When Liberian journalist Mae Azango wrote an article about the taboo topic of female genital mutilation, she and her nine year-old daughter became the targets of multiple threats. Brooke talks to Mae about her reporting that forced the Liberian government to finally take a public position on the practice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We just heard [Mohamed Keita] outline the perils for local journalists. One such is Mae Azango. Working as one of the few female reporters in her country, Azango reported on a practice that is both deeply entrenched and highly taboo in Liberia, female genital cutting.
MAE AZANGO: The women secret society is called the Sande Society, S-A-N-D-E, and the male secret society is called Poro, P-O-R-O, Poro Society. They will take their young people and train them to be proper men and women. But the prerequisite for the female, you have to be circumcised to graduate. In the interior, the people there are pressured to send their children to these schools because if they don’t, you’ll be ostracized, you’ll be treated as an outcast; they call you “sinner.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How much reporting has there been on female genital cutting?
MAE AZANGO: For foreign journalists, okay, but for me, who’s a Liberian and know the practice and know the culture, it’s a taboo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what happened?
MAE AZANGO: When I wrote the story, everybody was angry because they said I let out a secret I shouldn’t have done. I tried to talk to several women who shy away: “Oh no, I don’t – ah, no, no, no, no, I can’t talk about it.” People think, oh, it’s too big for my mouth.
And this lady I talked with, she agreed to talk with me, but we had to go in a secret room. Even as we were there, she was scared. She was looking everywhere because the secret of this is you have to make an oath or swear an oath not to tell. And they will always make an oath, “The day I tell, I should die.” So why they were hunting me, probably they wanted my source.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They wanted your source. Mohamed Keita told us that there were death threats against you and your nine-year-old daughter.
MAE AZANGO: They sent a lot of death threats to my editor, to my news office, Front Page Africa, and they said for putting my mouth in their business I am going to pay dearly for it. My editor even called me because I was in a rough village, and she said the people are waiting. The people said they will catch you and carry you to the center and have you cut. Then it will keep your mouth shut; you won’t say anything. That’s their belief. If they cut you, you swear an oath. You won’t be able to tell. So they wanted to keep my mouth shut.
They went to my house looking for my nine-year-old daughter, these women. I don’t know them. And the lady who takes care of my daughter had to run into a neighbor’s house and hide my daughter. And she called me that day. I can remember it was March on the 14th. And I told the nanny to send her to a distant relative out of Monrovia, because I was afraid, because the traditional people believe if they can’t catch you, they will get someone closer to you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What was the government’s response when you reached out to it for protection?
MAE AZANGO: The government never gave me security. I was in hiding for over three weeks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You didn’t have a great relationship with the police, to begin with, did you?
MAE AZANGO: No, I didn’t because I’ve been hard on them. We did a story on police brutality. This woman’s daughter was raped, and when she went to report the case the police beat her and threw her in jail. And her 12-year-old daughter is still at the house. She did not go to the hospital because the mother was thrown in jail. She was there for three days.
Her daughter was not treated as a result. And then they told her who know you; nobody know you! I told her, did they tell you that. She say yes, that somebody would know you. When I’m finished – when we finished reporting this story, somebody is going to know you, and we did that story. The police, they didn’t like it because they were implicated.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Were you helped by the international community?
MAE AZANGO: Oh yeah, a lot of pressure from the international community, I would say.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Who?
MAE AZANGO: CPJ.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Committee to Protect Journalists.
MAE AZANGO: Yes. Amnesty International. Columbia University students came out, CUNY University students came out – to tell the President that he should provide security protection for me. That put pressure on the government to say the SANDE Society that is responsible for circumcision of the women should be suspended for time indefinite.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you believe the government will take concrete steps to stop female genital mutilation? Do you think you changed anything?
MAE AZANGO: Yeah. For the government to come up and say that, it had not been done in the past. So it was a milestone. But they still need to – it needs education, awareness. So the general minister said he will go into the villages and educate these people to stop it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why did you take on this story, Mae?
MAE AZANGO: They were violating the little children’s right. The said at school, the, the bush school, as they call it, the SANDE Bush was to make women ready to get married, teach them how to take care of their husband. But can a three-year-old, a two-year-old and a five-year-old child run a home after you cut her? No! So you are violating that child’s right. You as a parent, you send her there, but you don’t know the future implication. A lot of women are traumatized because of that. We got a lady I talked with, she said they pin her down, there were four women who pin her down, and the same woman was over her and cut her, no sort of anesthesia they gave her. She said, “raw pain" - she described it. She said the pain is so severe, and they don’t give you pills, she said. She just mashed a leaf and put it to the affected area.
Medically, the doctor told me it was dangerous because when women go to give birth they have massive tear and other things, and some of them even die.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You reported on child rape and forced the President to intervene in a case of police brutality against the mother of a rape victim. You were the first reporter to interview Liberian mercenaries who admitted to murdering civilians in the Ivory Coast during the 2010 election. In 2007, you spoke out against the sexual harassment of female reporters, for which you got a lot of criticism.
Last year you won a Pulitzer Center grant to cover reproductive health in Liberia. You’re a journalist on a crusade, aren’t you?
MAE AZANGO: Yes, I would say that, mm-hmm.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s your background? You were forced into exile during the war.
MAE AZANGO: Mm-hmm. I stayed in Liberia throughout the war, and in 1996, when Charles Taylor and Roosevelt Johnson, another rebel group, it was Friday the 13th and they wanted to drag my father who used to be a associate justice from the dining room table - I will never forget.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tell me about your father.
MAE AZANGO: My father used to be associate justice of the Supreme Court, and when the war came the rebels were looking for people working in the government. They looted everything from my house and took my father away. From that day, that moment, our lives changed. He was jailed, he was beaten, he was brutalized. And when he came to America, he died. He suffered brain cancer because they used to gun to beat his head.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s your ultimate goal?
MAE AZANGO: To help as many people as possible. That is why I didn’t go into politics. I have to talk with the ordinary people! I have to walk by them every day and dare to have stories. If I don’t tell their story, who will listen to them? Who will hear their voices? I’m a reporter without border, I go everywhere to report! I report for a change. I feel the injustices in my country too much, and nobody willing to talk about it because other journalists are bought!
And nobody – I can boast now – nobody in my country willing to give me bribe, because they are afraid of Mae Azango! That name sounds like a chewing gum – everybody knows me. Even if you haven’t seen me, that name scares people. So nobody will come and say Mae, I want you to kill this story, because when I go after a story, my uncle always said, when Mae Azango come after you, you better run – oh yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mae Azango.
MAE AZANGO: Yeah, that name – whoo! I can tell you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
MAE AZANGO: Thank you too.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mae Azango reports on human rights New Narratives and Front Page Africa.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary, with more help from Luisa Beck and Rob Schoon, and edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Andrew Dunne.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer. Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.
*** [END] ***