Fairness Moyana Correspondent
A wave of worry fills the old woman’s face as she is greeted by tears from her 27-year-old granddaughter in-law who tells her how her life is slowly turning into a nightmare as she has failed to produce a child for her husband a year after getting married.
She is quickly whisked away into the old woman’s bedroom after a series of diagnostic questions where she is examined and told by Muzamba, herself an expert “traditional surgeon,” that she has fibroids that are acting as a barrier to her achieving conception. However, there is a solution, circumcision which, if she consents, will end her predicament.
With nothing to lose and more to gain from the “tried and tested” practice, Selina gives the green light for the surgery. The surgery is a “success” and as is the requirement, she sleeps with her husband immediately after the operation.
However, after continuously bleeding for two days Selina senses something is wrong and requests to be taken to Binga District Hospital where she is detained for a day and discharged.
Three days later on September 8, Selina died at home after succumbing to the massive loss of blood as a result of the botched operation meant to make her count in society as a woman.
Just like any woman, she wanted to take pride in giving her husband a child which would help solidify their union.
After failing to conceive, she was advised, as is the custom, to seek the attention of the elderly women affectionately known in the local dialect as nene (grandmother).
For a people who had brushed aside modernisation and maintained their pride in using traditional ways of dealing with ailments, Selina had naturally sought her nene’s help.
As nene Muzamba would later recall, her grandchild in-law had fibroids which she believed were blocking her husband’s seed from fertilizing the egg.
Nene Muzamba is yet to learn of her fate as charges against her are still not clear, with the Prosecutor General’s office still scrutinising the circumstances of Selina’s death.
“The prosecution in Binga have since compiled a report for the Prosecutor General’s office to look at so they can advise on how to proceed with the case,” said a source from the judiciary.
This incident has revealed that the practice, which is mostly reported about in other parts of Africa, is actually prevalent in Zimbabwe among the Tonga people.
Thus is believed to be part of the Tonga culture and is usually done by elderly women particularly, to “facilitate” conception in women who have trouble falling pregnant.
While the world is condemning female genital mutilation (FGM) in all its forms in Africa the practice also appears to be rampant in Zimbabwe.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that the practice is prevalent in Kenya, Ethiopia, Ivory Coast and Somalia among others.
Activists say this is not only exposing women to HIV/AIDS but violates their sexual rights, signalling a need for collective action in dealing with culturally embedded practices such as FGM.
Chief Sinakome described Mugande’s death as unfortunate and isolated arguing that the practice, which is part of their culture, has worked effectively from generation to generation with no incident of death taking place.
“I heard about the news two weeks after it happened but I still don’t have all the details of what really went wrong. We are not sure how things went wrong considering the effectiveness of the method which has been part of us for generations.
“Maybe they cut off a wrong part I cannot say but I’m told it’s before the courts now which is very unfortunate. The practice of removing fibroids mostly done by grandmothers has help married women who have trouble conceiving become pregnant,” said Chief Sinakome.
According to WHO Female Genital Mutilation or circumcision refers to a variety of operations involving partial or total removal of female external genitalia.
The female external genital organ consists of the vulva, which is comprised of the labia majora, labia minora, and the clitoris covered by its hood in front of the urinary and vaginal openings.
However, chief Sinakome said their operation targeted the removal of unwanted flesh (fibroids) in or around the female genitalia without touching the woman’s private parts like labia. Fibroids are non-cancerous growths that develop in or around the womb (uterus).
Binga is one of the least developed districts in the country with access to medical facilities and education still a challenge to many. Most of the areas are inaccessible by road,resulting in slow development of the district.
For Chief Sinampande there is nothing amiss or strange about the culture which he describes as the pride of the Tonga people.
“There are many things in our culture that we been practicing for years and have refused to be changed. There is nothing strange about a practice that seeks to help our women bear children hence sustaining and strengthening marriages. We are one of the few people in Zimbabwe who have maintained their culture and foreigners come here to see this so we take pride in it. This incident was unfortunate but I’m sure its the first of its kind as the elder women who perform the operation to remove unwanted meat are experienced,” he said.
He said the tragedy was that their ways and traditions were sometimes greatly misunderstood or misinterpreted by visitors or foreigners who viewed their culture as primitive and unnecessary.
Nene Aleta Mudimba (78) from Chibamba village in Chief Sinakome’s area who claims to have been responsible for assisting over 30 sterile women in conceiving by “circumcising” them, says the operation is performed only by certified experienced elderly women.
She says a couple is normally given a period of two years to have a baby after which failure to conceive attracts the elders’ intervention. It is believed that the growth that forms in a woman’s private parts acts as a barrier for the male seed to penetrate hence reducing chances of conception.
“Our methods are not only biased towards the woman but the man is also examined to determine where the problem lies. However due to obvious reasons we first of all check the woman and if we find a problem like growth on her we perform an operation. The operation which is and remains a very secretive issue usually doesn’t take time and is neither painful nor embarrassing for the subject woman,” explains Nene Mudimba.
While the practice is highly condemned, with gender activists equating it to female genital mutilation, the Tonga people see nothing wrong arguing that producing a child for a husband is an important aspect in bonding and ultimately every woman’s pride.
Nene Mudimba says in the Tonga culture a married woman is expected to do everything she can to make her husband happy since it is the reason she gets married.
Nene Mudimba’s sister Buumi Mwinde (76), herself an attested ‘traditional surgeon’ explains further that the operation which will only be known by a select few because of the need for confidentiality to avoid the couple becoming a subject of mockery and ridicule, is only done when fibroids are detected.
She explains, “Timing is also important in executing an effective operation hence the process has to be done just before the woman has her monthly periods. The operation can be done indoors or in the bush were an elderly woman armed with a new razor blade which quickly gets the job done and reduces the pain. We use mukotokoto/mukaya/muchecheni tree branch which has thorny hooks that we use to hold the growth before cutting them off. We don’t touch the growth.”
Amazingly the operation which does not involve any herbs or pain depressants requires the woman to have sex with her husband soon after the surgery as part of healing the wound and ensuring effective conception.
“After the operation, the patient is required to immediately sleep with her husband as part of the healing process and this also ensures that the sperms reach their destination as they won’t be anything to distract them,” says nene Mwinde.
Member of the Senate under the proportional representation (Matabeleland North), Senator Madeline Bhebhe who is also the province’s chairlady in the Women’s league said it was unfortunate that most cultures continued to infringe on the rights of women by putting blame on them when it came to reproductive health matters.
“Research has always shown how women have always been the first to be suspected or blamed for not being able to bear children. No one bothers to check to see if the man is potent as fingers quickly point to a woman. We need to embrace the changing times by abandoning cultures that demean or undermine women,” said Senator Bhebhe.
She said the practice not only made women blame bearers but was reversing female emancipation which was also meant to break cultural norms that demeaned and exploited women.
Provincial Medical Director, Dr Nyasha Masaka, warned that the practice not only exposed women to infections such as cervical cancer but likely tampered with the overall sexual pleasures.