female circumcision marriage childbirth
Short Story

The Journey of Womanhood

Eme woke up with a start, with bewildered eyes and pajamas hair. Then it hit her, a sharp pain in her lower back. She screamed at the top of her lungs, more out of fear than pain. Somebody help! She screamed loudly again which got Edem, her husband of one year running in half clad from the bathroom.

No no no no, don’t shout babe; don’t shout. Remember what your mom said, please don’t shout. Let me get the car keys so we could go to the hospital, please babe, be strong and give me a moment Edem blabbed as he took off, obviously scared.

Eme was the first daughter of her parents, Mr and Mrs Etim. She was an indigene of Akai Effa Village in Calabar Municipality, Cross River State of Nigeria.  As she lay confused and curled up in pain, her mind quickly ran through what her mother, Mrs. Utta Etim taught her about puberty, pregnancy and childbirth.

Utta started putting Eme through on what to expect as a woman before and after pregnancy and childbirth when she turned thirteen. A natural incident has led to the sermon. Eme, who attended an all girls’ school, remembered how shocked and scared she was when she was told by her classmates that her immaculate white uniform was stained.

The alarmed girl had quickly glanced back and seen a reddish brown patch almost at the helm of her skirt. Curious as to what it could be, she turned the skirt backside foward and it suddenly dawned on her that she was finally a ‘woman’. The much talked about menstruation had arrived without notice.

She had been expecting some sort of pain, nausea and headache as she had been told by her classmates but didn’t experience any of these hence her surprise.  Eme was immediately flanked by her classmate, all talking at once with each one trying to tell her what she knew about the situation. Poor Eme burst into tears which made the girls tease her, calling her a cry baby.

She was marched to the staffroom to see her class teacher, the ever gorgeous Mrs. Asukwo. Mrs Asukwo, who was obviously used to such situations gave a wide smile, hugged her and put her through twenty minutes of what you need to know about menstruation.

Dear girl, she began with kindness in her voice. Congratulations, you are now a woman. What just happened is the arrival of your menstruation, which will be a regular monthly visitor from now henceforth. It shows you are normal and healthy and producing baby making eggs.

As you were taught in Biology, menstruation occurs once in a month when there is no conception. The period from one menstrual flow to the other ranges from 23-28 days and is called your circle; the period between one flow to the other.  My dear, if any boy touches you from now on, you will get pregnant. You have to avoid boys like a plague now until when you get married, do you understand me? Yes ma! Eme answered although she was more confused than when she first got there.

Good girl said Mrs. A, as she was fondly called by her students. Now go get your skirt cleaned up then go and see the nurse at the sickbay so she will give you sanitary pads. Thank you ma! said Eme as she rushed off to the sick bay, absolutely confused.

Eme got to the sick bay and knocked timidly on the nurse’s cubicle. Who is that and what do you want? The nurse asked not raising her head from her notebook where she was writing her daily report. Its Eme Etim ma, I am here to get sanitary pads. Ok, hold on she replied as she reluctantly dragged herself up and threw a pack of sanitary pads at Eme.

What are you still waiting for? Nurse scolded when she noticed Eme had not moved an inch after picking up the pack of sanitary pads from the floor. Don’t you have any more lectures for the day? Why are you looking at the pad like that? Do you think it is biscuits?  I don’t know how to use it Nurse, the startled Eme whispered shyly.

I am so sorry dear, Nurse said feeling sorry for the little girl. Come and take a seat let me tell you a story while we do a demo of how to use sanitary pads. I wonder what story she has for me now, Eme thought. I have had enough for one day; I just need to go home to mom and the comfort of my bed. She walked over to the chair Nurse indicated and sat down.

In my days as a teenager, nurse began, in the village of Akpabuyo where I grew up; we all belonged to age grades. Age grades were made up of people born within a period of two to three years of each other. We met to play games, help each other with chores, care for the elderly in the community and also cultivate our parent’s farms.

Parents and elders taught us about our bodies from very tender ages and from ten we were told to begin to expect our monthly visitors. Older siblings reiterated what older women taught us. They taught us that menstruation signified we were ripe for womanhood which in traditional parlance means marriage and childbearing.

