Dr. Salio Sanogo picked up the small scalpel from the table, and dipped it in rubbing alcohol before turning to the young girl lying unconscious on the operating table inside his clinic in Seledougou, and slicing the mangled skin covering her vagina.
She had Type III FGM, infibulation. The edges of her vulva had been almost completely stitched together to prevent intercourse. She could never pee properly and it was badly infected. She had run away from her village, and stumbled upon him somehow. How she’d managed to find them through the pain was beyond him.
Dr. Salio knew first hand that good people attracted bad things in the way breasts attract idiots. Little girls could be mischievous, if not downright evil in their efforts to redirect chaos, but youth was an excuse for itself, and, ready to carefully draw the young woman’s clitoris out from under the trauma inflicted on her, he also knew that none so young could have earned this through any kind of guilt, past or future.
“Stephanie, see how the excision was performed all the way up here, but she was sown way down to here?” Dr. Salio asked the young Belgian intern, as he finished slicing the skin open.
“That’s why she had difficulty peeing?”
“Yes. The hole is too small, much too small, so the urine pushed out through the skin.”
“Can you help her, Doctor?”
“Yes, we’re lucky, look,” he said pulling apart the undamaged lips under the sowing. “It didn’t mutilate her organ per se, it’s almost intact, and see,” he opened the scar tissue entirely “her clitoris is still right here, all we have to do is pull a little…” he turned to the nurse standing by the bed, adjusting the girl’s IV drip. “Satou, check that she is still sedated enough, we only need thirty minutes.”
“We’ve already given her all the sedatives we could, doctor.” Nurse Aïssatou responded “Her body rejects them; you will have to be quick.”
It wasn’t her body rejecting the sedatives, it was her brain. She wanted this done, she needed this done, but all the same she hated anything foreign done to her. Again. She would need a lot of care, and some time away, to rest and for no one to find her.
He drew a deep breath, staring through the mosquito net surrounding the table at the slightly cracked paint on the ceiling, and the tiny dried bloodstains on the wall, still holding little bits of wings and limbs from smashed bugs, wiped his forehead, and proceeded to drawing out the young girl’s clitoris out, a thousandth of an inch at a time.
Thirty minutes stretched into eternity.
And then it was over.
“We’re done here, hé.” Salio said, handing the scalpel to Stephanie. “Satou can you please clean the blood, and have her covered. Let her rest, when she recovers have Stephanie check on her every two hours for the next…”
“Doctor! Doctor!” A young boy barged into the clinic shouting, earning a grunt from the young girl resting from the surgery, “The Unwomen are here! The Unwomen are here!”
“You mean the U.N Women, Amadou?”
“Yes Doctor,” he grinned, scratching the back of his head. “The UN women. And they have cameras and a truck for you!”
Work was starting to get to him. He had promised them an interview, but no one had said anything about cameras and a truck.
“Well, they do fund part of the clinic…Stephanie, check on her every two hours for the next day, keep her hydrated. I have to head for Bamako tomorrow, a presentation at Save the Children, but I’ll back in forty-eight hours. Satou, think you can handle the clinic without me?”
“Sure Doc. You go and raise the funding we need, and have yourself a proper steak and bed, then come back here, hé? We have work to do.”
“Yes, Nurse Diawara,” he said, snapping a smart salute and earning a frown, and walked out of the clinic behind Amadou.
- 'Fistulas', from Dark Moon Rising on a Starless Night
Chatting with Mame Bougouma Diene, you are likely to have your head spun in a whirlwind of references to places he’s worked in all over the world—Israel, Bangladesh, Niger, Nigeria, France and the USA.
But first, let’s get his name right.
It’s pronounced something like Mahm BooGOOma Dee-en.
Mame: “I’m named after my great grandfather. When my father named me after him he had to call me Mame, because Mame means grandfather/grandmother.
“Bougouma is actually the name. Bougouma means ‘I don’t want to’ because in traditional families in Senegal, if you lose the first child, to ward off the curse of losing the second one you give him a name that is a little bit off the mark because you don’t want to lose him.
“It’s in Wolof, which is the main language spoken in Senegal. There’s thirty-six languages spoken in Senegal, but that’s the most widely spoken. It’s the national language. French is still the official language but it is losing ground, which is both a good and a bad thing.
“‘Diene’ means ‘fish.’ Well it doesn’t actually mean fish but it’s so close phonetically that people hear it as that. So my name means ‘Grandfather Doesn’t Want Fish.’ Which is crazy considering that my ethnic group on my father’s side are fishermen. The Lebou people.”
