Book Review: The Graveyard Cannot Pray

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One Man’s Battle to Save His Daughter from Female Circumcision

 Author: Baba G. Jallow:

Publisher: (Leicester: Global Hands Publishing, 2013)

By Abou Jeng

Dr. Baba Galleh Jallow
Dr. Baba Galleh Jallow

THe Graveyard Cannot Pray cover

For many decades, discourses and stories on ritualized culture and cultural rituals have tendentiously appropriated a kind of dialogue that forestalled a narrative framed around the victim-saviour metaphor. Whilst the nature of this metaphor and its corresponding binaries of distinction exposed the ‘impurities’ of ritualised culture and the imbalance of power structures in patriarchal organised communities, its most visible outcome remains the formulation and reinforcement of difference. Much of this could be attributed to two factors. First, the urge to identify, expose and confront irrational tragedies of cultural rituals though inspiring, has also occasionally alienated the very constituencies that needed to be engaged. Second, the ontological frame of this confrontation, had until fairly recently, been conducted through the language of fear and demonisation. To this end, communities that remained dismissive of the possibility for reason were condemned, and those that defended their cultural rituals suffered from label. There has been, therefore, a compelling urging for a narrative that sought to restore the personal quest for, and continuous commitment to, the eradication of cultural violence and violence of culture through reason and engagement.

But of course, poverty of imagination is hardly a permanent condition. And so once in a while, a book comes along, that illuminates as well as inspires. Baba G. Jallow’s The Grave Yard Cannot Pray is as much an autobiographical account of the battle for freedom from harm as is a recuperative exercise, one that offers perhaps for the first time, a male perspective on the fight against FGM. The focus of the book is set in context by a schematic preface from Dr Isatou Touray, a Gambian feminist who heads GAMCOTRAP, a local agency at the forefront of the debate and struggles to highlight the dangers and irrationalities of FGM. The passion and energy that drives Dr Touray are visible in the preface. FGM, she boldly asserts, is not only merely a painful practice, but also one that ‘defines the social construction of female sexuality in some African societies,’ which is ‘influenced by myths and beliefs reinforced by religious misconceptions.’ Whilst commending Baba’s courage and travails in protecting his daughter, Dr Touray situates his battle in the broader context of Gambian society, which embodies ‘a clash of knowledge and tradition, a journey to educate about the myths and misconceptions of harmful practices.’ Although brief, the preface provides the frame upon which the book is anchored.

Baba’s own account opens with an unusual admission; that he learns of the birth of Tulai, his daughter, ‘with a mixture of joy and misgiving.’ Whilst joy is a natural reaction to the news of the birth of a child, trepidation is a little bit odd. But this fear becomes all the more palpable as the narrative progresses. The challenges of raising a girl child in Gambian society are accentuated by some of the ills Baba outlines; teenage pregnancy, enforced child marriages, abuse and violence from men. The inadequate legal regime for the protection of minors, he laments, makes it difficult for the girl child to be guided on the right path. His biggest fear though, remains the demand of his Fulani community for Tulai to undergo FGM. This is not fear without precedent. As a Fulani, Baba is, by the arbitrary dictates of culture, both obligated and required to subject Tulai to FGM as antidote to the ‘impurities of womanhood.’ In series of personal reflections in the book, he questions, challenges and dismisses the belief systems in which intrusively ritualised processes are birthed. ‘What is frightening,’ he writes, ‘is that these imaginary impurities of womanhood are not at all imaginary in the minds of millions of people on earth.’ For him though, family obligations sourced from lineage history and the banality of belief systems are antithetical to the very notion of dignified existence. He is now on course for a ‘titanic clash’ with his father, who sees FGM as a mandatory ‘purifying’ practice.

The battle with his father, Modi Mamadou, is set in the backdrop of a well-outlined case against FGM. For most of the first three chapters of the book, Baba explains and reiterates his mission to save Tulai from the harmful instruments of the Ngaaman. He visualises images of innocent children being lured into unsanitary confined spaces with their sparkling eyes ‘screaming with pain and fear.’ The science which documents the agony and devastations this practice can cause provides Baba with added determination to say no to FGM. By fighting for Tulai, Baba also offers glimpses into what is a dark underbelly of Gambian society from where ‘a silent majority of women suffering under the double weight of outdated notions of wifehood on one hand and a society with not the slightest motivation to stop and reassess the value of the way things have always been done.’ The imperative to confront this underbelly becomes proximate for Baba, when he receives news of his father’s plans to have Tulai introduced to the Ngaaman. Baba rages in both fear and anger; fear because the life of an innocent girl could be seriously endangered by the blind obsession of a community with a harmful cultural ritual. For many days and weeks ahead, Baba summons the calm demeanor of Amina, his wife, as well as enlists the dependable Father Mose, his village-bound friend. This outreach quickly expands to a select core of local elders. When initial attempts at village constructed diplomacy falter, Baba deploys the threat of suicide to persuade his father to save Tulai. Modi Mamadou, as reputation has it, is a tough guy, a gorko, who lives by the Fulani construction of a real man. Neither Baba’s pleas, nor his subsequent visitations to his village offer any solace to father and son.

