With her wrinkled face and toothless smile, Adama Barry does not look like a repeat offender as she shuffles from her cell in Ouagadougou’s only prison.
But the Burkinabe grandmother, dubbed “Ma Barry” by the prison warders, is serving her fifth sentence for mutilating or cutting the genitals of babies and young girls.
The Burkina Faso government has been waging a decade-long war to wipe out female genital mutilation (FGM). Part of that fight was a law, passed in 1996, making the practice a criminal offence punishable by up to three years in prison, or 10 years if the victim died.
Since then Barry, who says she is 55 but looks much older, has been hauled into jail five times.
Her most recent arrest was in August 2004 after an anonymous tip to an anti-circumcision hotline reported that she was part of a group who had carried out genital mutilation on 16 girls between two and seven years old.
When asked why she had carried on wielding the knife, she said simply, “Satan was stronger than me.”
But, talking to Barry in one of the prison’s dusty corridors, it becomes clear that tradition, social pressure, financial troubles and a lack of education also played their part.
She said she couldn’t remember a time when she was not circumcised. “I was born like that,” she joked.
As an adult, Barry inherited the circumciser mantle from her aunt. “She asked me to come and learn. I said I didn’t have the strength or the courage to it, but then she asked me who was going to do it when she died?” the frail prisoner recalled. “So, little by little, I learned the practice.”
Barry said she took on the apprenticeship late in life because tradition dictates that only post-menopausal woman can circumcise girls. She earned around 1,500 CFA (US $3) for every girl she operated on and usually did several at the same time.
The money from circumcisions provided a big boost to Barry's income: previously, she had peddled peanuts and kola nuts on the streets of the capital, earning just enough to buy food.
The old woman recounts how her father took her out of school early, and talks wistfully about her classmates who stayed on and are now “big men doing important jobs.”
The grandmother doesn’t know how many girls she has circumcised, but more surprisingly, says doesn’t believe in the practice and hates making the initial cut.
“My hands shake and I still feel frightened. When the girls or the babies start to cry, I feel really sorry for them,” Barry said. “It’s the parents that bring the children, so I guess they have their reasons. I don’t see the advantages of it myself.”
Despite her lack of belief and previous stints in jail, she continued doing circumcisions until 2004.
“The last time, when the parents came to ask me, I refused and told them it was against the law, but they kept coming back – three times they hammered on my door and insisted,” she recalled. “So I ended up doing it and I was arrested straight away.”
For this, her fifth offence, she was sentenced to three years in jail. Doctors who treated her victims said that one of them would have bled to death without immediate medical help because an artery had been severed.
In the yard on the way to the women’s quarters there is a mural of a girl bleeding from between her legs with a knife at her feet. A big red cross has been painted across the picture.
Barry looks at the painting as she goes back to her cell and says when she is freed this time, she will not be picking up the knife again.
“Whoever it is that comes knocking, my answer will be the same: ‘No. No. No.’”