Mame’s Nommo-nominated novella Hell Freezes Over is about future peoples taking on the characteristics of different kinds of animals. It focuses on an ethnic group that explores underwater and merges psychologically with fish. So I ask him if his name helped inspire it.
Mame: “No, no, not all. We were just sitting around with a bunch of friends in Paris, kicking around ideas for a movie, and I wanted to write about climate change that happens in the in-between period. Not the cataclysms per se, but what happens before another cataclysm happens, how would people adapt? I was kind of sitting on it for about a year. I had the first line in my head but never did anything with it.
“Then one day I was back from Tel Aviv after volunteering with African refugees there and I thought, ‘Now OK I know what this story’s about,’ and I wrote the first part in maybe four days—fifteen thousand words, something like that.
“Then I figured, ‘OK I’ll write a sequel that’s actually a prequel,’ and I ended up finishing it maybe nine months later when I was in Niger working for IOM [the International Organization for Migration.] The two stories together were 35,000 words. ‘Hell or High Water’ was the original story and the prequel was ‘Hell or High Lava.’
“I was sitting there with this 35,000-word story that I had no idea what to do with. And I landed on Ivor Hartmann’s call for submissions (for the second volume of AfroSF). I just sent it on the off chance that he might do something with it.
“Two weeks later he gets back at me, and it starts the same way as every single email you get: ‘Dear Mame, thanks for sending me your story,’ and I’m thinking, ‘F*** he’s going to reject it too,’ and next thing you know he says, ‘I really liked it. I’m going to publish it. I’ll get back at you in a couple of weeks.’ And that gave me the courage to keep writing. The fact that he said, ‘I like your work’ meant I thought ‘I can actually do this.’
“Next thing you know I was submitting to Omenana, and that also was on Ivor’s recommendation, ‘There’s this great new thing coming up,’ and Chinelo (Onwualu) gets back at me and she’s like, ‘That’s an awesome idea, but you need to flesh that story out, change it this way and that and get back at me in a couple of months.’ I did that and she said, ‘Great I’m going to publish you.’
“So Ivor was my first break. It took a while to deliver with AfroSFv2 for a variety of reasons. One of the beautiful ones was that he was getting married. So the story in Omenana came out first.”
Hell Freezes Over was nominated for a Nommo Award.
Mame: “The Nommo nomination was a huge surprise. I guess everybody goes through the same process. You really love what you’ve written and then you get to work on the edits for a year, and you are sick and tired of the stupid thing.
“‘It’s done, I don’t want to see it any more, I don’t want anyone to talk to me about it.’
“I was up with guys like Tade (Thompson) and Nick (Wood) who are absolutely f****** incredible. Dilman (Dila) who’s amazing and I was like, ‘Wow, that I’m in the same book as these guys with my novella is awesome.’ It got mixed reviews, but this one guy who was reviewing it in The Guardian liked it the best of the novellas.”
I admit that the first time I read the story I didn’t fully get it. Are the protagonists physically like these animals or are they just adopting their survival techniques? And then they dream themselves into the fish as they farm the last cities flooded underwater.
Mame: “It really kind of happened in a vision, to be honest. I had that first line, ‘They still talk about the storms.’ And then something clicked. I just started seeing these people, and I started thinking what would happen if humanity had to divide itself into castes. What happens when you build some kind of mental connection with another species?”
The Fish caste at first appear to be the heroes, with the Mole caste working against them.
Mame: “You don’t have one caste wanting to exterminate the other for no reason at all. The Moles look like complete assholes in ‘Hell or High Water.’ But how did they get to be in that position? Why would they have so much resentment against the Fish? And I thought, maybe they come from a slave caste that eventually came into power. What happens when you have that reversal of roles? Clearly the Moles have gone through a lot of shit too.
“The sequel is actually the prequel. It’s tricky to follow. I really f***** with the timeline. That wasn’t really planned, but then I’m a huge fan of Dune, and a lot of it is cryptic, ten-thousand-year leaps into the future, starting in the future of a future. You can’t understand Dune until you read the prequels (written by his son and Kevin J, Anderson): they set the context for a world without artificial intelligence, dependent on physical and mental mutations. Hell Freezes Over has some of that in the sense that you can’t take things for granted without knowing the backstory.”
I ask what he’s writing now.
Mame: “A lot of stuff is happening now actually. I’m working with Ivor again for AfroSFv3. Coming out next year. [AfroSFv3 has just appeared in December 2018.]
