BAMAKO, MALI — Fanta Kanté began practicing female genital cutting (FGC) when she was 15. She belongs to the blacksmith caste of the Bambara people, a group who have historically been charged with performing genital cutting on girls, or excision, as well as circumcision on young men and boys. The blacksmiths are believed to possess an arsenal of secrets, incantations, and mystical powers that allow them to control the spiritual aspects of everyday life. Despite this, the blacksmiths are considered to be inferior to other castes in Malian society. Their ability to harness the supernatural inspires fear and caution; they are at once shunned and sought out for their services.
Fanta learned the tradition alongside her mother until she was ready to perform the practice herself. In addition to the physical act of cutting, Fanta had to master an elaborate set of secret incantations to place on her tools, traditional medicines, and on the girls being cut, in order to ensure their safety and quick recovery.
When asked to describe the first time she cut a girl, Fanta seems puzzled. She says, “It was not complicated, I just cut and it's over. I was not afraid.” She explains that she was not afraid because her mother had given her water blessed with spells in order to give her strength. She gives a similar potion to the women she cuts to inspire courage, promote healing, and lessen pain during the procedure.
Girls are generally cut before the age of seven, according to Fanta’s daughter, M’Badialla, except in rare cases when a grown woman is brought by her husband to be cut. At one time Fanta had five knives, varying in size and shape, passed down to her from her mother and her grandmother before that. She has gifted three of her knives to her younger family members in the hopes that they will carry on the tradition.
Fanta carefully reveals one weathered blade, wrapped in many layers of cloth and twine, tucked away in her bag of medicines and spiritual trappings. It looks very old but extremely sharp, giving the impression that it has been well cared for and revered over the years. The light coming through the small bedroom window gleams on the blade, showing weathered details of a knife that has transformed so many young women.
The knives, Fanta says, were forged from stone into “raw iron” by her ancestors, and are over a hundred years old. Fanta and her daughter say that this method of forgery ensures that the blades will never rust and will never cause tetanus, something they take pride in. (Other, less traditional cutters often use common razor blades.) After each girl is cut, Fanta cleans the blade by burning it and disinfecting it with alcohol before using it on another girl. She then uses a blend of shea butter, medicinal plant ash, and treatment with incantations to heal the wound.
Fanta removes the clitoris and parts of the labia and gives them to the mother of the girl to bury or dispose of as she wishes. Other cutters, M’Badialla says, will keep the clitoris to sell to fetish priests, who often dry it, grind it into powder, and make ointments out of it. These ointments are believed to act as a powerful aphrodisiac and fetch a high price in the fetish priest marketplace.
The clitoris is considered to be extremely powerful, too powerful, in fact, to be allowed to remain on a woman’s body. If left alone, M’Badialla says, the clitoris will grow and hinder a man’s ability to penetrate his wife. This is why some men bring their wives to the cutter, she says, “so that he can fulfill his conjugal duties with pleasure.” Removal of the clitoris and surrounding flesh is also believed to encourage faithfulness, cleanliness, and stability in marriage. Without removing these parts, many Malians believe that a woman will be promiscuous, dirty, and uncontrollable.
Despite their firm belief in the merits of excision, Fanta and her daughter fear for the future of the tradition. M’Badialla says, “Now everyone does excision because it brings in money, while the practice of excision is for a very specific class, that of blacksmiths… for us excision is a matter of tradition, and everyone cannot be a cutter because it is necessary to have gifts, secrets, and medications in order to practice excision.”
Excision, particularly in cases where it is done poorly, in an unsanitary environment or by an untrained hand, can lead to many devastating health outcomes including hemorrhage, incontinence, and severe birth complications. In some cases, the wound from excision may scar over and seal the opening to a woman’s vagina, making intercourse nearly impossible. In these cases, M’Badialla says, a woman must be brought to the hospital in order to be reopened, a traumatic and harmful experience for a young, newlywed woman. They blame the negative consequences of excision on cutters who practice excision only for the economic benefit without the knowledge and the protective power of the blacksmith tradition.
Fanta and M’Badialla say that increased commercialization of FGC has cheapened the value of Fanta’s labor and has sullied the reputation of cutters who carefully follow the traditional blacksmith ways. With recent anti-FGC activism and decreasing viability of cutting as a profession, Fanta has doubts about the survival of the practice. The tradition of cutting hinges on the passage of information to new generations, and Fanta intends to will the rest of her knives to her granddaughter. She has started to learn the practice and Fanta hopes she will continue the tradition in her family.
Agencies that claim to assist cutters in stopping and finding other means of supporting themselves have been unable or unwilling to help Fanta quit. She has been offered large sums of money to stop cutting, but the organization that made this promise did not follow through.
When approached about providing job training to assist cutters in transitioning away from the practice, Siaka Traoré, president of Sini Sanuman, an organization based in Mali that works to end FGC, explains that his organization cannot provide job training or money to incentivize quitting. He says, “This is like we pay the conscience of a cutter and this is not a sustainable solution.”
Instead, cutters must quit first because of a moral imperative and then seek skills training through Sini Sanuman. Unfortunately, Fanta cannot afford to quit cutting before being able to train in another field and she must supplement her other economic activities with the pittance she makes from cutting. At the age of 77, there is no retirement in sight, as Fanta watches her heritage lose its value and prestige, or face extinction altogether.