The insistence of Modi Mamadou to exercise his supreme authority under local patriarchal power structures to summon the Ngaaman as a right of cultural absolute also pits Baba against elements of the local elders. Frustration is only to follow, forcing Baba to lament the rigidity of local Fulani communities and the absence of rational and persuasive argumentation. The complications in engaging his father further expose the tyranny of village social networks, deeply held together through power, authority and patriarchy. All this of course, also offer glimpses of the complexities and frustrations of village protocol as well as the socialisation of women in daily life. For much longer, efforts to save Tulai continue with little success. Baba’s anger piles on with damning queries on the capacity of culture to accommodate and liberate. Modi Mamadou’s refusal to entertain Baba’s side of the argument points to a particular problematic of traditional Gambian society, where the individual becomes a distant constitute whose voice or viewpoints are often only relevant so far as they reinforce the constructed pillars of uneven sketches of social order.

The elders’ attempts to resort to Quranic recitals confuse rather than clarify. It may well be the case that Gambian version of Islam is a mélange of deeds, rituals and processes, most of which are probably neither Islamic nor Islamic friendly.  The cooptation of religion guides the protocols which the village elders navigate to work out a peace pact between Baba and Modi Mamadou. Sometimes the process is daunting, and other times carefully choreographed not so much to resolve the impasse, but to fundamentally maintain the endogenous frame of patriarchy. Baba refuses to give in, and Modi Mamadou is in no mood for compromise. In the meanwhile, both Amina and Baba’s Mum, walk a delicate line intending not to aggravate a hugely complicated family affair. The book then ends with news of some sort of compromise.

Baba’s story in confronting the irrational tragedies of cultural rituals to save his daughter from circumcision is brave, commendable and deeply moving. Brave because the centralised and often undemocratic hierarchy of village and clan protocols often condition a default collective existence where consent and consultation are intended to maintain order rather than promote justice. Those who disturb, by any measure, the socialisation of local values and their structural habitation risk being condemned, vilified, and ostracised. This is heavy price to pay in the context of an African community, where isolation could effectively squeeze what little the notion of life and living may mean. For Baba however, saving Tulai from the terror and fear of the Ngaaman is non-negotiable, more so where the basis for FGM is conceived from the ugly fringes of culture. It has no religious basis and no scientific value whatsoever.

In most of his reflections during the battle with his father, Baba repeatedly emphasises the transient nature of culture, which makes the unchallenged resignation of communities to violent rituals irreconcilable with some of the founding values of Fulani tradition; respect, solidarity and wellbeing. However, when communities use ugly rituals of culture against children to whom they profess pastoral guidance, they surrender the very legitimacy that makes culture relevant. John Pepper Clark, perhaps one of Nigeria’s most illustrious poets, makes this point in Agbor Dancer. Tradition, Clark seems to say, is a personification of beauty where it appropriates a sense of uplifting theater and grants meaning to events and their organised agents. But this is only half the story. Indeed, where tradition’s theater of beauty is presented as absolute, it loses the capacity for reason and turns ugly. And of course, when tradition turns ugly, the outcome is often authoritative, violent and illogical.

The power of Baba’s narrative in documenting the deeply-moving breakdown of relationship with his father represents a sense of reflective honesty rare in Gambian society. As a skilled writer, he navigates effortlessly between pouring out his emotions, constantly restating his mission to save his daughter, whilst honestly capturing the painful ordeal with his father and larger community. His reflections show a man who is proud of his origin, respectful of village protocol and committed to be subjected to series of procedural absurdities in the interest of peace with his father over Tulai. The story is captivating and the characters remarkably representative of village settings in The Gambia. In the midst of tense conversation on serious matters, humour can be inadvertently scripted. Take for instance, Baba’s threat of suicide as means of persuasion. His father’s reply is of bewilderment with a promise of eternal damnation!

But although this book is about Baba’s personal travails to save Tulai from the terror of the Ngaaman, it is remarkable in its documentation of the inner contradictions, absurdities, irrationalities and idiosyncrasies of the structures, objects and subjects of Gambian society. It is a book that exposes patriarchy in its ugliest form, throws out to the open tragedies of cultural rituals and documents with compelling persuasion the urgent need for a revisitation of aspects of Gambian society that thrive on violence, disempower women, consolidate patriarchy, and more critically, dislodge the imperative of truth-telling. Baba G. Jallow’s The Graveyard Cannot Pray is a compelling read. It is also equally symbolic that Global Hands, a Leicester-based social enterprise committed to confronting some of the pressing issues addressed in this book, is chosen as the publisher.