Photographing the Cutting Trees

While photographing the cutting trees near Mundemu, TZ, August, 2017.

Sarah Mwaga took me to visit a team of AFNET (Anti-Female Genital Mutilation Network) educators and facilitators in Mundemu. As we talked about how they were sensitizing their communities to the harmful practice of FGM, and bringing about a change of attitude, they spoke of places where cutting ceremonies and procedures happened. This site, near the home of a ngariba (a cutter or circumciser), was one such location. Ngariba Elizabeth Mboga would cut under these trees. Her grave is nearby. The hillock was at an intersection of pathways, and strangely prominent for what seemed such a private event. I learned, moving across the region, that aspects of privacy, ritual, procedure, and awareness vary from community to community when it comes to female genital cutting.

What persists is the practice of FGM. Facilitators like Kedmond (left) and Happiness (right, standing) and their students are trying to prevent FGM by designing and introducing alternative rights of passage into their community.

Kedmond, Esther, Happiness and a student, at Mundemu. Mundemu, TZ, August, 2017.

Setting up for the photograph of the cutting trees was a challenge. the light was shifting rapidly, as were the clouds that I wanted in the photograph. The wind was picking up, which is never a good thing because it begins to shake the large bellows of an 8×10 camera like an aeolian harp. And, children were coming out of school for their lunch and making a beeline for the strange three-legged thing on the hill. Each time I took my head out from under the dark cloth and turned around, there was a growing cluster of little feet behind me, politely, quietly, moving closer and closer.

But I was lucky. The camera was set, exposure readings and settings made, film loaded and ready to expose, and then, lo, a solitary woman starts walking down the track towards us. People started yelling at here, repeating what I had said (more gently) to the cluster of children behind me: get out of the picture! And I, to their puzzlement, start yelling, no, no, keeping walking! After finishing the exposure, I did one of my favorite things: all the kids got to take turns looking through the camera–astonishment and wonder at an upside down world, in full color and motion! This is all so much bigger than any one of us, than a mere click.

Children standing behind me while setting up an 8×10 camera to photograph the cutting trees near Mundemu.
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