We learnt that we could get pregnant upon meeting with boys and were advised not to go near boys. It was at this stage that we were secluded and circumcised to ensure that we didn’t give place to sexual promiscuity.

Circumcised? As girls? What do you mean nurse and how was it done? I thought only male children were circumcised at eight day’s old? Eme asked with deep curiosity.

Dear girl, Nurse answered. Female circumcision is what is today called Female Genital Mutilation. It is a complete or partial removal of the outer part (external female genitalia) of the vagina, especially the clitoris for non-medical reasons. In my own case, it was complete.

It was a ritual initiation right into womanhood which every young girl in my community had to go through. We all looked forward to it with dread. Families participated by ensuring that their daughters were circumcised with great pride. At the onset of my first menstrual flow, my parents began preparing for my coming of age initiation right or circumcision. I was just twelve years old then.

Most of my friends also faced the same fate as we were in the same age grade. Circumcision was mostly seen as an age-grade ceremony which spanned a period of three years for each age grade. What I mean here is that since we were in the same age bracket, most of us begun menstruating at the same time, therefore, we were secluded for and circumcised on the same day.

An outing ceremony was organized for every new initiate a month after the exercise when we would all have healed. This party was held jointly as a group. We were made to parade the village half dresses. Our parents beamed with pride, showering gifts on us. It was conducted at least two times in a year for a period of three years till every member of the age grade had been initiated. 

As I said earlier, nurse continued, I was 12 years old and in Form One in secondary school. I returned for the mid-year break and was secluded for two months from late July until late September. I was confined to my room and nobody was allowed to visit, except elderly relatives and very close, circumcised friends.

While in seclusion, I was taught how to take care of my body. The traditional surgeon also came in once in a while to teach me what to expect and the importance of circumcision. I was made to understand that women who were not circumcised ended up as prostitutes or nymphomaniacs as they couldn’t be sexually satisfied by one man.  I was also told that the female genital looked unkempt if not circumcised. I was made to believe that my future husband would be put off at the sight of my genitalia if it was not trimmed and kept clean. They made us believe circumcision made childbirth easier. We were very naive and couldn’t raise an eyebrow to avoid being termed “bad blood”.

Mma mbobi (literarily meaning circumcision woman) as we called the old woman who did the surgery, usually arrived very early in the morning depending on how many people she had to circumcise in a day. In my case, on the day of the deed she came at about 4.am with her popular shoulder sling bag hung loosely on her frail shoulders.

This smallish old woman had been around for ages (as I thought then). She it was who circumcised my mother, aunties, and cousins. Mother greeted her warmly on arrival. She answered and teased me, to ensure I was at ease before she asked if the water had been prepared and was answered in the affirmative.

An old wrapper was tied around my chest, long enough to cover my backside and I was made to sit down, legs apart on the bare mud floor of my seclusion room. I watched as mma mbobi carefully washed her hands with native black soap. She brought out some things from her bag which I could not see clearly and laid them accordingly on a piece of white cloth on the floor beside her, right in front of me. At this point, she called for hot water. It was brought straight from the fire in a covered earthen ware pot.  

The old woman approached me and spread my legs further apart. That was when real fear gripped me. I remembered stories of girls who did not survive the ordeal. Their death was attributed to promiscuity which consoled me as I was still yet untouched. It was a great shame to discover on the day of circumcision that the girl to be circumcised had been violated. She was immediately ostracized by the entire community.

My virginity was tested by mma mbobi by inserting a finger into my vagina. I gasped out of fear and was immediately pinned down by two matured women, one to each leg. Two others held me down by my shoulders. She proceeded to dab my vagina with very hot water held in a piece of cloth, supposedly to soften the clitoris and numb the pain. I screamed as a very sharp pain pierced through my being. As quietly as she started, she was through with the cutting.

Till this day, I can’t remember how it happened, only that sharp pain. She applied the hot cloth once more and this time held it for a bit longer to stop the flow of blood. Then she applied a blackish, powdery substance and left some with my mom for daily application until I healed. I was very lucky to have healed without serious complications, except that the process left me frigid.

Eme cringed in fear and disbelief as she listened. She silently thanked God that she did not have to go through Female Genital Mutilation. Your generation is lucky, Nurse continued, cutting into her thoughts. Female Genital Mutilation is hardly practiced anymore. States are advocating against it and also provide protection to those who are at risk.

