Editor's note: New Narratives and Front Page Africa reporter Wade Williams reports that government and traditional leaders have announced a shutdown of Liberia's secret women's society, the Sande, for an indefinite period of time. The announcement comes in the wake of reporting about the Sande's ritual practice of female genital cutting by Mae Azango—also a reporter for New Narratives and Front Page Africa—which has created an uproar in Liberia, and consequently forced Azango into hiding. Her story appeared while she was reporting with Jina Moore and Jake Naughton on maternal health in Liberia, as part of the Pulitzer Center's collaborative reproductive health project.

Here, Azango responds with her own story about the history of the ritual practice, the role of the Sande, and what drove her to report on the topic—despite the taboos against it. The story was written in collaboration with, and with support from, New Narratives.

The sound of drums and sasa fills the air as little girls and young ladies leave the Sande Bush. They have completed the traditional bush school and sing and dance their way into this town in rural Liberia. Well-wishers from neighboring towns and villages greet the children with excitement and applause. Also on-hand are proud parents and, for some girls, their soon-to-be husbands.

These girls, called “Gbessies” by the Mende ethnic group and “Blunyou” by the Kua, are dressed in black lappas and adorned with matching head ties and costume jewelry. They carry colorful umbrellas in their hands. Young girls in the crowd watch the festive celebration with fascination. They chew their fingernails in anticipation of the day they too can dress in the same beautiful outfits as their friends.

What these girls do not know is the traumatic and painful rituals that precede this graduation and cost some girls their lives. They do not know that genital cutting can block the birth canal leading to complicated births and, at times, the death of mother or baby. They know nothing of the impact their time in the Sande Bush – and out of school – will have on their long-term prospects.

It is these costs that have persuaded Liberia’s traditional and government leaders to reveal this week that all Sande schools will be shut down indefinitely and for government to push for an end to female circumcision.

“I can say strongly to you, what we are trying to do – this ministry, the Ministry of Gender and Development – is basically protect the rights of girls and children,” said Gender Minister Julia Duncan-Cassell in an exclusive interview with FrontPage Africa.

Why I Wrote about the Sande

It was the suffering of my Liberian sisters that motivated me, earlier this month, to risk the anger of the Sande and report on the health costs of female genital cutting. For that, I have paid a heavy price. I now live in hiding. My family fears for their lives. But I believe the need to talk about this subject and find a better way to marry our traditions with the welfare of all Liberians makes my decision to report on this right.

It is the job of journalists to give voice to those who are suffering so leaders can act to help them. I deeply respect our Liberian traditions and understand the important role the Sande have played in preparing girls for womanhood over generations. But I have heard too many stories of women and girls suffering excruciating agony and injury as a result of genital cutting, to stay silent. We need to rethink some aspects of our tradition if they are harming our own development.

That is clearly the case with female circumcision. I hope my mothers who have been offended by my reporting will forgive me. And I welcome the leaders’ announcements this week that they will work to find alternative economic opportunities for our nation’s spiritual leaders, the zoes. I hope together we can find a way forward.

The History of the Sande

Age-old secret society “bush schools” are widespread in Liberia. Known as the Sande for girls and Poro for boys, they were created for good reasons. For girls, it was to help prepare them for marriage, which often occurs immediately upon their return from the bush. The Sande school teaches young girls how to take care of their future husbands and manage their future homes.

“We learn how to plait baskets; we learn how to cook,” says Garmai, a charcoal vendor in her 40s, who was taken to a bush school as a teen. She would not give her real name for fear of retribution from the Sande. “We learn how to respect older people – the way you’re supposed to greet them.  If you marry, the way you’re supposed to treat your husband.”

But girls much younger than marriage age go to the Sande Bush. This has been the focus of most of the criticism of the societies. With no age minimum, girls as young as two have been sent. Critics say girls this young have no business even thinking about marriage. “How much training can you give in the Sande Bush to a two-year-old or a three-year old?” asked Minister Duncan-Cassell this week.

Even the head of all female zoes in Liberia, Mama Tormah, Executive Director for Culture and Female Affairs at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, says girls should at least be the age of consent of 18, old enough to reason well and fully understand what they are going into when they enter the bush.

“People should join the Sande of their own free will, but underage children – no one should carry them anywhere,” she said in an interview with reporters in Brewerville this week. “Girls should be 18 or 20. That means you go there for yourself, of your own free will.  Seven-year-olds – it is not right for them to go there.”

Girls’ Schooling Interrupted

The impact on the education of Liberia’s girls, rather than their health, has been the real catalyst for the shift in leaders’ thinking. Parents often take young girls out of formal schools in order to attend the bush schools, interfering with their education. Some girls who are at marriageable age drop out and never return to primary or secondary schooling because dowries are paid upon graduation from the Sande Bush.

