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Interview: Brigitte Gambou, human-rights activist

18 September 2020

“When are our parents going to realise that this culture is destroying lives?”

With God, all things are possible. God has helped me completely heal from my past wounds. I founded a charity, Fight for the Dignity of African Women and Children. I empower, educate, and encourage African women, children, and men in different countries around the world. I don’t want them to go through what I and others went through in the name of culture and tradition. I must prevent it at all cost.
 

I was born in Africa and raised in a Christian family with my lovely twin brother. My dad lost his job when I was in Year 5, and, a year later, my dad said there was no money for my education. I was the youngest female child in the house with my four younger siblings. I was not doing very well at school because of the beatings at school by teachers.
 

I cried a lot then, and my sister agreed to take me. I did cry because I didn’t want to leave my family and friends.
 

My sister’s husband managed to enrol me in school, but, in our tradition, a female child in the house must do the housework. I was going to school but never had any time to study. I was in charge of the housework, washing by hand, and cooking for 11 people. That is a normal for most young girls in Africa. I could not say no to our tradition.
 

I helped my mum with her small business, and she enrolled me in an evening class, but I was afraid I would be married. Church was a place of healing and total restoration.
 

I did well in secondary school, where there were no beatings. One day, my French teacher said he wanted to marry me. Many friends were raped by their teachers. If you refused sex, they marked you down, even if you did well. He confronted me and said: “Just say ‘yes’ to me. I will make you pass all your exams. Your English teacher is my friend, and I will tell him to give you good marks. I will help you succeed in your education.” I refused, and failed my end-of-year exam.
 

When I married, I was really in love, but my husband belonged to that culture. I began praying and fasting for him. I told him how I felt, and we witnessed the deaths of friends. He realised how our culture was destroying lives. He’s now on a mission with me educating African men to love, respect, and value their wives.
 

When I came to Europe, I started to understand the cultural practices inflicted on women and girls through forced marriages, abuse and rape in marriage, high levels of domestic violence, and parents’ taking their children home to perform female genital mutilation (FGM). Some very close friends ended up in psychiatric units, and many have died.
 

Every time I see that, I’m taken back to the pain that I went through as a young girl. My best friend was forced into marriage, aged 13, with her dad’s friend, who was 63. That night, she ran away and sought refuge in my house, but my mum was afraid to keep her safe. I can never forget the agony in her eyes when saying goodbye. It’s still fresh in my mind.
 

I grew up with these questions and the pain in my heart. My parents and my community said there was nothing wrong. When are our parents going to realise that this culture is destroying lives? I said to myself it needs to stop.
 

I took a big risk asking questions to our London community leaders — a risk because, in our culture, you cannot question an adult or elder. Eventually, I got an answer: there is nothing wrong with that. Then, I asked myself how can people keep telling me there is nothing wrong when people are dying. Also, with my 20 years of experience in childcare in the UK, I noticed that these traditions and cultures have affected our children here. So, I made up my mind to do something about it in order to save lives.
 

[Through the charity] we provide mediation services, counselling for African women and children, shelter, financial support, food and clothes, school fees for children, and apprenticeships and training for women and young girls.
 

My proudest achievement — and the bravest thing — is writing my first book, The Cry of African Women. I took a big risk to expose the atrocities of our culture. Many people in my family and community are not happy about it, and I’ve received many messages and texts asking me why I was exposing our tradition. But through the Fight charity, many lives have been saved and restored. It’s a massive achievement.
 

The book exposes gender-based atrocities such as FGM, rape, the murder of disabled children, child marriage, and many others. Some are still practised in African communities all over the world.
 

Writing this book is like screaming very loud, so that the whole world hears the voice of the voiceless African women, whose lives have been totally destroyed and continue to be destroyed in the name of African traditions and cultures.
 

My mum’s been a great support, and is now teaching me how to approach African elders and leaders.
 

Yes, European missionaries and their colonial activities caused a great deal of human suffering in Africa. They failed to assist in stopping these cultural practices that existed long before their arrival, despite having the power to do so.
 

My grandma once told me that our men lost their sense of reasoning after being tortured by their colonial masters, and started to use violence against their wives and children to regain their lost dignity.
 

In some circumstances, cruelty can be a response to financial, economic, social, and inner insecurity. It can be alleviated by job creation, educating people, birth control, and empowering women to become socially and financially independent.
 

Our team is doing all it can to pass this message on, but we need the support of European and American Christians to stop these cultural practices, and to give hope through education and refuge centres.
 

Our faith in the Lord Jesus must come first. There’s a clear distinction between culture and Christianity. One cannot be a follower of both.
 

One day at school, I was leaning on the balcony on the third floor. Suddenly, the balcony broke. At the same time, I felt something like a magnet attraction pulling me from the back. I watched the balcony fall as people were running away. No one was hurt, and I knew God had saved me. I felt the presence of his power around me. God protected me for a purpose.
 

After that, I decided to be completely serious about the affairs of the Lord, and my Christian life went to another level. I realised that God has supernatural powers, and with him everything is possible.
 

I’d like to build refuge and education centres for African women and children all over the world, especially in deep villages in Africa.
 

When I see people suffering or dying, and other people think it’s normal and do nothing about it, it makes me sad and angry at the same time.
 

A happy moment for me is seeing a smile on a woman’s face after I’ve helped her and she is no longer in danger.
 

My most reassuring sound is the sound of worship, and the sounds of rivers, oceans, and waves.
 

Faith and life in Christ Jesus gives me hope. With him, everything is possible.
 

My mum is a prayerful woman. When I stop praying, she continues. When I go to check on her at 6 a.m., she’s always praying. Her courage and her faith give me the strength to continue to worship God. I would choose to be locked in a church with her.

 

Brigitte Gambou was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

fdawc.org

The Cry of African Women: The unrevealed atrocity of the African culture exposed is published independently at £12.99.

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