By Robin Grant
Tanzania is probably best known for the world famous Serengeti National Park with its the vast grasslands and diverse wildlife. Less known, however, is that female genital mutilation remains widespread among tribes in parts of the Serengeti district. Each year, during a four-week period in December called the cutting season, young girls are forced to undergo FGM. It is a dangerous procedure which tribal tradition dictates is a rite of passage to womanhood and marriage. Lately, these girls have been fighting the tradition with the help of a non-governmental organization in Mugumu called the FGM Safe House. Established in 2014 and funded by the Anglican church, the safe house provides girls refusing FGM a place to stay, food, and schooling until the cutting season ends. Afterward, social workers try to negotiate a safe reunion with their families.
Scotland-based BBC data journalist and freelance photojournalist Marc Ellison recently travelled to northern Tanzania to report on the issue, funded by a $25,000 Fellowship for International Development Reporting, a joint program of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada and the Canadian Association of Journalists. In addition to photography, video, and a written story, Ellison created Safe House: Voices from the cutting season, a 39-page graphic novel that depicts the girls' escape. "I think it's a great format, because I could have easily written three thousand words on the safe house, but I think most people would agree when presented with a block of text and imagery—be it photos or illustrations—the human eye is always more taken in by illustrations," he explained. "So it's that very simple fact that we're a very visual species—that we're sort of captivated by the image more than the word."
Illustrated by Canadian story artist Daniel Lafrance, the comic depicts the real life circumstances of Mama Mary, Dorika, and Susana who were all younger than 15 when their families arranged for them to have the excruciating female circumcision and marry older men for prized dowries. It tells the story of how the older Mama Mary was forced to be cut and married since the safe house wasn't around at the time. Years later, after she escaped her abusive husband, the book portrays her alienation and trauma. "But now, at 22, I don't know if I can have the same life like other women," she says. Luckily for Dorika and Susana, they can flee their families to the safe house. When news about it spreads through the region, girls arrive en masse.
Ellison works as a full-time data journalist for the BBC and conducts international reporting trips on vacations and unpaid leaves. He's previously reported from Uganda, Mali, and Mozambique. On this trip, he spent two weeks in Tanzania's Mara Hills, gaining the girls' trust and an understanding of the issue (another four weeks were spent in the Shinyanga, Arusha and Simanjiro regions reporting on child marriage). Ellison talked about the importance of longterm reporting projects because they allow journalists to achieve more nuanced reporting and possibly dispel certain stereotypes prevalent in the media about Africa. Spending more time in the country also helps to get closer to the subjects, he said, as it is difficult for the girls to open up about their traumatic experiences, especially to white male journalists. "It’s challenging just to pitch up and to expect them to be quite open and transparent with you about their quite traumatic experiences (...) I spent about a week staying close to the safe house and being there everyday," he said. "And the first couple of days, you're not really conducting any interviews. You're just sort of chatting with people, trying to make them feel somewhat comfortable with you being there.”
For the parts of the story Ellison wasn't there to document, he said the graphic novel fills in the gaps. "If I was just doing a video piece or written piece, you know, we're just capturing visually what life is like for (Dorika) right now," he explained. "But by combining photo and illustration, we're basically able to plug the gaps that I wasn't there in person to document." He added that including photography and video ensures the reader doesn't forget the story is about real people and events. "I think the important thing too, rather than just telling it purely with illustration, by imbedding the occasional video or photo, you're constantly reminding the reader that this is a real person's story. I think it would be all too easy to forget that. If you're just reading the first five or six pages, there's that possibility that you might forget that these events actually did happen."
Sadly, the safe house has become a permanent residence for many of the girls. Although FGM has been illegal since 1998, a large portion of the population still practices the tradition, and it remains largely uncheck by authorities. Ellison explained that he wanted to get the side of the story of the family members who wish their daughters to have FGM so that the reporting isn't solely told through a Western lens. "It is very easy to look at things like FGM and child marriage with a Western lens—just to criticize it off the cuff. I mean, obviously I think FGM and child marriage are terrible things. But I felt it was important to portray the other side of the story," he said. "So that’s why I wanted to get the opportunity for Dorika’s mother to speak. So asking her: 'Why do you think your daughter should be cut?', 'Why do you think she should be married?', (…) 'You know, in the West, these practices are seen as pernicious, as harmful, what do you have to say about that?'”
He added: “You see a lot of stories in the West that are just out and out FGM’s bad. And aren’t these tribal customs backward and pernicious. And in many ways, yes, they are. But I think being able to spend a little bit more time out there, you sort of kick up the sand a little bit on how important these traditions are to some of these tribes. Albeit, at the end of the day, I think they are not the best customs—I think they should be eradicated. But I think it is important to have a little bit more nuance in your storytelling.”
Read and watch all of Safe House: Voices from the cutting season, recently published in the Toronto Star. It is Ellison's second graphic novel reporting project. His first project, Graphic Memories: Tales From Uganda’s Female Former Child Soldiers, won third place in the 2016 World Press Photo multimedia contest for innovative storytelling. To see more of Ellison's award-winning journalism, click here.
Lafrance's website is available here. His graphic novel adaptation of Sharon E. McKay’s novel War Brothers about children forced to become child soldiers for the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda was nominated for an Eisner Award in 2014.