The government promotes free and compulsory education for all children in the belief it will speed Liberia’s development. A Ministry of Gender and Development/UNFPA study in April 2011 found that girls are more likely to drop out of school if initiated in Sande. Studies around the world show a girl’s living standards are greatly improved if she finishes school.

“Let the Liberian zoe people forget about this society business and let children go to \[formal] school,” says Garmai, who was forced out of first grade at age 13 to be initiated. “If the children go to school, then it will benefit them tomorrow. When you learn and finish high school and college, you will work and make money. But the Sande bush – no benefit.”

“Look at Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,” says Kulah Borbor, 44, who spent nine months in the Sande bush at age 16. “If she did not go to school, she would not be where she is today.”

Pressure on Families to Send Daughters

Many parents are pressured into sending their children to the Sande bush to attain influence and power in their communities, say people familiar with the secret society traditions.  When families opt out of the Sande or Poro societies, they are considered sinners and treated as outcasts. Only Sande and Poro members are allowed to take part in the decision-making in the village.

All Sande activities are kept secret, and the workings of the inner circle are closely guarded.  As part of the initiation, an oath is taken not to reveal what takes place in the bush on pain of death.

“This whole society business is a taboo to talk about,” says Garmai. “If you bust out the secret, they will kill you.  One or two people there – big, big people there – they will give you some kind of sickness that will suffer you until you die.”

“Now that you go and put your mouth on our business, you will pay for it!” said a caller to my newsdesk at FrontPage Africa. Many of the callers to myself and my family have threatened to circumcise us in the belief that I too will then be silenced.

Sande as a Money-Making Enterprise

The monetary and social value of this culture is another aspect that many dare not talk about. The bush schools charge fees whereas they used to be free. This has created a shift in priorities. The traditional zoes and chiefs use these schools to make money for themselves, says Garmai. Whereas schools in her day provided ample time for training, now they push students through quickly in order to increase turnover and money-making potential, she says.

“They used to carry us and train us, not like this time; this time, they are not training the children because of money,” says Garmai. “Parents pay money. But during our days, it was no money business.”

Parents seeking admission for their children are told they must first be initiated themselves. In one town, the cost is two bags of rice, two five-gallon cans of palm oil, and 5,000 Liberian dollars for beginners to join the bush.

Replacing Income of Zoes – A Major Challenge for Government

A major challenge for the government will be finding ways to replace this lost income as well as cultural rituals that are being taken away.

“What the Ministry is looking at doing is now trying to see how we can empower our mothers that are considered the zoes – go to the various counties and see how we can talk to them and say, ‘look, because we’re saying this is bad, you should stop it, we want to empower you with tie-dying, soap-making,’ because this is like a livelihood for them, this is like a career for them,” said Minister Duncan-Cassell in an UNMIL Radio interview earlier this week.

“Educating a Nation to Abandon Its Cherished Heritage”

While students are currently in their second semester, in at least three counties, girls are still being taken from schools to join the Sande secret society, with all the lifeline consequences that go with it. At least for now, this culture and tradition continues. It will be a lengthy battle.

“When you begin to fight these kinds of issues that go to the root of a nation’s existence, it can be a long fight sometimes,” said Blamo Nelson, Minister of Internal Affairs, in an exclusive interview with FrontPage Africa.

“The advocacy calling for an end to female genital mutilation should continue. And I’m sure, in time, these practices that more and more Liberians are beginning to find obnoxious, will go away. That’s the way I think it should be approached. You’re talking about uprooting a tree.

You’re talking about educating a nation to abandon its cherished heritage. It has been with us for a thousand years; it must be cherished. Today, a thousand years later, you want to put it into the museum. And maybe you should. But take time to be holy.”

The Ministry of Internal Affairs will no longer issue licenses to traditional zoes, making it illegal for them to run Sande schools for the indefinite future.  But some town elders say the government’s efforts to suspend Sande are just “mouth talk” and there is a way around everything in Liberia.

Time will tell if leaders are truly committed to raising awareness about the harm faced by girls and creating other economic opportunities for zoes. Until then, I will continue to write about this subject.

Project

This reporting initiative partners African and US journalists to explore critical challenges in reproductive health and family planning—and what they mean for life, death and socio-economic stability.

Recently

September 23, 2013 /
Ameto Akpe, Jina Moore
Jina Moore and Ameto Akpe visit Loyola University Chicago classrooms to discuss their reporting from Africa.
April 12, 2013 /
Jina Moore, Caroline D'Angelo
Pulitzer Center grantee Jina Moore leads a workshop on storytelling for Penn students on April 16.