“The story ‘Underworld 101’ is getting reprinted by Rosarium. I’m working with Clash Media who released the Wu-Tang Tribute Anthology last year and the editor Christoph Paul, he’s going to be releasing a collection of mine, four novelettes and one short novella. The working title for that collection now is Dark Moons Rising on a Starless Night. We’re still discussing it and working on the cover. All the stories in the collection are new. All horror with an anti-colonial twist.
“Christoph has won several awards. He’s been giving creative writing classes. He writes Bizarro fiction. A lot of the stuff I write borders on Bizarro. I find it to be a very liberating genre, like Robert Rodriguez movies, you can go nuts, unconventional and experimental.
“Three of them [the stories in the collection] revolve around themes in Africa. One about is about genital mutilation. The other is called ‘Popobowa.’ It’s about a Tanzanian monster. I’m kind of contextualizing it in the anti-gay backlash in Uganda a couple of years back.
“Another story is about a little girl I knew in Bangladesh and who I was supporting after I left the Peace Corps, and who ended up killing herself a few years later when I quit my job. She was the most important person in the world to me. Her passing changed who I am. There’s definitely a light that died after she passed.
“Obviously it was a bit of a cathartic story for me, trying to capture who she was, getting that out into the world and what she meant to me. It’s also speculative, but along the lines of Hindu mysticism.
“The fourth story is called ‘Black and Gold.’ Right now there are possibilities of offshore exploration for oil off the coast of Senegal. The story is based around that but also looking into the guiding spirits in my father’s ethnic group. Every single outpost along the coast has a different protective spirit.
“All these groups speak Wolof. It’s a difference in culture because the Lebou are fishermen. They live along the coasts so they go out for days at sea on those small fishing boats. Some of those names are very typical of the Lebou subculture. So if you say Diene they will say, ‘oh you are Lebou’ because that is one of the most prototypical names.
“When I was a child, we would visit Senegal. Whenever it was six or six-thirty, twilight, my dad would just pull us off the beach and back into our rooms and say, ‘You can’t be out at this time.’ And the reason was, traditionally, at that time, the spirit is walking the beach. He may be benevolent, he may not be. You don’t know. So you don’t want to be in his face when he’s out there. That’s one of the things that marked me as a child, the overlap between the physical and spiritual world.”
We talk about his unusual writing process.
Mame: “I used to write on my computer. I spent a couple of years where I was unemployed, looking for a job, going through a freaking depression. Super-dark moments. I don’t even know how to explain it.
“But that was when I started to produce massive volumes of writing, pouring these stories out, and thinking there is no limit to what you can do as a writer. And then my computer got wet and crashed. Thank God the hard drive was safe. I had the story for AfroSFv3 that was pouring out too. ‘This is genius. I got this I got this.’ Then I bought this shitty computer in Mexico and that ended up crashing too.
“Now I’m writing on the subway on my way to work on my Android phone. And the funny thing is that I got so used to writing on my Android that I can’t write on a computer any more. I can do my editing on my computer.
“I found the Android so liberating. I could be on the bus typing it up. I could be in the bathroom and keep writing. Sometimes you catch people on the bus reading over your shoulder. ‘What is this guy on? What is he doing?’ I get home and I’ve typed 700 words.
“There’s something my head that says, ‘I’m going to finish this story. I got to get that story out.’ I’m reading Rachel Zadok’s interview and she’s going, yeah I got a full time job, a husband and two kids. I write whenever I can. I find the time. It’s condescending for people to say, ‘Oh, I wish I could find the time to do what you do.’ As if you were some kind of freaking vagrant bohemian with the luxury to be this creative person.”
I ask him to flesh out his biography.
Mame: “I was born in the US. My father is Senegalese. My mother is French, but mixed Senegalese on her father’s side. I moved to France when I was a kid. My Dad used to work for the United Nations. He was always travelling, doing all kinds of incredibly interesting cultural things.
“He and my mother are the people who turned me on to science fiction, and at a very young age. They had me sit and watch Dune. ‘You need to go to bed, but you want to sit and watch this first.’ They had read the books and were coming from that perspective.
“My dad used to read us all kinds of myths and legends, be it Vikings or Knights of the Round Table or Hindu mythology. So that was the literary upbringing we had as kids, me and my brothers. My Dad was always travelling, and that gave me a kind of wanderlust.
“I want to see a lot of the world, but I also want to be able to support my family who are still in Africa. I always thought if I do international stuff, I’d be able to do that. Not just help them but also other people in developing countries.
“Eventually it happened kind of organically. I was in the States (from France) for college. Was in Paris for about a year and a half. Joined the Peace Corps; I was in Bangladesh for two years. I visited Thailand while I was there.
