I Say

I Say 

I strongly recommend against writing your [senior thesis / Fulbright proposal / dissertation] on female genital cutting.

This topic brings out the worst in everybody.

Why is cutting so interesting to so many people who know nothing else about Africa?

That ground has been well trodden already.

You may choose any topic related to health in Africa for your term paper. For your own good, avoid papers on rape in the Congo or female genital cutting anywhere. They generally earn poor grades.

No, it doesn’t really happen in Malawi. Why do you ask?

Any proper anthropologist would soon realize that a topic exciting this much antipathy—and this much fascination—is a topic worth pursuing, for what it may reveal about social fault lines and moral claims. And so Saida Hodžić has pursued it, despite the repeated warnings of people like me.

The Twilight of Cutting explores the work of two Ghanaian NGOs that seek to stamp out female genital cutting. By following Ghanaian activists and civil servants closely—rather than focusing either on life in target communities or on opprobrium from the global North—Hodžić explains several key paradoxes. Read this book if you find any of the following questions intriguing:

  • Why would people whose life-work has entailed ending cutting assert that it persists underground, while those who have actually been cut explain that it’s died away because women don’t have the strength (or blood) for it anymore?
  • Why must Ghanaian activists be bluntly intolerant of cutting in public even if they express more nuance—even nostalgia—in private? And why must non-Ghanaian anthropologists express nuance in public even if they condemn cutting in private?
  • When policy makers seek “African solutions” to cutting and academics refer to “colonial opposition” or “Western feminist neoimperialism,” what entanglements do they ignore and why?
  • Are “harmful traditional practices” real activities going on secretly in rural communities, or are they constructed and perpetuated in training workshops and sensitization campaigns? Whose ends do they serve?
  • How can misrepresentation and mistranslation, far from indicating an intervention’s failure, make a project successful? And why would a well-intended activist misrepresent or mistranslate deliberately?
  • Why did anti-cutting activists fight zealously for a harsher law against cutting and then turn away from enforcing it?

The ethnographically grounded answers to these puzzles help open up new avenues for readers to reflect on modernity, morality, culture change and power. In my own work, they’ve already pushed me to rethink how so-called traditional birth attendants in Malawi explain the demise of out-of-hospital birth there…and what bylaws written to ban traditional birth attendants (TBAs) actually do. Other readers studying NGO activism, global health interventions, or community health work in the fourth decade of austerity will find much to consider.

Oh, and the material in italics that begins and ends this response? Before each chapter of The Twilight of Cutting is a list, given without context, of things that people said to Hodžić (or sometimes things she said back). These lists gesture with economy to the oddities of an anthropological life, the strange and challenging encounters that always seem to exceed any actual ethnographic text. They were my favorite part of a thoroughly compelling book.

I’ll say now:

I still don’t want to read any more term papers on female genital cutting. But I’ve got a really good book to recommend to you.

Claire Wendland is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is also appointed in Obstetrics & Gynecology and Medical History. Her research focuses on the globalization of biomedicine, particularly in Africa. Her first book, A Heart for the Work: Journeys through an African Medical School, explores the experiences of medical students learning to be doctors in Malawi. Her current research project looks at changing concepts and loci of risk in childbirth in southeast Africa, in a setting in which very high maternal mortality rates force professionals and lay people alike to develop explanations for the link between birth and death.

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