Secret Pain’ documents circumcision practices in Sierra Leone

Courtesy Kate Kendel

Six thousand girls are circumcised in Sierra Leone every day, and Kate Kendel is ready to talk about it.

Kendel, a filmmaker from Sierra Leone who underwent circumcision at the age of 16, visited the University of Massachusetts on Thursday, Feb. 26 to host the viewing of her documentary ‘The Secret Pain’ to students and faculty.

The documentary follows Kendel on a journey back to her home countrty in an attempt to bring attention and awareness to both its own people and to the Western world.

‘I’m going back and reliving my childhood,’ said Kendel.

Female circumcision, referred to as female genital mutilation by its critics (including Kendel), is the partial or total removal of a woman’s clitoris, labia minora and labia majora for cultural or religious purposes rather than medical or therapeutic ones, according to the World Health Organization.

Although female circumcision is performed in many countries around the world, the secrecy surrounding the act makes it difficult to track. Kendel’s documentary focuses on the traditional practices of female circumcision in some tribes of Sierra Leone.

Kendel explained at the beginning of the film that, although many young women are being circumcised, they must take an oath immediately following the ceremony never to speak of it again. This oath, in addition to the cultural taboo that surrounds female circumcision, made it very difficult for Kendel to speak with anyone about it, and made the trip itself a risky one.

‘I am an African woman, a traditional woman, so I have nothing to say about it. Don’t put me in trouble,’ said Amenata Suta, Kendel’s sister in her interview.

Filming interviews with local doctors, everyday people in the city and countryside, religious leaders, her own family, local women who have undergone female circumcision and even the ‘digbas’ or the midwife-like women who perform the surgeries, allowed for Kendel to learn more about this tradition from different perspectives.

While ‘The Secret Pain’ does not film any female circumcisions, the camera crew was allowed access to a ‘kanta,’ a stronghold where the ceremony takes place.

The young women are taken to a kanta, where they are circumcised by the digbas. Afterward, they are painted white to symbolize their newfound cleanliness and purity, and they remain in the kanta, separated from the rest of the community for several weeks until they are fully healed.

As the camera panned across the faces of the young women in the kanta, the ranging age differences became apparent: toddlers all the way up to late teenage years.

After the surgery is completed for the girls, they attend a sort of housekeeping school within the kanta, where they learn to care for the home, clean, cook and entertain the community through dances. When they are fully healed, they wash off the paint in the river, and their families throw celebrations and give them gifts of clothes, shoes and jewelry to welcome them into womanhood.

‘I’m not trying to scorn our culture,’ explained Kendel in an interview with a digba. She said she just feels female circumcision is physically and mentally damaging.

Dr. Koso Thomas, a physician and women’s activist from Sierra Leone, emphasized the negative effects of female circumcision during her interview.

‘[The digbas] take the clitoris off, and the labia minora and majora. These are the parts that help during the delivery of babies,’ said Thomas. ‘The clitoris allows for female orgasm, and the enjoyment of sex. Its removal is permanent.’

After the film ended, Kendel spoke briefly about her vision for the film and for her organization, Project Mountaintop for Women’s Progress. The title reflects a dream Kendel had that empowered her into activism.

‘I was traumatized [by the circumcision] for a long time. I had a vision of a mountain. I climbed it with my mother and my grandmother. At the top of it were other women and children. I realized that I needed to take the focus away from me and to other women,’ said Kendel.

Her choice to document her own life story and its connection to others who have undergone female circumcision was an attempt to allow outside nations to learn about it as a cultural and traditional practice rather than as malicious treatment of women and to attempt to work with that culture to change its traditions.

‘I fe
lt I had to go back and challenge the culture,’ she said. ‘It is important to hear the words from the horse’s mouth. My intentions were [to come up with] ways to eliminate mutilation. In the Western world, the response has been good, but my own countrymen, they felt that I have been exposing a secret culture.’

On her hopes for change, Kendel explained that she believes educating people is the best way to stop female circumcision.

‘I think education is the key to life. If we can find a way to preserve the culture and at the same time educate the women ‘hellip; I believe it is possible,’ she said.

The film ‘The Secret Pain’ is being sold for $30, with $19 going directly to Project Mountaintop for Women’s Progress. For more information, or to purchase the documentary, visit either

Lisa DeBenedictis can be reached at [email protected]