 Did you lose anyone to this barbaric practice? Eme asked. Well, replied Nurse, about a few that I know of. Those who died were said to have been killed by the gods for being promiscuous. Most of us grew up with several complications, especially during childbirth. We also do not enjoy intimacy with our husbands. I have learned to move on but will always advocate against it.

Now run along, I will be glad to answer any questions you have about your new status. Welcome to the club, Nurse added mischievously. Thank you very much for telling me your story ma, I never knew such practices existed. I will definitely come around again someday!

What a day! Eme exclaimed as she threw herself on her bed. It started uneventfully and now see where we are. She eagerly awaited her mother’s return from work so she could ask her all the questions she had in mind until she drifted off into a troubled sleep.  Mrs. Etim was a strict disciplinarian who worked with the State Ministry of Health as an Assistant Senior Health Facility Inspector. As strict as she was, she had soft spots for her only daughter, Eme. She could not bring herself to discipline her the same way she did her boys. Eme was a very calm, beautiful and obedient child who was easily corrected. These qualities endeared her to her mother. They related more like sisters than parent-daughter.

She woke up with a start as she heard her mother drive into the compound. As she sat up to clear her head, she heard her mom reprimand the brother who had opened the gate for her. Oops! So typical of Nigerian parents, to return home with a quarrel. Eme skipped into the sitting room, welcomed her mom excitedly in her characteristic way. Mrs. Etim was pleased to see her only daughter and replied her with a wide smile and a warm hug. I hope you had a good day at school? Yes, Mom, Eme replied.

Both went into the kitchen to prepare dinner for the whole family where they chatted away gaily. After dinner, Eme told her mom she would love to see her privately for something really important. I hope all is well with my baby; her mood has been a bit too gay today her mom thought. Ok dear, your room or mine? She asked aloud. Mine, of course, replied Eme and they headed into her room.

Close your eyes mom, Eme told her mom softly. I have a surprise for you. Hmmm, it had better be a pleasant one her mom said as she closed her eyes, smiling. When she was sure she had her eyes firmly shut, Eme held out the pack of sanitary pads before her. Taadaa, open your eyes now! Mrs. Etim gingerly opened her eyes and gave out a large squeal when she saw what the surprise was. She hugged her daughter tightly for about a minute, too long for Eme’s comfort.  Congratulations darling, welcome to the club of womanhood.

Now, tell me, when and how did this happen? You were fine when you left home this morning. Yes, mom, I was Eme said and recounted the events of the day.  But mom, she concluded, everyone keeps saying I will get pregnant if a boy touches me. How could that be? I’ve been holed up here since I got back because I don’t want my brothers to touch me. Her mom could not hold back the laughter. She laughed until tears rolled down her cheeks.

When she recovered from the bout of laughter, she dried up her face with tissue which her daughter held up to her. Now, before I answer that, do you have any more questions? Is there anything else you need clarifications about? Mrs. Etim asked. Yes, mom, I need to know everything about having a period. Ok dear, now you have a bedtime story.

Menstruation, monthly period, or just period, is the shedding/melting away of the lining of the uterus or womb which comes out in form of blood from the vagina. It starts during puberty between the ages of 12-14. It could be sooner or later than this. You know, your body starts getting set for reproduction at puberty, therefore, the womb is lined up with soft tissue and blood waiting for the ova (egg) to be released (ovulation), fertilized by male spermatozoa and implanted there, the beginning of a baby. When there is no fertilization, the egg dies off and the lining of the womb melts away and comes out of your vagina as menstrual blood. It typically lasts for 3-5 days after which it stops and your body starts getting ready for ovulation and either pregnancy or another period.

On the issue of getting pregnant when touched by boys. As I said earlier, you release an egg once every month which should be fertilized by male spermatozoa. The sperm is released into the vagina when a man has sex with a woman. That is when there is penis-vagina penetration without protection or contraception. That penis-vagina penetration, or sex, is what is referred to as “touching”.

Touching is regarded as a more decent form of saying sex. It literally means that now you have started seeing your period, there is a high likelihood of you getting pregnant if you have unprotected sex with a man. It is not when a boy touches your hand or face. Do you understand me so far dear? Yes mom, said Eme, heaving a sigh of relief. Please go on mom, I’m all ears she said. Ok dear.

