Lynch­pin of change

This is one of those books that will open your eyes to a whole dif­fer­ent world, one that most of us don’t re­alise still ex­ists.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS - How­ever Long The Night: Molly Melch­ing’s Jour­ney To Help Mil­lions Of African Women And Girls Tri­umph Aimee Mol­loy Harper Collins, 252 pages, non-fic­tion Re­view by SULOSHINI JAHANATH star2@thes­tar.com.my

FE­MALE gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion is de­fined by the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion as “all pro­ce­dures that in­volve par­tial or to­tal re­moval of the ex­ter­nal fe­male gen­i­talia or other in­jury to the fe­male gen­i­tal or­gans for non-med­i­cal rea­sons”. It is an act of vi­o­lence to­wards young girls that will af­fect their lives as adults.

We all grow up sub­scrib­ing to one cul­tural tra­di­tion or another. We are taught not to ques­tion our cul­tural and re­li­gious tra­di­tions be­cause that’s the way things have al­ways been.

And that ev­ery­thing works out all right in the end.

In How­ever Long The Night, though, we learn that there are some tra­di­tional prac­tices that need to be ques­tioned, and need to be stopped be­cause they are not only harm­ful to a woman’s phys­i­cal health – re­pro­duc­tive or oth­er­wise – but also harm­ful to her men­tal well-be­ing.

We also learn that some­times it takes just one per­son to be the lynch­pin around which pos­i­tive change can take place.

Read­ing like a novel, How­ever Long The Night chron­i­cles the story of Amer­i­can univer­sity stu- dent Molly Melch­ing who went to Sene­gal Africa in 1974 on an ex­change pro­gramme, fell in love with the place and its peo­ple and de­cided to stay.

How­ever, she also saw that there was an un­met need for ed­u­ca­tion for chil­dren, and with the help of some Sene­galese schol­ars, she opened a chil­dren’s cen­tre. To per­suade more chil­dren to at­tend school, Melch­ing used el­e­ments of tra­di­tional African cul­ture in the na­tive Wolof lan­guage and that’s when she learned about the prac­tice of “cut­ting”.

Melch­ing went on to found Tostan, a not-for-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion that works to­wards end­ing the prac­tice of fe­male gen­i­tal cut­ting, not just in Sene­gal but also sev­eral other coun­tries as well.

Tostan sets up classes in vil­lages to ed­u­cate women on lit­er­acy, health and their fun­da­men­tal hu­man rights.

The book brings to light not just how deeply en­trenched fe­male gen­i­tal cut­ting is in African tra­di­tion, but also how much it is a part of their so­cial lives.

A girl who is not “cut” is a bi­lakoro, a so­cial out­cast. Con­sid­ered im­pure and not a real woman, the food she cooks will not be eaten, the clothes she washes must be re­washed, and she would have great dif­fi­culty in find­ing a hus­band.

Known by most women in Sene­gal as “the tra­di­tion”, cut­ting is con­sid­ered to be a re­li­gious obli­ga­tion and one of the steps in pre­par­ing young women for mar­riage; it is al­ways per­formed by an elder woman.

It is very easy to read the blurb of the book and think “Here’s another Westerner come to save the day”. And while Melch­ing is Amer­i­can, that’s about the only thing you would get right. The story it­self is more about the women, their lives and their strug­gles than it is about Melch­ing.

It is more about em­pow­er­ing peo­ple to un­der­stand their rights and not to lay down and ac­cept what is be­ing done to them sim­ply be­cause that has al­ways been the way. It’s about gen­er­at­ing pos­i­tive change, and it shows how grass­roots mo­bil­i­sa­tion can be a pow­er­ful force.

Mol­loy’s writ­ing is very easy to read. It could just be that Melch­ing’s story it­self is that fas­ci­nat­ing, but by telling the story like a novel, Mol­loy si­mul­ta­ne­ously draws the reader in and hits them with a whole lot of in­for­ma­tion.

Mol­loy has also re­mained true to the peo­ple in the story. She has cap­tured Melch­ing’s de­ter­mi­na­tion and her em­pa­thy for the women of Sene­gal flaw­lessly.

Her por­trayal of Kerthio, who kept her se­cret for the long­est time, was mov­ing, and at the same time, she takes the reader through Kerthio’s thoughts, feel­ings and de­sires as if the reader is in Kerthio’s head. Yet never does Mol­loy take the story over the top into melo­drama; in­stead, she re­lies on true sit­u­a­tions and the peo­ple in them to en­gage the reader.

How­ever Long The Night is one of those books that one might be averse to read­ing be­cause it talks about a con­tro­ver­sial and sen­si­tive topic that most peo­ple shy away from.

But it’s also one of those books that open your eyes to a whole dif­fer­ent world, one that most of us don’t re­alise still ex­ists in to­day’s day and age.

Most of all, it is a story about driv­ing pos­i­tive change from the ground.

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