Sandra Moyo’s* four children died soon after birth. After the death of her fourth child, Moyo decided this terrible misfortune had to have some explanation outside of modern medicine. So she went to see a prophet and was told she had sare, a growth often near the mouth or inside the vagina that is believed to have the power to bring unfathomable misfortune into a woman’s life.
Sandra believes her fortune changed after a prophet cut out the sare and prayed for her. Today she is the proud mother of two healthy babies. Several Zimbabwean women have similar stories to Sandra’s. They have been rejected by loved ones, miscarried, failed to conceive, been labeled witches or simply neglected. Many believe that an evil and merciless growth called sare is responsible for this.
Sare is a phenomenon associated with Zimbabwean traditional culture. It is believed that the growth can be located at the mouth of the vagina, slightly inside or just between the vaginal entrance and anus and is said to itch terribly.
Sare, apart from being responsible for child mortality and miscarriages, is also believed to be a major cause of divorce. A woman who has sare may find herself unlucky in love and rejected by her husband or boyfriend.
It is also commonly believed to be the reason why a woman might have a bad temperament towards her spouse. It is believed also to be responsible for decreasing libido or making it overtly high. Not surprisingly, it is also causes people around a woman to label her a witch.
It is a bit difficult to dismiss a phenomenon which most Zimbabwean women across class and occupation vouch for. However, it is tempting to question the basis of the belief of sare and ask whether it’s not one of the many gendered myths which blame women for misfortune or what is deemed ‘bad behaviour’.
Infertility and Child mortality
In 2014, the Zimbabwean Mail reported that 30% of child mortality deaths involved new born babies who were succumbing to common and preventable diseases such as pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria and nutritional deficiencies.
With these figures and explanations, what are the odds that a growth on a woman’s vagina is responsible for a child’s illness and subsequent death? Is this not our society’s way of attempting to find solutions through blame-object creation? As is often the case, it is the woman with the problem.
Zimbabwe’s economy has made it next to impossible for most couples to stay together with financial stress leading to spousal separation being the order of the day. But quite apart from this, nowadays women have become increasingly empowered and would never dream of staying in a relationship that didn’t bring them outright happiness.
Could misogyny from a male partner also be a sufficient explanation for a breakdown in communication, the end of love and domestic abuse?
Why is sare presumed to exist on a woman alone? What is the source of the manifestations of similar problems on a man? Is the finance-related rejection theory only a ploy to keep women financially dependent on men? If a man is simply withholding money and making the relationship difficult, are then a woman’s genitals to blame?
A Zimbabwean woman living in South Africa confided in me that she had been told she had sare and had booked with a ‘prophet’ for an ‘operation’ in a week’s time. She explained that she had been rejected in several long-standing relationships and most of her businesses had collapsed. For her, this sare removal was the answer to all her problems. It had worked for other women, she said.
That said, in 2011 a Gweru man accused male church members of mutilating his wife’s genitals after she had an operation to remove sare. While some people dismissed his claims, this story brings to the fore the undeniable danger kuchekwa sare poses to a woman’s health.
Are the prophets and n’anga’s who conduct these procedures medically qualified to remove something from a woman’s inner or outer genitals?
Post-operation care of kuchekwa sare includes being advised to wrap nyeve (a leafy green vegetable with medicinal properties) in a cloth and wear it like a sanitary pad until it heals. Huh??!
Theories about how you pay for the treatment for sare differ. Some women claim if you pay for the service, chances are that it will re-appear. Others argue that if you do not pay, that is when the sare will reappear. In Zimbabwe, prophets are said to be charging an average of $6 for an operation to remove sare. With an already difficult economy, are women not just subjecting themselves to torture as well as giving away their hard-earned cash?
What the Doctor Says
Dr Chiwora, a specialist obstetrician and gynecologist based in Bulawayo said sare is a myth.
“In reality it does not happen. I know what a woman’s anatomy looks like. When a woman has various growths or bumps in the perineum, front of the womb or anal area, they may consider it to be sare.”
Dr Chiwora said he had attended to patients who believed they had sare. He also said women identified different normal and abnormal growths as sare.
“There are many things women perceive to be sare. These include remains of the hymen after one is no longer a virgin; one sided elongated labia or vaginal lips and rugae-ripples or ridges in the vaginal lining which is a normal type of growth”.
He also said there were some pathological or abnormal growths that women consider to be sare. Among these are pimples in the vagina, scar tissue after child birth, varicose veins, polyps, piles, anal tags and even genital warts.
Dr Chiwora said doctors treated most of these abnormal growths but rarely cut them.
“Polyps which most women perceive to be the English word for sare can grow anywhere: on the face, hands, just anywhere on a human being.”
He also said some people had bled to death after prophets and n’anga’s had cut off their varicose veins and piles, which were perceive to be sare.
“Myths are exactly what they are, untrue and completely dangerous. Children are dying soon after birth due to lack of nutrition and various infections, among other things. We do not want to strengthen myths. People should opt for scientifically proven treatment only,” he added.
So What Does this Mean?
Women should know that not everything that goes wrong in their personal life is their fault. We should reject the narratives that give us unnatural powers that seek to humiliate us. Children die sometimes and we miscarry sometimes. We can be rejected at times, the way we have the ability to reject too. Let us be cognizant of those factors before we let strangers whose credentials we do not know, play scrabble with our most valued assets.
* Not her real name
Vimbai Chinembiri is passionate about education, gender equality, ending child marriage and sexual and reproductive health. She is a hopeless romantic and addicted to books and laughter. Vimbai blogs at vimbaimandiri.wordpress.com
Main image from rickeysmileymorningshow.com