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Friday, July 1, 2022

The Graveyard Cannot Pray by Baba Galleh Jallow

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By Dr Cherno Omar Barry,
President of Writers Association of The Gambia

This book is an autobiographical account of one man’s battle to save his daughter from female circumcision. A struggle that is defiant of a harmful traditional practice and defective constructions of normality. This is perhaps the first autobiographical account of a male perspective articulating to battle against Female Genital Mutilation. The Graveyard Cannot Pray throws into sharp relief four interconnected phenomena: the conflict between an older and younger generation; the communal nature of conflict and resolution among the Futa Fulani; the Fulani notion of sonhood, and the potential complications that arise when the sanctity of tradition is stood in opposition against the sanctity of faith.

Author

Dr Baba G. Jallow earned a BA in History and Political Science from Fourah Bay College, the University of Sierra Leone. Before going to the U.S. as a political exile in 2000, Baba was editor of the Daily Observer and Founder Editor and CEO of The Independent newspaper in his native Gambia. In the U.S. he attended graduate school at Rutgers University, New Jersey where he earned an MA in Liberal Studies in 2005. In 2006, he was admitted into the doctoral program in History at the University of California, Davis where he earned a PhD in 2011. His research interests include the history of colonial and postcolonial Africa, censorship in Africa, Islam in North-West Africa, and Catholics and Social Justice in Ghana. He is currently an Assistant Professor of African History at Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska, USA. Baba was appointed the Executive Secretary of the first-ever Truth Reconciliation and Reparation Commission (TRRC) in 2018 and he has published several books.

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Excerpt

Chapter Nine

And then came the verdict

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It felt like there was just no end in sight to this irrevocable conflict. Since my father had refused to see reason, despite explanations from even professional medics like Dr. and Mrs. Donya, despite confessions from the elders that female circumcision was not a religious obligation and could be conveniently avoided, despite my readiness to grovel at his feet seeking forgiveness, despite my several protestations of purely good intent – since my father would just not be appeased – there was simply no end in sight for I was never, ever going to say, yes Tulai can now be taken to the bush. If I be destroyed, dear God, let her be saved. Just let her be saved so that her baby sister Wuri and millions of other innocent children could, by her example, be saved. When Amina told me my father had stopped eating again, I felt it was in my destiny to suffer prolonged, maybe eternal estrangement from a father I loved so much and wanted to make happy. We both marvelled at just how difficult my father was. And then I said with a finality that almost frightened me, ‘you know, Amina, I will never apologize to him again. And maybe by refusing to apologize to him and flouting this most sacred rite of the ancestors, I was surely going to be destroyed, and pretty soon. Just like there was no end in sight to this most profound of traditions in our society, there was no end in sight to the battle of my life. But come what may, Tulai would never go to the bush: so, help me God!

Several days after Amina told me my father had stopped eating again, my phone rang twice. I picked the receiver. It was Amina.

‘Umar.’

‘Yes, Amina. How’re you?

‘Fine.’ She sounded excited.

‘And the kids?

‘They’re fine,’ she said. “And Umar…’

‘Yes.’

Your father. He’s started eating again.’

‘Land Ahoi!’ I exclaimed at the good news. ‘Finally! When did he start…?’

Amina giggled excitedly.

‘Day before yesterday. I took his food and he said to put it down. I was surprised. He’s been eating ever since. I just don’t know whether it will continue,’ Amina said.

‘It will,’ I said, ‘It’s over!

I’m not so sure,’ Amina said. ‘You know, he now eats both chu and benachin; and he used to say he did not like these foods. It’s strange.’ Amina giggled again.

“Maybe he’s been listening to the news,’ I observed.

‘He listens to the news every day,’ Amina said.

I tried to put two and two together.

‘You see, there has been this conference on violence against women. It has been in the news. And you know, some very prominent religious leaders and doctors have spoken out very strongly against going to the bush. They even said none of the Prophet’s daughters went to the bush. Maybe that convinced him. Or maybe our prayers have just been answered.’

‘Well, maybe. But I don’t think it will continue,’ Amina remarked.

‘It will,’ I said.

She knew it was really too good to be true. My father just giving up the fight? Just like that? Yet, deep down I felt this was exactly what had happened. I felt certain that by some strange twist of fate, my father’s anger had gone; never to return; that the conflict was finally over. When Amina first told me, my heart had flown off like a bird and I had felt a strange lightness. I was just sure that he had eventually seen the light. That, at last, the battle of my life had ended; a happy ending. Tulai will never go to the bush and I could be good friends with my father again. I felt like shouting to the world – hurray, my father has seen the light! For the first time in ages, I felt truly happy. I could not wait to cuddle beside my darling father again. Just then I missed him terribly. The strings of my heart over-stretched their limits as I tried to imagine him lying out there and yearned to be there just then, massaging his tired body. I prayed that God would grant me the opportunity to do that soon! How I would now proudly follow him into the market and make him feel so proud! I eagerly looked forward to my monthly visit home for the first time in ages. I pondered long and hard over what could have caused my father’s sudden change of heart; for I was sure that this time, it really was over. I just did not doubt that. What I wasn’t sure of was: why? What convinced him?

