Here in Liberia, Africa’s oldest independent state, the practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), has become a nightmare for most young girls and women in most cases their lives are lost as a result of victims’ life time health complications or death compelled some to flee their homeland due this unbearable situation.
Victims of such inhuman practices of FGM over the years have cried out seeking help from the Liberian Government, hoping that their cries will be given serious attention by the Liberian Government, but instead to the contrary.
One of the many victims of this ugly situation is Ms. Catherine Thomas who unceremoniously left Liberia on the 4th of November for Ireland and later left Ireland on the 14th of November for the United States seeking refuge to overcome her nightmare in her home Country, Liberia.
Here is the story of Catherine Thomas who is currently residing in California, the United States of America:
Growing up as a kid in Liberia with my grandmother and being the first grandchild in the family felt like a treasure. I watched my Grandmother, the late Ma Nancy Tikeh poured upon me all the love a kid will ever long for and showered me with many gifts.
Little did I know that my beloved Grandmother who was a member of the Kissi tribe, one of the sixteen local tribes in Liberia, and hailed from Puluma and Bethesue Clan located in Foya district, Lofa County, was the traditional chief Zoe for her people. This was a position she was being forced to preside over based on the traditional heritage passed down after the death of her Grand Mother, which was a former Zoe. This was an information that was hidden from me for years as I was to take over from her in my position as her first female grandchild as well. This is my story.
It all started on the morning of May 2, 1998, during a regular weekend sleepover spent with my Grandmother and 2nd cousins (cousins of my Mom who lived with my Grandmother at the time).
I woke up joyfully to help my cousins take the goods (as my Grandmother sold local produce in the market as her source of income) to the market for my Grandmother to begin her daily routine. Unknowingly to me, there was a plan in motion for my Grand Aunts and other women from the Sande society to forcibly take me and my cousins in for initiation that week. I was just ten years old and didn’t understand what was going on. Any child at that age seeing a group of adults trying to catch them will first run for safety. I just began to run not knowing where I was going to. I ran as if my life depended on it and fortunately for me I managed to escape and found somewhere to hide. Unfortunately, my other three cousins weren’t that lucky, they were overpowered and taken in for initiation.
The Sande society is for girls and Poro society is for boys in Liberia. These are traditional secret societies or “bush schools” widely practiced in many parts of Liberia. For girls, it is 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. 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 these young have no business even thinking about marriage. In light of some good intentions practiced by the Sande society, the act of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) which is clearly the case of female circumcision is also part of this initiation process.
FGM violates the rights of women and girls, including their right to be free from violence, right to life and physical integrity, right to non-discrimination, and right to be freed from torture or other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment. FGM also severely compromises the right to health due to its damaging and irrevocable consequences. In addition to the extreme pain it causes (particularly as it is generally performed without anesthesia), the lack of medically sterilized equipment and facilities increases the likelihood of infection and lasting physical damage and may even lead to death. Around half of Liberia’s 17 ethnic groups practice FGM, primarily in the regions where the Sande society is present. It is estimated that 58 per cent of Liberian women and girls have undergone FGM. This practice significantly affects women and girls from the poorest households, who are twice as likely to have experienced it compared to those from the wealthiest households.
Even as a kid, this act troubled me greatly as I was being left lonely with nobody to talk to or play with. After a week of wondering what might have happened to my cousins, I managed to convince two of my friends to go along with me to the Sande society which was 5 mins walk away from where we live on Old road in Central Monrovia to spy and see what was going on with my cousins. Routinely, every Sunday evening, all of the girls undergoing initiation will come out to dance around the fence in their two-piece lappa outfits (traditional cloth) while the sound of drums and sasa filled the air. So, on that fateful Sunday evening of May 10, 1998, me and my friends joined the other bystanders across the road as we watched my cousins and the other girls came out in their beautiful attires and danced around the fence.
Later that evening patiently waited for them to return in to the fence which they lived in during this initiation process. We hid behind the thatch fence in order to spy and inquire what was actually being done behind those walls. We later found a secured location, or one we thought might have been secured, and created a hole in the fence made of thatch so we could peep through. It might have been around 7: 30 pm the evening and we weren’t even five minutes into our adventure when I felt the firm grasp of a man’s hand around my wrist. Between the yells and screams we were forcibly abducted and taken into the fence to be a part of the initiation process because we had broken their traditional rules according to the traditional priest. We spent the night in tears, slept on the floor. We were also beaten and denied food because we were accused of being disobedient and breaking the rules of the Sande society.