“I thought, ‘OK. I really like Thailand. Let me go back to Thailand and apply for a scholarship.’ I was applying for that, volunteering at a Buddhist centre in Bangkok for about six months.
“And then I got an internship in Geneva, the IOM, the International Organization for Migration. So I moved to Geneva. I started working on a lot of African projects. Moved to Dakar, where I started working on research projects doing capacity building, trainings basically in migration policy development for West African governments and West African civil society.
“I got a little bit frustrated with the United Nations and how it’s difficult to make a difference if you are piggybacking on what the governments are doing.
“You’re supposed to be trying to help people who make two dollars a day while you make seven thousand a month in the same place. There are a lot of ethical issues with the UN that you only understand once you work in the system.
“So I left the UN and, after living in Senegal and Brussels and Geneva, I volunteered in Israel for a few months with some African refugees, working mainly with the Sudanese and Eritreans.
“So after Israel, I was back in Paris where I was writing ‘Hell or High Water’, and then one day I get a phone call from the IOM Chief of Mission in Niger, who I used to work with in Dakar, and she’s like, ‘I see you’re available. I need a project manager to work in Agade in the South Sahara [in Niger, bordering with Mali and Algeria], to manage an integration project. Are you interested?’ I was doing nothing at the time, so I moved to Niger and was there about a year. It was a bit of a moral compromise, but the job was more humanitarian, reintegrating and training returnees from Libya, so I had less qualms with it. I thought, well, at least you’re not on paying holidays to the Caribbean for government officials.
“Came back to Paris. I was only supposed to be there in transit. I was thinking of applying for a job in Nigeria. But a friend of mine who I used to work with in Geneva, who is Mexican, came up with this idea of helping Syrian refugees migrate to Mexico to complete their higher education. So we set up an NGO and I moved to Mexico. Eventually I reconnected with my college crush and moved to Brooklyn. Now  I’m working for the Open Society Foundations on drug policy reform in Africa. We support civil society in Africa for progressive legislation around drugs.
“So I’m super-grateful because I get to go back to Africa all the time now. It’s a special life, you know.”
GR: “So here’s a question. You can tell a story about Bangladesh. Were there issues of cultural appropriation for you?”
Mame: “OK. That’s a really good question. (Laughs) The way I think about it is this. If you are writing a story about another culture, are you setting it in that culture? Are your main characters in that culture? Or are they just serving a larger purpose that might be the culture you come from?
“When I was doing that story on female genital mutilation, I’d set it in Mali. I’d only spent a little time in Mali. I wanted to be sure that I researched what was going on in Mali, what the dynamics were.
“There’s this guy who writes a lot about Kenya, Mike Resnick. I started reading one of his stories. It was about the Kikuyu. I think it was either about child marriage or genital mutilation. But [in the world of the story] there were these European overlords who were supervising space travel. By the end of the story it was clear that the Kikuyu could have probably figured out the solution to the issue themselves, but the story was through the lens of these Europeans who decided, ‘OK this is how we are going to address this issue.’
“I think it was Wole Talabi who posted in on the African Science Fiction and Fantasy Reading Group and asked people OK, what do you think this is?
“It’s not appropriation through bad intention. It’s appropriation because you’re not giving the local people the agency to do something for themselves.
“When I am looking at issues that are really sensitive I try to take them with as much respect or distance as I have to, because I can’t necessarily relate to them. You wrote a lot about Cambodia so maybe you hit that snag too. Who am I writing about? Who am I to write about them?”
GR: “I reckon a good writer gets it right and a bad writer doesn’t. The bad writing stands horrendously exposed.”
Mame: “I try to start from a very human approach. I think despite the gender differences, the cultural differences, there’s a humanity that ties us together. There are emotions that we all share.
“It’s not necessarily about appropriating a culture as much as understanding the people you are writing about and then placing the story in a context where you are NOT saying, ‘I am the figure with the knowledge about them.’ I am just writing about the human being I know.”
At this point we have the Trump conversation and go on to his experiences in the USA.
Mame: “Geoff, I’ve been searched and frisked by the police ever since I was twelve years old for no good reason. I’ve had my head slammed against the trunk of a police car, and then they called six other officers and a helicopter.
Because they thought I fit the description of a guy who was five foot six [Mame Bougouma towers over six feet]. I’m sure I’m the spitting image of the guy but I’m not five foot six.
“I’ve been held at gunpoint by the police because I had a bulge in my pocket and they thought it was a weapon. I actually thought, ‘If I move I will be plastered all over that wall in so many pieces they will never be able to bury me.’