Days, then weeks, passed. Any time I spoke to Amina, she told me my father was still eating. He now spoke to her and allowed her to wash his clothes and clean his room. When he went to the market, he now bought her fish or meat to be used for lunch or dinner as he habitually did before the conflict. At night, when he sprayed his hut with insecticide to ward off the mosquitoes, he also sprayed hers like he used to do. It was all so miraculous. But while I remained optimistic that the trend would continue, Amina remained sceptical. She just could not believe that the terrible conflict had ended so suddenly.

At the end of the month, I made my weekend journey home. When I arrived, my father lay in his hut. We warmly exchanged greetings and I enquired about his health. My heart throbbed with excitement at our newfound peace and harmony as I sat on the mat near him, almost spellbound. And then, my father cleared his throat. I recognized anger in his voice as he repeatedly called my name.

‘Umar; Umar. You have let me down Umar. I did not think you’ll do this to me.’

I felt boomeranged.

Why, father, what’s the matter again?’ I earnestly inquired, wishing to God that it was not Tulai again.

‘Two months. Two months you stayed away and left me here. You did not even make a phone call. Any time I think where we two have passed and I think that you could throw me away, tears come to my eyes,’ he said. I remained speechless and could only say: ‘But father it’s not that…’ He cut me short.

‘Any time I lie down here and think that you do not consider me a human being, my whole world is spoilt. I did not think you would ever consider me a mere rag.’ He turned on his side to face the wall, showing me this back. I felt the familiar lumps of salty heaviness popping up at the bottom of my heart and fast filling it up.

‘Please father,’ I pleaded. Please do not start trouble again, just as my heart is clearing up…’

‘No it’s no trouble. There’s no trouble. It’s OK. Just go; you can go,’ he said.

‘Father, please forgive me,’ I begged, earnestly. ‘You are right. I have not done well. I admit. Please forgive God and forgive me,’ I pleaded, placing my palm upon his bare arm. My touch seemed to have worked magic. My father turned. I saw his face brighten. I saw forgiveness in his eyes. I saw that kind munching of the cheeks.

‘I have only you in this world!’ he said. “Satan should not separate us. Hypocrites should not separate us. People tell me things about you; I just say yes; but I know I have no one in this world but you. And as I have always told you, the graveyard cannot pray.’

‘That is true,’ I said. A son must get the prayers of his parents before they go to the graveyard. He must never do anything against their will. Just then I thought, the graveyard cannot sing either, or play; and I want my daughter to sing and play. I have been wrong,’ I admitted. ‘Please forgive me.’ I saw he already had, and my heart soared into the heavens. All along, baby Wuri, Tulai’s little sister, had been sitting quietly on my lap, innocently playing with her fingers. Now, I stroke her hair, thankful to God that she was not going to be an object of conflict; that she had been forever saved from the threat of circumcision, from the blunt blade of the Ngamaan.

I spent my best weekend at home in ages. The atmosphere was suffused with a soothing air of peace and harmony. I spent hours beside my father, eating with him, chatting with him, massaging his legs. Just before I left, he sent for me. When I sat before him, he held my open palms in his fingers and prayed for me and generously blessed me. I returned to my work with renewed confidence!

A year later, it was still peace at home. Female circumcision was never again mentioned in my family. I became the best of friends with my father. Some of our people were still visibly hostile to me and were likely to be so for a long, long time. For some of them, especially the likes of Kaw Silo and Kaw Blay the hypocrites, this was an ultimate conflict, with no possibility of a compromise. It certainly wouldn’t come from my end of the table as far as female circumcision was concerned.

When a version of this book was published, I was gripped with crippling fear. At the launching ceremony, the reviewer had said exactly what my book was about: It tells, she said, the story of a battle between a son and his father over the question of female circumcision. Anybody in our village who listened to the news on national radio knew exactly who and what the book was about. Above all, my father knew exactly who and what the book was about. So from the moment of the launch, I felt cold fear in my heart. I was terribly afraid that my father would feel insulted by such a national disclosure of a family dispute in which, to all intents and purposes, he was the loser. So for several weeks, I kept putting off a visit to my village. When eventually, I was forced to make the inevitable journey, I felt as if I was being forced into a raging pit of fire. To my utter surprise and relief, the issue of my book was not even mentioned by my father. Not during that visit, not since.

Several years have passed since my father’s miraculous acceptance of reason and the end of our dreadful conflict. Both Tulai and her little sister Wuri have grown into healthy, beautiful young ladies. I feel so happy that I had taken on my father over the issue of female circumcision. Watching my girls grow into full, healthy womanhood gave me such joy as only a father can feel. Tulai was always on top of her class and Wuri was not doing badly either. Female circumcision was dead and buried in my family. R.I.P. I feel vindicated by the facts on female circumcision published by the World Health Organization in the appendix below.

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