Sitting in the William Morris Gallery on a Thursday evening, belly laughing during a talk about female genital Mutilation (FGM). Doesn’t sound very likely does it? In fact, if I hadn’t been there, and someone had told me they had been laughing during a talk about FGM, I likely would have thought they were being rude and disrespectful. I would probably have pulled my disapproving face, where my forehead gets more wrinkles than a very angry Klingon, tutted several times, and told them to stop making light of a very serious issue. Never the less, as unlikely as it seems, I was indeed laughing my head off at the gallery on Thursday. I was laughing, moved, inspired, and frankly put, I was blown away by the speaker. The person responsible for this roller coaster of emotions was local resident, and FGM campaigner, Hibo Wardere.
I first heard about Hibo in 2015. Local artist, Emma Scutt, painted Hibo and three other FGM survivors as part of the E17 art trail. The paintings, along the with the three women’s stories were exhibited at the magnificent St Barnabas Church just off Queens Road. I went along to the exhibition, I read the stories and remember thinking how brave the women were. Not just brave because they had to deal with FGM and its consequences, but because they were talking about it, being open about FGM. I thought they were brave because they were talking about something deeply personal, and that takes a great deal of guts. Emma’s paintings and the stories of Hibo, Leyla Hussein and Alimatu Dimonekene, attracted national press attention when the telegraph published an article about the women and the exhibition. The paintings and stories are now going on tour of Waltham Forest, which brings me back to Thursday. To launch the tour of the exhibition, the paintings were on display at the William Morris Gallery, and Hibo was at the launch to talk about her experiences.
Before going to the launch we went to the new Sodo pizza cafe for dinner. I hurried my other half along as I misread the timings of the talk on the ticket. Convinced we were going to be late, we ate the pizza at rocket speed and marched down Hoe Street with gusto and purpose. Thanks to my inability to read the tickets properly, we arrived an hour early, causing slight panic when I insisted I was right about the timing and everyone else was wrong . With panic about timings resolved, we had a chat with Emma. She asked if we had met Hibo before, when I said we hadn’t, Emma told us that Hibo, and the talk, may not be what we expected. To be honest, I don’t entirely know what I was expecting, but one thing is for sure, I wasn’t expecting the night to be fun, after all, FGM is hardly a light topic. But as I mentioned earlier, I soon found myself laughing like a hyena.
Hibo was born in Somalia, which is where her FGM was carried out. She talks graphically about her memories of the procedure. She told us how she was held down whilst a woman from her village cut her. She told us about the pain she felt, and how she still has nightmares where she can see the eyes of the woman who cut her. She also told us that she never stopped asking one simple question, why? Hibo has never stopped asking that question, and it seems like that simple three-letter word still drives her today. Why do this to young girls, why put them through the pain, what can she do stop it? Hibo told us about her life, how London and Walthamstow became her home. She told us how she once explained to Boris Johnson exactly what FGM was, and saw the colour drain from his face as she spoke. Her stories are sometimes painful to hear but often funny. Like the time she was stuck talking to a woman at a wedding who was questioning why she was campaigning against FGM. Hibo knew the best way to get rid of the woman was to keep talking about her vagina, keep saying the word over and over again, she knew the other woman would never be able to deal with a conversation about someone else’s body. I think anyone who was there on Thursday would agree that Hibo is a captivating speaker, a word smith, and a force to be reckoned with.
Working as Waltham Forests FGM coordinator, Hibo now works with organisations and schools throughout our borough, telling her story, educating, and working to end FGM. This isn’t an easy subject to listen to, but if Hibo and her fellow campaigners are brave enough to talk about it, the rest of us should be brave enough to listen. The exhibition of paintings and stories is at Leytonstone Library until the 5th February, then it visits Hale End Library between the 9th to 23rd of February. The tour ends at Walthamstow Central Library between the 25th February to the 3rd March. All three women will be speaking at an event in the library on the 3rd of March, tickets are free but going quickly. If you only do one thing this year, go and listen to them speak. They are inspiring, their stories are moving, and they need every ones support to help bring the practice of FGM to an end. For more information, and to book a ticket to the talk, click here.