Morissanda Kouyate was not long out of medical school and working in a rural clinic in Guinea when five women burst in carrying two young girls in their arms.
The 12-year-old twins were in a critical condition from blood loss after someone in the town had performed female circumcision on them.
The twins’ deaths that day spurred a shocked Dr Kouyate, who had never encountered female genital mutilation (FGM) before, to devote his life to ending the centuries-old practice.
For his role in promoting a world free of violence against women and girls in Africa, he was named on Friday as the 2020 recipient of the UN’s Nelson Mandela Prize alongside co-laureate Marianna Vardinoyannis, a Greek philanthropist and world advocate for human rights and children’s welfare.
It was in 1983 that Dr Kouyate and his medical team did all they could to save the twins, with his wife even donating blood, but the girls, Hassanatou and Housseynatou, were unable to survive the trauma.
"This drama propelled me into the fight against this practice," he told The National. "I feel like I'm in a war to avenge these twins.
“This is why on December 20, 2012, when our efforts eventually led the General Assembly of the United Nations to adopt the resolution prohibiting female genital mutilation in the world, I made the sign of the V of victory with my fingers in the deliberation room in New York.
“I said: ‘Hassanatou and Housseynatou, you won!’ For me, these twins gave their lives to save millions of other girls in Guinea, Africa, and the world.
“Today, when I receive the Mandela Prize from the United Nations, I say to the twins: You have won again! The illustrious Nelson Mandela recognises that you died unjustly, but that your death will not go unpunished because FGM is sentenced to death and the sentence is being carried out.’”
The United Nations Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize honours the achievements of those who dedicate their lives to the service of humanity in promoting reconciliation and social cohesion, and in community development.
This year’s prize was announced on Friday by the President of the UN General Assembly, Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, as part of the commemoration of Nelson Mandela International Day, July 18. It was only the second time that the prize has been awarded. Inaugurated in 2015, it is bestowed every five years on two laureates – one man and one woman.
Mrs Vardinoyannis, the 2020 female recipient, has built up an extensive record of humanitarian work, particularly through a foundation in her name that aims to build a better world for children, fight human trafficking, illiteracy and climate change.
She has spent more than three decades helping thousands of children to be cured of cancer and this year established the Cell and Gene Therapy Centre in Greece.
A Goodwill Ambassador, she was the keynote speaker at the opening of the 70th Anniversary Year of Unesco, organised in memory of Nelson Mandela. He was, she said before the prize announcement today, a great world leader, pioneer, brave defender of human rights and a legendary personality of the 20th century.
“Throughout my life I have been trying to follow in his footsteps, dedicating my life to giving hope and support to people in need,” Mrs Vardinoyannis said. “This prize, however, does not belong to me. It belongs to my country Greece and to the Greek people, who are the driving force behind my work and have always been an example of courage, solidarity and generosity, defending the democratic values we inherited from our ancestors.
“In these hard times for humanity I truly hope that Nelson Mandela’s legacy of virtue and compassion lights our path.”
Dr Kouyate, soon after the death of the twins, co-organised a meeting in Senegal with representatives of 16 African countries to form the Inter-African Committee on Harmful Traditional Practices. For 36 years he has campaigned with several partner organisations for the elimination of female genital mutilation. He said that receiving the prize would motivate him to find greater stores of courage and perseverance to be deserving of the name of Nelson Mandela.
“We have achieved spectacular results in Guinea, in Africa, and in the world, but much remains to be done,” he said, “because this absurd practice is resisting elimination, even if it is clear and certain that it will be totally defeated.”
As a student in his home town of Kouroussa, in Guinea, Dr Kouyate participated in marches, chanting with the crowds: "Free Mandela! Free Mandela! Down with apartheid." Years later, he was overcome with emotion on a visit to the Robben Island jail, looking at the small cell in which Mandela, whom he described as "this immense man of wisdom", spent 27 years of his life in inhuman conditions.
“His wisdom, forgiveness, the strength of character and willingness to unite and unify the people of South Africa without hatred are a lesson in life to which I fully subscribe,” he said. “That is why, when I was informed that I had won the Nelson Mandela Prize, I shuddered with all my body, with joy, honour, and responsibility ... I am a happy man.”
Dr Kouyate woke up to read the news that he had won the prestigious prize in Conakry, Guinea’s capital, in an email from the office of President Muhammad-Bande. Thinking that he was still dreaming, Dr Kouyate had to get himself up and ready before rereading the message to reassure himself that it was true.
“I said my usual prayer, I thanked God and I prayed for the rest of the soul of the immense Nelson Mandela,” he said “I felt very honoured.
“In the email, there was a curious question that asked me if I accept the prize. I smiled and yelled: ‘I accept it!’”