‘Embodied power’ is an important concept for my research on the history of childhood in colonial Africa. This pretentious academic jargon simply means the physical markings on the body that are used to display citizenship, to mark the transition through age grades, or to complete puberty rites. In Africa this means things like scarification, circumcision, clitoridectomy and other forms of ritual mutilation. Most of these operations are performed by adults on children, or on children who are becoming adults, so ritual mutilation is vital to a historical understanding of generational power.
Embodied power now: the UNPFA and the trouble with aid workers
Ritual mutilation is still a live issue. In Ghana, you can get 5-10 years for practising female genital mutilation. Sounds fair. The 6th February was catchily declared the International Day Against Female Genital Mutilation by the United Nations Population Fund. It’s hard to fault their good intentions. But the UNFPA also claim that genital mutilation is “deeply entrenched in social and cultural tradition”.1 The word tradition is always bad news.
Traditions might be old and they might be entrenched. But they might be very young and not entrenched at all. Cultural practices have historical roots, and history springs up all over the place. To be fair, the UNFPA website does ask “Where does the practice come from?”. But, to return to being unfair, this is answered with meaningless waffle and a meek admission that its origins are “unclear”.2 The social causes are apparently the economic weakness of women and the desire to control female sexuality. Well, duh. But why now, why here and since when?
The UNFPA, in short, has no idea what it is trying to combat. Shouldn’t it try and find out? Well, no, probably not.
For western development and aid workers – as for colonial officials – detailed local knowledge is unnecessary and annoying: it makes your job more difficult.3 You don’t need to know much about the roots of the problem at all. You need to know how to arrange a conference, how to extract funding from governments, how to write a glossy report – and which paved streets in Accra are too narrow for your air-con SUV. In fact, knowing too much might make your job irrelevant. Maybe your mate who works for the imaginary UN Road Building Initiative has more influence over clitoridectomy than you do, so it’s probably best not to find out. And, ultimately, if your development or advocacy group is successful – and understanding the problem makes this more likely – then you put yourself out of a job.
Not that I’m cynical.
Embodied power in history: a Xhosa example
But if the UNPFA did get its act together, what might it find? I think they’d find that clitoridectomy etc are not ‘traditional’, but contingent on local historical dynamics.
Let’s ignore clitoridectomy and consider a South African example of embodied power: the Xhosa ‘custom’ of ingqithi, the exarticulation of the last joint of a finger. It was a marker of citizenship, control and belonging; children normally had the operation at about three years old, but it could be delayed until as late as eighteen if the child lived away from the village. So far, so anthropological. But the statistical study of this practice also allows the problem to be approached from a historical perspective.4
In 1964, a Transkei mission-hospital doctor surveyed all visiting patients to see if they practised this ‘tradition’, and made two unsurprising findings: that incidence of ingqithi was smaller among both educated and Christian patients. But he also noted the age of his patients so it is possible to track the probable date of the operation and any chronological trends. Surprisingly, there is not a linear decline of this custom. There is a clear peak of ingqithi in the interwar years, approximately 50% higher than in the decades before WWI and after WWII. European cultural values were clearly not simply destroying an indigenous tradition – ‘tradition’ was itself a historical product and dynamic.
One useful route for histories of African childhood would be to trace the driving forces behind the desire, among young and old alike, to control children’s bodies and identities. For the Transkei, for example, this might involve studying Xhosa relationships to encroaching mission and independent Christianities, but also the increased incidence (not always with parental blessing) of migratory child labour to Natal. We can also speculate on the impact of ingqithi on productivity: if you have 9-and-a-bit fingers, are you still able to perform nimble-fingered tasks with industrial machinery, or are you only good for hoeing?
1. Interview with UNFPA director.
2. “The practice of FGM/FGC has been followed by many different peoples and societies across the ages and the continents”. UNPFA FAQs on FGM.
3. On the similarities between aid workers and colonial officials see this review by Justin Willis.
4. All statistics are from Jansen, G., ‘Some observations about ritual mutilation in a Transkei mission hospital, with special reference to the ingqithi-custom’, African Studies, 25, 2 (1966), pp73-9.