“It’s not a right for me to have a gun. Clearly not. It’s a right for somebody else to find me threatening and act upon it. And I don’t want to say this in any kind of judgemental way? But I am always shocked by how shocked white people are by racism.
“A co-worker wrote on Twitter once, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe how people in Poland are marching in the streets for nationalism.’ And I am like, ‘Who the hell are you?’ Maybe it’s because it’s something I’ve experienced so many times it’s like, ‘Yeah so what else is new?’ But I find there’s a naivety in white people about the hatred that is out there.
“A lot of my white friends in France are like, ‘I want to go to Africa but I’m not sure if I should go because of all the things that we’ve done,’ and I’m like, ‘Get a f******* plane ticket already and just go!’ I like that they are aware of the history, but don’t try to be so woke about it, it cripples your ability to be a person and meet other people without some post-colonial guilt weighing you down.
We pause to eat, and the tape resumes. We talk about his travel experiences.
Mame: “I work with a non-profit now. I’m super happy about that because it’s not about me any more. The UN was about sending me to manage a project. ‘This dude was born in the USA, grew up in Paris in France, has a Senegalese background.’
“I get a job in Niger. Yeah I can do it pretty well. But tell me that somebody from Niger can’t do it twice as good. I don’t believe that anybody is beneath me in any kind of way.
“Now I’m working funding NGOs to do their local work. That’s the beauty of it. They submit their proposal, I fund it, and then it’s up to them. We try to help them improve their capacity, and in the end we move out. That’s how it should always be. Local people are the experts in their own lives; let them do what needs to be done, on their own terms.
“People tell you that travel will open your mind. Travel has actually made me super-cynical about everything. Actually Terry Pratchett has made me super-cynical about everything, but so has travel. (Chuckles) At first it was, ‘Wow this is great look at all these people; look at how they’re dressed; look at what they’re eating and the different expressions in culture in dance and art and yada yada yada.’
“And then you start learning the languages, and everybody is having the exact same conversation about everything no matter where you are. In every single country. I’m expecting to meet the same great person and the same a**h***. (Chuckles) Everywhere I go.
“I’m trying to remember what my father said. Chris Hedges wrote a book on the topic. We live in an age of spectacle—reality TV. We’re feeding off a lot of fears about who we are, a lot of aspirations that are not necessarily our own but are projected onto us.
“I’ve been to Nigeria, what, maybe five times? I love that country. I got to appreciate Nigerians in their diversity as opposed to that cliché of what a Nigerian is.
“In Timor they pulled me out of the line in the airport and they’re like, ‘So you’re Nigerian’, and I’m like, “No, I’m not. Here’s my UN badge.’ ‘Oh, I’m sorry, Sir.’ Even my father when he’s travelling for his NGO work, he’s like, ‘People are always giving me s*** about Nigeria. What the f*** is going on?’
“You have half the population [of the USA] on a third on the landmass. You’re going to have exacerbation. You’re going to have more gangsters, more singers, more dancers, more writers. You’re going to have more of everything in Nigeria. Nigeria has an entrepreneurial culture that speaks volumes on how dynamic the youth is. People focus on the negative when they should be like, ‘Wow, this is the potential.’ I wish I spent time in Lagos, because any time I’ve spent in Nigeria has been in Abuja.”
GR: “It’s very slightly dull.”
Mame: “It’s a city that only exists because oil money allowed for it. The ministry that deals with oil is so futuristic it looks like a spaceship about to take off. There are no universities inside the city. The universities are all 30 kilometres outside the city. Everything is an embassy or a ministry. There’s even a capitol building. It looks like Rhode Island at night. (Chuckles)
“People told me be careful of Nigeria. IOM had cancelled the meeting I was going to, but they didn’t let me know until I was halfway through the flight. I landed there. No one was there to pick me up. This cab driver got me somewhere to change my money. He let me use his phone to call Senegal to tell him where to take me.
“I was told not to trust people in Kenya. Same thing happened, nobody told me where I was supposed to stay. I talked to girls who worked at an Internet café at Jomo Kenyatta Airport. They got me a cab; they got me a hotel that night. They said, ‘Look, you are in a sh**** situation. If you can do anything for us when you get back to Dakar, please do, but we don’t want anything from you.’ Everywhere people have told me, ‘be careful’, I have met nothing but angels.
Dakar is a safer city than Paris. Dakar is a safer city than New York. But then what city is not safer than New York? I might be worried about African police every once in a while. But I am not worried about being shot when I am in Africa.”