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.
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.