Mae Azango was not home when they came to get her, and she wasn’t at her office when they looked for her there.
About a week earlier, on March 8, her story about female genital cutting and the risks it poses to young girls had appeared on the front page, coinciding with International Women’s Day. Suddenly, she had a lot of enemies.
Ms. Azango lives in Liberia, the tiny West African nation settled by freed U.S. slaves and infamous more recently for the brutality under the regime of Charles Taylor, now on trial for war crimes. Peace in 2003 ended the armed violence – but not the violence of genital mutilation.
Her article had broken the silence surrounding a widespread practice backed by Liberia’s powerful traditional societies, and provoked outrage.
But Ms. Azango, a reporter with FrontPage Africa and a non-profit group called New Narratives, was accustomed to controversy – and passionate in opposing a procedure the World Health Organization says provides no benefit to the 92 million African women estimated to have undergone it. Rather, it can cause bleeding and problems urinating.
She refused to back down even when told she would be killed for discussing the risks and the fact that circumcised women in urban areas were losing their husbands because their sex drive had been so diminished.
The authorities were slow to come to her aid until international pressure a forced the government of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to act.
Now, Ms. Azango is being honoured for her courage – last week in New York by the Committee to Protect Journalists and this week by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, a group dedicated to the public’s right to know.
While in Toronto to receive the award, Ms. Azango explained how she came to write about sensitive issues and why many other African journalists do not.
You didn’t originally want to be a journalist.
My dream as a teenager was to be a hotel manager, where I would be my own boss, make good money. But then all my dreams went downhill. When the war came in 1990, I was just 18. My father was dragged out of our home, because he was a supreme court associate justice, and Charles Taylor’s rebels were looking for government officials. A few years later, he died of brain cancer, and my mother suffered from diabetes, so my sister and brother in the U.S. sent for her to take treatment. When she left, I was 19, with a child, and then, it was one war after another. I was forced to flee in 1996 to Côte d’Ivoire. When I came back, everyone was trying to pick up the broken pieces. I heard of this journalism institution that was running a one-year program just to teach the basics. I didn’t want to get hooked on drugs or follow a bad crowd because, after the war, these things are all around. So I occupied my time to keep myself busy from falling in trouble.
What was it that made you want to write about human rights?
I went to a newspaper called the Telegraph. It used to come out once a week – and you won’t believe it: I was making $10 (U.S.) a month. My fiancé told me, “You can sit home and I’ll pay you that money.” But while at the Telegraph, I took on a story about a little girl with a bullet in her head. She was 6. The United Nations Mission in Liberia [UNMIL] had doctors who could operate on the brain, but they were telling me they couldn’t help. At John F. Kennedy Hospital in my country, they looked at the X-rays and said they could do it, but it would cost something like $2,500 (U.S.). I wrote the story and UNMIL came to this girl’s aid. That’s when I started to take interest in human-rights reporting.
Are other journalists in Liberia doing the same?
There are a few. But a lot don’t. Because editors don’t really pay their journalists. I work for New Narratives, a media project, and FrontPage Africa. So when I take the two salaries, I’m making something like $400 (U.S.) a month. Ordinary journalists make something $100 to $150 a month – that’s pocket change for you. So journalists are subject to handouts. Why would they write stories like this when they don’t get money for it? Please.
You’ve shone a light on Liberia’s traditional societies.
It’s a Stone Age culture. For many years, before Liberia could get formal education, the traditional people organized two societies. The Sande society is for women. When you graduate from there, you’ll be circumcised. The male society is called Poro. These societies were also called bush schools, because they taught young women how to become good housewives – they taught you how to take care of your children, cook, how to braid hair – and other attributes to make you a good housewife. And for the males, they will teach you how to hunt, how to sustain their family.
How is the cutting done?
The lady in my story was 13 when she was forced into the Sande. She said four women knocked her down to the ground and a fifth lady sat over her and cut her with a knife that was used on 25 or more girls. Men are rejecting their wives who are circumcised because, in urban areas, they are finding out women who are not circumcised enjoy sex even better.
I first wrote about cutting in 2010, but this time I decided to point out the medical implications – the risk that was claiming the lives of many girls. Some were dying, as young as 3, 4, 5 – they dragged them into the bush and had them cut.
No form of anesthesia. They only mash a few herbs and put it into the place that had just been cut open.
What happened on the day you published the article?
I received threats, through my office, through my telephone, through my editor. A tenant in my house threatened to have me killed. She said, “Mae, if you visit any rural area, you won’t return to Monrovia alive, because you had no business doing what you did.” It was time for me to leave. I left hiding. That was March 8, 2012, when the story came out International Women’s day. From that day, I was in hiding.
Then what happened?
I came out of hiding on April 2. At that point, the government came out with a pronouncement that all Sande activity should be suspended for time indefinitely because of pressure from the international community.
Are you proud?
The United Nations mission couldn’t talk about it. But when I brought it up, it was out in the public for three weeks. It was a national debate.
Should more African journalists address sensitive cultural issues?
If a white journalist had written this story, which of course they have – it’s been all over the Internet – they’d say, “She’s crazy, she’s just writing something she doesn’t know.” But I’m a Liberian, and I’m writing about my own culture and traditions.
They accuse me of selling our culture to the white people for plenty money. I was only writing to educate them. But After this pronouncement to ban Sande activities, I can tell you: It’s still going on, under the noses of the government, being done in secret. Likewise, abortion. I think Africans should write about African issues. Africans should write about what affects them.
This interview has been edited and condensed.