As I was saying, mom continued, menstruation happens once in every lunar month (twenty-eight days) except in cases of pregnancy, birth control, drug usage or ill health-related issues. This once in every month occurrence is known as your monthly menstrual circle. The length of the circle varies from person to person and could be between 21-35 days. It is counted from the first day of the last period to the first day of the next period.

 Monthly periods come with signs and symptoms, which could be painful, discomforting  or not. These signs include nausea, vomiting, breast tenderness, cramps, dizziness, headaches, general feelings of discomfort and so forth.

Cramps are the most common signs. It could be mild discomfort or severe pains in the lower abdomen. If the pain is too strong, it could be a sign of endometriosis. Period pains are managed by mild pain relief drugs, applying hot water bottle to the crotch, avoiding food triggers like sugary foods and drinks shortly before and during a period. It typically goes away at the onset of the menstrual period.

Do you have further questions darling? No, mom. Ahaa, that reply was really fast mom said. Are you sure you are okay with this conversation? Yes, mom, I am. It’s just the bit about sex that was uncomfortable but I guess I can ask you anything mom. You go right on ladybug; I am yours for a few more minutes.  Eme laughed out loud and urged her mom to go on back to bed as she was satisfied with the conversation. You are the best mom in the whole wide world, I absolutely adore you. Thanks a bunch, you sweet thing her mom replied, hugging her tightly. Good night baby.

Eme Etim had a good night rest and woke up bright and alert to blood-stained bed sheets. She quickly cleaned it, tidied herself up and was ready for school in no time before she remembered she had no sanitary pad on. She quickly went back into her bedroom, pulled out a piece of sanitary pad from the pack that lay on her bedside table. She peeled off the cellophane wrap, exposing the pad. With a fresh sanitary panty, she gingerly peeled off the gummy tape guard and placed the pad on her panty. Then she spread out the pad wings, took off the sticky tape and stuck them under the pants on opposite sides. Then she put on the sanitary pants and ran off to join her brothers who were already waiting in the car. School was really fun as she had an answer to all her friends had to say about having a period.

She soon finished high school and was admitted into one of the most prestigious colleges in the country, where she studied Social Works. Her choice of profession was informed by what Nurse had told her in high school about female genital mutilation. She wanted to help girl children who didn’t have access to equitable life and healthcare.

During her second year in college, she met, fell in love with and married her husband, Edem, amidst a very elaborate four days ceremony comprising of her maiden outing ceremony, traditional marriage, church wedding, and thanksgiving service.

In Calabar, Cross River State of Nigeria which is Eme’s home of origin, marriages are taken seriously between the two families. Both sides try to ensure that their children are perfect matches for each other; the families were good which traditionally meant no history of madness, stealing, divorce, or other ill health and behavioral patterns that were believed to run in the family bloodline. The marriage ceremony was conducted upon the satisfaction of both families.

In traditional Efik society, culmination of marriages commenced with the seclusion of the bride to be for fattening, induction into womanhood via circumcision and home management training. Here she was taught all about how to care for herself, babies, husband and the home. She was also taught what to expect from her husband, in-laws, and pregnancy, childbirth and care.

In modern times, seclusion is no longer widely practiced. Mothers, older and more experienced relatives still talk to their daughters about what to expect in marriage. Eme was particularly interested in pregnancy and childbirth so she requested that her mom and immediate female family members share their experiences with her.

Mrs. Etim took the lead in explaining to her daughter what to expect during pregnancy and childbirth. She said pregnancy is the period of nine calendar months or ten lunar months when a woman carries a baby in her womb until delivery. It starts when you have sex with your husband and his sperm fertilizes your ova. Remember, it is not every sexual intercourse that will lead to pregnancy. For it to lead to pregnancy, a lot of factors are involved but majorly, you as a woman should be ovulating,  free from infections and blockage. The man also must have healthy sperm with good count and morbidity. All things being okay, pregnancy is sure to happen when you have sex around when you are ovulating, and not on contraceptives.