Fortunately for us, one of the ladies recognised me and contacted my Grandmother, and my family was asked to pay a fine of 10,000LD for my release or I will have to be initiated forcibly. My Dad was able to raise the money and pay for my freedom but unfortunately my two friends weren’t that lucky. This tore me to pieces and broke my heart, but most of all my weekend visits to my Grandmother automatically came to my end as my Dad concluded that I wasn’t safe with her anymore.
Years came and went by and this memory continued to haunt me. When I began my professional journey as a Public Health Practitioner, I became a strong advocate against FGM as I saw the harmful effects it created in society to our women and children. My attention was particularly drawn to my best friend who had to go thru a painful delivery process, which almost cost her life due to her earlier participation in the Sande society initiation which she was also forced into at the age of 8. As I listened to the Doctors deliberate on my friend’s chances to life based on the fact that the female circumcision process had some damaging effects on her, I started to cry.
This gave me flashback to events of my childhood as I remembered how one of my cousins who were forcibly initiated lost her life while given birth to her first child exactly two years after her initiation process. She was 15 when she was forced into this process and a year later was also forced to marry a man thrice her age. In a country like Liberia with a very high maternal mortality and limited access to healthcare delivery, she struggled during her pregnancy and give up the ghost on the evening of December, 10, 2000. So here I am, after three days in the hospital with a friend on July, 9, 2014, having wild imaginations of how I’m about to lose a friend again because of FGM..
When will this end, is the question that kept lingering in my mind. As God would have it and thanks to the medical experts, my friend gave birth to a beautiful girl whom she named after me, on July 10, 2014. This excitement was literally ruined when the Doctors also announced that due to complications during delivery, my friend might have developed fistula. These occurrences and testimonies from other friends and family led to my strong advocacy against FGM practices in Liberia.
The hidden truth
A week later, I was asked to join a team to Lofa County to help curtail the outbreak in that part of the country. As a Public Health professional, I was excited that I could be a help to my country but was mostly excited that I would have time to spend with my people especially cousins that I haven’t seen for years. Excited as I was, I ran to my Grandmother with such an awesome news asking for numbers and for her to call her people in advance and inform them of my trip since she had three houses in Foya and I could stay in one during my time there. To my outmost surprise, her response weakened me. She looked me in the eyes and said No! Yes, No! She had never refused me anything before. I was her favourite. I was the only person allowed to sleep in her bed. Her whole world revolved around me.
So, I didn’t understand why she was doing that. Did she just say no? Yes, she said no and she was really emphatic about it. No Catherine, were her exact words. You can’t stay at my house and you can’t meet the other family members. In fact, don’t allow anybody in Foya know that you are related to me. Is it even possible to not go Foya and only work in Voinjama (the capital city of Lofa)? Why Ma Nancy (as I affectionately call her)?? No response but her demands kept coming which sounded pretty strange but then again, I had to oblige to her wish like always. July 18, 2014, I left with a team to Lofa county. We imitated a one-week Infection, Prevention and Control (IPC) training for District Health Officers to build their capacity in managing the outbreak.
At the end of the training, I engaged the DHO from Foya who seemed knowledgeable of the district and he was also from the Kissi tribe. During our conversations I asked if he knew my Grandmother and immediately I mentioned her name he took a long stare at me, took a deep birth and responded with a slow yes. The next sentence that follow was, she is a big woman in her clan but I haven’t seen her since I was a boy. My mother told me a lot about her and her Grandmother. He immediately changed the topic in order not to go further with the explanations. Little did I know that those few minutes of discussion would have nearly cost me my life.
On Monday, July 28th after my regular day in the field, I got ack and completed field notes with my colleagues. It was a regular day, I stayed back late to check and respond to emails as internet connectivity in the part of the Country is limited. At about 9:00 pm I decided to leave and walk to the hotel in which was 15 minutes’ walk away. Ten minutes down the road I noticed that I was being followed by three (3) huge men. Fear that it might be a regular burglary attempt, I called out a motorbike (a regular means of transportation in Liberia) to help complete my journey home. It was then that the threat became vivid as the men too called bikes and they began to chase us. So afraid of what was happening, I manage to call my colleagues and explain to them the situation. It was at this point that I realise that I didn’t know where I was either as the driver took another route to try and confuse the other bike riders who were chasing us.
