little benches are a constant source of squabbles among the children. “You took my bench!” “Give him his bench. He’s the oldest!” You keep that bench for a long time, until the wood cracks or you get a bigger one. At that point, you can pass yours on to a younger child.
Grandmother had it made for me and paid for it. With dignity, I carried it on my head: it symbolizes leaving behind the status of a baby on the ground to become a child who sits and walks like the big kids. And did I ever walk! In the fields, in the aisles among the market stalls, among the flamboyant trees, the baobabs and mangos in the courtyard, from grandma’s to the well, from grandma’s to my mom’s, I walked safely and protected through a life of tenderness soon to be brutally ended.
I have paraded, since I was seven years old, from Thiès to New York by way of Rome, Paris, Zurich and London, never ceasing to march since the time my grandmothers came and said, “Today, daughter, you’re going to be purified.”
President Khady Koita and Els Leye of the University of Ghent in 2011 at a meeting of EuroNet-FGM.
Khady in 2008, at a reception in the Schlosshotel Kronberg for the Honourable Ambassador from Mali to Germany, Fatoumata Siré Diakité
Here are a few translations of Khady's book.
In February and March 2005, I addressed the 49th session of the UN Committee on the Status of Women. There nearly 6000 NGOs greeted good news with exuberant applause: national governments, without reservation, had re-affirmed the Platform for Action on violence against women formulated ten years earlier at the Beijing plus 10 Conference. For my part, I was on a cloud, sure that now everything would change …
But that evening, on re-reading the speech I would be giving the next day at a UNICEF conference in Zurich, I fell to earth and wept.
My whole life unfolded before me like a film whose first installment had been a tale of horror.
Since 1975, when the first United Nations women’s conference took place in Mexico and I arrived in France, thirty years had passed. How many women had suffered since then, and how many were suffering now? How many women had had to put up a fight like mine? In how many countries did men still not know what a phrase like “women’s rights” means? I had just lived through a magnificent moment listening to beautiful speeches by male politicians. I was tempted to cry out who I was and why I was there. To hurl at them my suffering and anger and tell them to stop talking but go see for themselves the lives of women in whose name they made decisions that wouldn’t be applied for half a century … if ever.
Discouragement claimed me, exhaustion in this interminable combat, the same feeling I had experienced three years earlier in Italy when they awarded my activism a prize shared with a young Bangladeshi whose face had been destroyed by acid for refusing to marry. That day I also cried, seeing that woman, of rage and desire to just let it all drop, so vast did the journey seem, and male violence so oceanic.
But my courage returned in New York, Geneva, Zurich and elsewhere. I began again to march and intend to go on, carrying the message of African women, victims of torture and humiliation.
My mother no longer tells me I run around too much. I trust, — no, I believe–, she is proud of me. I dedicate this book to her in the hope of being able to translate for her, without shying away, every word.
Excerpt from Khady with Marie-Thérèse Cuny. Blood Stains. A Child of African Reclaims Her Human Rights. Trans. Tobe Levin. UnCUT/VOICES Press, 2010.