Another thing dear, interrupted an aunt who was a medical personnel. Pregnancy could also occur without sex through a process known as artificial insemination. It is . . . we have heard, taaaaaa, we are not praying for that, please go away with your bad omen; she was rudely interrupted by almost everyone shouting at the same time on top of their voices.

How do I know I am pregnant, mom? Eme asked. I think someone who has not spoken before should answer her, Mrs. Etim enjoined. The most common first sign of pregnancy is a missed period replied her Dad’s younger sister, Aunt Ekamma. That means your menstrual flow will not appear that month. You should take a pregnancy test to ascertain that you are pregnant. Other signs will follow immediately such as nausea, vomiting, food abhorrence and craving, breast tenderness, bloated stomach, headache, dizziness, irritability and so on. This most times goes on for the first three months, also known as the first trimester.

As for me, her maternal grandma chipped in, I never had nausea nor did I vomit. I was always very weak and dizzy. It was during my antenatal visits that it was discovered that my blood level was low. I was anemic. It is very important that you register for antenatal care as soon as you discover you are pregnant. Yes grandma, thank you so much ma. Could you please share your childbirth stories with me? I’m sure my bridal train would love to hear the stories too. Eme pleaded.

It never ceases to intrigue me how eager every bride to be I have come across is to hear birth stories. Grandma said. Ladies I am certain you have loads of stories for the younger ones. The older ladies all laughed and took turns telling her what to expect during labor and delivery.

The symptoms of labor vary amongst women and pregnancies in order of presentation. What I mean here is that every woman experiences different things at different stages of labor. Labour presentation also varies with pregnancies. For example, the birth of your second child might not be like the first. Her aunt started.

For me, labor starts with lower back pains and cramps similar to menstrual pains. It comes and goes for a period of about two weeks. This is called false labor or Braxton hicks. Then I would normally have a show (blood stained mucus). When the show presents, I know it is the real deal; labor has begun in earnest.

The pain grows in intensity and I can only describe it as very intense menstrual cramps. It is usually very painful. It gets more painful as labor progresses. This bloody show keeps coming out, increasingly until my waters break. By this time I would already have been in the hospital.

As soon as the waters break, the pain gets more intense, contractions stronger and more frequent. Things move really fast until it’s time to push. How do you know when you have to push? Asked Eme’s Friend, Asari.  Your body will know. You will have a strong urge to bear down as if you need to use the toilet. It is so strong you cannot control it.

 For me, Mrs. Etim chipped in. Labor starts with mild cramps as well which are manageable. Shortly after I first start feeling the cramps, let’s say about two hours into it, my water breaks. The first time I had a baby, I did not notice the mild cramps as I had been dealing with the discomforts of the final lap of pregnancy for a while. I was taken unawares when my waters broke as I sat on the toilet seat in the office. I had a little pop like the smacking of my lips then there was a gush. I sprang up in fright and more water gushed out. I thought the water will never finish. I was so scared I let out a scream. Female colleagues rushed in and took me to the hospital immediately. That labor lasted for more than twenty-four hours and I was exhausted. Thankfully, your brother was born before other medical intervention measures were taken. That was my longest labor ever.

How painful could labor be mom? Eme was obviously scared now. Expect the worst pains you can imagine my dear, grandma said, so that you are not taken unawares.

You know my dear, as an Efik woman; there are do’s and don’ts of pregnancy and childbirth grandma continued. You must be brave from the very beginning. Don’t spit out no matter how nauseous you feel during the first trimester. As soon as you start you will not be able to control it and you know it is very irritating. Avoid certain foods like okra, snail, ogbono and other slimy foods so that your baby will not drool. You must not have sex standing or on all fours while pregnant so the baby does not behave like an animal. During labor, do not shout. Shouting makes labor more painful and gets you worn out.

When once you bring forth your child, you would have completed your life cycle as a woman….you would have replaced yourself. When you have the next one, you replace your husband. The entire room burst into laughter.

The next contraction jolted Eme back to reality. They were getting closer together and more painful as she had been told. Her husband hurriedly took her to the hospital and all she could say was get mom on the phone for me, please. Three hours later, she brought forth an adorable baby girl. As soon as she was able, she got to talk to her mom. Mommy, she said weakly, tell grandma I have completed the life cycle of a woman… Really? Mom said. Congratulations my darling, welcome to the ultimate club of womanhood!