Unaware of our surrounding, we were surprisingly hit from in front with the stick by one of the attackers who kept on screaming that “we just need the girl”. The motorbike rider clearly as lost his grip at this point and there I was rolling over a cliff with the bike rider. By the time I gained consciousness, I was there bleeding from my mouth and nose at the same time with a severe burn on my legs caused by the motorbike exhaust. I could still hear my attackers coming feet away from me. It became clearer that these were not just men weren’t just robbers. Yes, they weren’t as confirmed by the motorbike rider. He quickly urged me to gather courage and run as it seems that these men were out to harm me. I urgently gathered strength and took to my heels. Bleeding from all parts of my body, leaping legs and a surrounding I barely knew had me thinking if I could really survive the night. Not far behind I could hear one of the men calling out to his friend while torturing the motorbike rider about my whereabout.
“Where is she, the elders from our village need her. She need to go through the initiation process so she can be able to serve the gods’, where his exact words. Why do they need me? Why me? These were questions that kept lingering through my mind. At this time, I realised that I have lost my phone, my backpack which contain my computer, purse, field notes, etc. With no hope of knowing whether I would survive this night, I fell at the back of a tree and passed out. When I awoke, two days later as the lady who found me claim, I there were bruises and so much pain going on in my body. The lady said I had lost so much blood which had cause me to passed out and she found me while on the way to her farm upon which she took me home secretly to avoid alarm in her village. She further narrated that because of the Ebola crisis a law was passed that no strangers were allowed in their village but she couldn’t afford to pass by me in such situation.
Unknowingly, my colleagues had reported to the Country authority (Superintendent and County Health Officer) and the police was also contacted to begin an investigation about my disappearance. Radio announcements were made and town criers were told to spread the news in their villages as well. After five days of being in hidden the police finally got hint of where I was and they came to pick me up. I was escorted back to Monrovia to receive advance medical treatment where I receive 18 stitches for the cut under my nose due to the fall and treatment for the burns and the cut behind my back. After investigations, it was found out that my attacker were men from my Grandmother clan who were send to carry me back home for initiation after which I will be able to take over my position as a Chief Zoe. I was warned after this incident to never go back to Lofa county even though this was one of the counties the project I ran at the Ministry of Heath was being conducted in. This decision hindered my work and productivity over the years.
On September 3, 2015, I got a call from my Mom that my Grandmother was seriously sick and was bleeding like a young woman going through her menstrual cycle. So afraid I immediately drove to pick her up and I took her to the Family Medical Center where she was diagnosed with Stage 3 Cervical cancer. With tears in my eyes, I saw my world crumbled. My Grandmother meant the world to me. People knew her as my mother and being a Health practitioner, I knew the severity of what she was facing. Nonetheless, I set up on a journey to make her story different. I took her to the Hope for Women Clinic for a second opinion after which she was immediately requested to undergo six doses of chemotherapy treatment. This continued for the next six months till I was asked that she undergo radiotherapy outside of Liberia.
On Friday May, 20, 2016, I got a call from my Grandmother from a cousin that my Grandmother requested that I go and see her immediately. Hurriedly, I left work and drove at her house. I met a group of strange faces siting under the tree along with my Grand Aunt who had come from Puluma to help take care of my Grandmother and her Pastor. I ran to my Grandmother who was screaming that I shouldn’t allow them to take her. Scared and confused, I asked the Pastor what was happening and he said “As traditions demands, ur Grandmother has to be taken back to her village so she can die and be buried there”. I was stunned, shocked, angry and felt like I had just been told the worst thing ever. What do you mean, I asked? Your Grandmother will not survive this sickness so we have to take her now, were his exact words. We cannot allow our Chief Zoe to be buried in Monrovia and you have to accompany her too as tradition demands, he continued. Shocked, I begin to shout that my Grandmother was not leaving my sight until she can get treated and I was going to call the police if any attempt was made to forcibly take her. My Mom and Uncle later joined us and requested that I take my Grandmother inside while they discussed with the visitors. A week later, during my regularly visit she asked everybody to get out cause she wanted to explain something to me. Without the slightest idea of what it was, I cleared the room thinking it was her normal pieces of advice she world normally give me about life almost every time we met. It was on this day that my grandmother narrated the reason why she didn’t want to be taken back home and why I should never accept to follow anyone back to her home town. She explained that based on tradition, she was to automatically assumed the position of the Chief Zoe after her Grandmother death which was a heritage passed down to their family for the first female Grandchild. After years of grooming and initiating (FGM) her, she forcibly became the Chief Zoe of their clan. During the 1980 coup, she fled her village and ended up in Harbel, Margibi closer to Monrovia with my Grand Dad, Mom and Uncle. She later relocated to Monrovia where she started going to church and later discovered the anger in what she has been doing to people over the years based on the different rituals conducted as Chief Zoe. After the Sande society was reopened, she was asked to go back and resume her duties but she declined. This led to them capturing her in the middle of the night and taking to her village where he was forced to remain for over two years away from her husband and kids. My Grand Dad later went to appease the gods and vowed to take her back every year to perform her sacrifice as Chief Zoe of the clan. This vow was later broken when my grandparents separated in 1991 and since then refused to go and perform the rituals.
