Tradition, Women's Rights and Circumcision in Guinea Bissau, Africa
2000 professional winner
Initially a grant recipient in 2000, Ami Vitale was asked to update her work on the Fulani in 2011. The images in black and white are her original project, and the color images that follow are the culture revisited in 2011.
The Fulani, who once crisscrossed the continent of Africa tending their precious herds of cattle, was a civilization known for its constant movement. This nomadic existence spun the threads of a rich social fabric of tradition and ritual that endures to this day. In the West African country of Guinea Bissau, the former nomads have settled in a village, become farmers and now struggle to adapt to a world that has rudely intruded upon them.
Unlike most other ethnic tribes in Guinea Bissau, the Fulani are Muslim. Village life is structured according to Islamic traditions including performing male and female circumcision, praying five times a day, following the Islamic calendar and practicing polygamy.
The inclusion of local beliefs and traditions produces a brand of Islam that is unique to its area and its people. From the belief in tree spirits to the use of traditional medicine or “voodoo,” the mixing of cultures that took place centuries earlier has produced a society that blends a unique spiritual universe with an often brutal daily existence in the physical world.
To an outsider, the village may appear to be a place where a people, living simply, struggle to survive. While that perception is partially valid, the social hierarchy and politics existing among members of the tribe are far more complex than in most modern western societies.
Ami Vitale’s journey as a photojournalist has taken her to more than 80 countries. She has witnessed civil unrest, poverty, destruction of life, and unspeakable violence. But she has also experienced surreal beauty and the enduring power of the human spirit, and she is committed to highlighting the surprising and subtle similarities between cultures. Her photographs have been exhibited around the world in museums and galleries and published in international magazines including National Geographic, Adventure, Geo, Newsweek, Time, Smithsonian. Her work has garnered multiple awards from prestigious organizations including World Press Photo, the Lowell Thomas Award for Travel Journalism, Lucie awards, the Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding Reporting, and the Magazine Photographer of the Year award, among many others.
Now based in Montana, Vitale is a contract photographer with National Geographic magazine and frequently gives workshops throughout the Americas, Europe and Asia. She is also making a documentary film on migration in Bangladesh and writing a book about the stories behind the images.
A village nestled in the eastern part of Guinea Bissau. The climate is hot and humid but by the end of the dry season, little water will be found above ground. The children take advantage of the rains to enjoy a day of swimming. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation
Boys play soccer underneath an enormous Bontang tree. Though the Fulani are a Muslim tribe, they also believe that this tree has a spirit. Mixing animist beliefs and Islamic law creates a society that has a great respect for the land, the supernatural world and the laws of God. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation
Children eat the staple diet of rice from a communal bowl. At the end of the dry season, there is little food and many will have only one meal of rice each day. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation
Awa, 5, cries after being circumcised. Once a girl passes through the rite of circumcision, she is considered a respectable prospect for marriage. A future husband will sometimes pay a dowry to claim a bride before she becomes a teenager. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation
Five year-old Awa clings to her mother moments after she was circumcised. The age at which girls are subjected to this ranges from when they are very small babies to young adulthood. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation
Fama holds the dull knife used to perform the circumcision and this time she had alcohol to clean the wound. Normally it is unaffordable and girls pass through the age-old rite without it. Those who do not cry are considered more respectable prospects for a future husband who will sometimes pay a dowry to claim them before they are teenagers. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation
Fama uses alcohol to clean Awa the morning after she had been circumcised. Though the knife was dull to perform a circumcision, alcohol was used to prevent any infections. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation
Halima holds her first, newborn baby inside her mud hut in Guinea Bissau, West Africa. Women do not name their babies for ten days because the infant mortality rates are so high in this country. Guinea Bissau is ranked as the fifth poorest country in the world. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation
Children chant the Koran written on wooden tablets in Arabic, even though most of them do not understand what they are reading and instead have learned it through memorization. Among the things that sets the Fulani apart from most other ethnic tribes in Guinea Bissau is that they are Muslim. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation
Abi sits on her mothers back as she prepares to go the field to transplant rice. Children, sometimes babies are circumcised in this society. In a culture where the opportunities for women to be so honored, celebrated and recognized are few, circumcision becomes disproportionately significant, in spite of the pain it brings. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation
Women who came for a wedding ceremony watch by the light of fire as dancers and drummers celebrate the beginning of a wrestling ceremony in a small village in Guinea Bissau, May 2011. Increasingly exposed to outside influences, even Guinea Bissau's most rural areas are becoming more Westernized. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation
Maimuna, whose is the oldest elder in the village (but her age is unknown... some think she is close to a 90) sits inside her mud hut. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation
Mariama and her son Alai in a hut in a village in Guinea Bissau. Mariama, like most girls, was never able to complete school and was instead was married. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation
Jenabu, 13, waits for her teacher to arrive in the small school in a village in Guinea Bissau May. 2011. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation
Women make palm oil. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation
Mariama arrives to the village covered and with a thousand West African CFA note ($2) pinned on her covering. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation
After washing the laundry of all her in laws, Mariama, the new bride washes and changes into new clothes before she is taken back to her husbands house on the back of a bicycle and the wedding ceremony is over. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation
Mariama sits on her bed after having to sleep with her husband for the first time in a forced marriage in a village in Guinea Bissau, May, 2011. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation
Abi, 13, whose parents died, prepares to go to school on a bicycle her grandfather bought for her in a small village in Guinea Bissau, May 2011. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation
Children clean the school waiting for their teacher to arrive in a small village in Guinea Bissau May 14, 2011. Because of a devastating conflict, Guinea-Bissau continues to recover from the civil conflict of 1999. Most children, especially in rural areas don't have access to an education, especially for girls who face even more obstacles because of the conservative society which prevents them from attending school. In the past ten years though, there have been substantial changes and at least some of the girls have opportunities to attend school. Ami Vitale/Alexia Foundation