Traditionally, she has been labelled as a black sheep and I serving as her first female grandchild must go and amend for the sin she had committed in order to appease the gods and continue the yearly sacrifices of human blood. This was the reason why her sisters were trying to get me initiated in 1998 before I ran away. It was a means of helping to prepare me for this great task ahead. She further explained that it was also the reason for my attack in 2014, the scars I still carry till date. She insisted that I don’t take her back to be buried just in case she died because her body will be burned and I will be seized and never allowed to leave the clan again. What she didn’t warn me about was the threats that will continue on my life even in Monrovia after she was gone. Apparently, after the incident in 2014 my Grandmother had gone to appeal on my behalf and perform a ritual to buy me some time. On July 13, my Grandmother give up the ghost. As per her request, she was buried in Monrovia on the 23rd of July at the Johnsonville cemetery through a family only burial ceremony.
Then the troubles started again. A family meeting was held on the 27th of July were two messengers were sent by elders of the village requesting that I attend an elders meeting on the 1st of August in Puluma clan and explain why I took a decision to bury my Grandmother out of the Clan which is contrary to their tradition.
I did not respond to this invitation even though there were several warnings. Instead, I honoured an invitation from a childhood friend to come to the states and recover from the heart-breaking death of my Grandmother. I arrived back to Liberia early September, 2016 to prepare for my departure to Ireland and benefit from the Irish Aid Scholarship of which I was one of the recipients. Surprisingly, on the morning of the 7th of September 2016, I woke up to the visit of two (2) strange men claiming that they have been send to give me a last warning to report back to the Clan and answer questions surrounding the death and burial of my grandmother. Afraid that they even knew my apartment, I hurriedly called my Mom who advised me to leave my apartment and stop with friends until my departure. She feared that they might go looking for me at her or my Dad’s place if I’m not found at home. This continued until I departed the country on the 14th of September for Ireland to study for my second Master in Global Health at Trinity College Dublin.
After almost a year of being out of Liberia, I finally returned home on August 20, 2017 to serve my Country. Shockingly, this time the threats even became riskier. Came home on Tuesday, September 12, 2017 to three strange men who demanded that I leave with them that night to go and take up my duties as Chief Zoe of the Clan. They claimed that the gods were angry and requested its sacrifice or I will be sacrificed instead. I hurriedly called my Mom and Grand Aunt who came to appeal on my behalf that I be given a month since I wasn’t initiated yet into the Sande society before taking on the responsibility of the Chief Zoe. This managed to buy me some time. I was constantly under threats by the frequent visits from strangers being sent by the elders of the Clan.
On the night of the 27th of October, 2017, I received a call from my neighbours that some strange men have broken into my apartment requesting that I was hiding from them. When the police came they identified themselves as guards to the gods which was supported by a phone conversation with the Kissi chief on the importance of why the tradition needed to be respected. I was then warned by friends and families to leave the country as their mandate was to take me back to the clan either dead or alive to forcibly join the Sande society to enable me serve the gods as per tradition. I remained staying with friends till I had the opportunity to leave the Country on the 3rd of November for fear for my life and have since never returned. I’m being hunted everyday according to my paternal Uncle who is still in my apartment based on the fact that these strangers constantly visit and issue threats.
I left Liberia afraid for my life and owing to the fact that I have lived almost all of my life in Liberia and the position I served in within the Ministry of Health, I fear that I’m no longer safe. This is the reason why I’m seeking asylum in order to protect my life.