At Large

Demba and the village of Keur Simbara

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SENEGAL – They were all gathered beneath the shade of a huge Neem tree in the village of Keur Simbara, in the state of Thies just outside Dakar, the capital.

As we got down from the bus, we heard the percussive music of drums and cymbals, including women tossing gourds in the air, the chimes threaded through their edges making tinkling sounds.

Among the first villagers to greet our group was Demba Diawara, a man of about 70 years, in an orange tunic and white cloth cap who has been described as “the wise man who found the key to ending FGC (female genital cutting) in West Africa.” It was a great honor to have him welcome us, we soon found out, for Demba is a well-respected religious figure and community leader, as well as a social innovator.

As soon as we made our way to seats beneath the tree, the dancing began. Women and children swayed their hips and thrust out their pelvises, raising skirts to kick up their hills in the dust. They were followed by young men doing a vigorous version of break dancing, although I doubt the dance is called by that name here. I am told, though, that Africans brought the dance to New York, where paired with hip-hop, it has made millionaires and billionaires of adherents in places like New York, L.A., Seoul and Manila.

But I digress. We were visiting Keur Simbara because it was one of the first villages where the “community empowerment program” of Tostan was implemented and deemed a success.

“Tostan” is a word in the Wolof language that means “breakthrough” as well as “spreading and sharing.” Tostan was founded by Molly Melching, an American who decided to stay on in Senegal 37 years ago while pursuing her doctorate in African Studies. Initially, she was involved in advocating and planning for education based on the six native languages of Senegal (Wolof is the most widely spoken). But that work evolved into community-based education and training. In 1995 Tostan unveiled its community-empowerment program, described as “a collective, interactive, community-led approach to development, one in which community members themselves create pathways out of the dire poverty that so adversely affects their health and well-being.”

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After the welcome remarks, a small group of girls gathered to sing a song about human rights, declaring that “we know our human rights… and it is not right to discriminate against girls.” “Democracy will arise,” they promised.

Then it was the turn of Demba to speak, stressing the importance of words in communicating ideas, especially ideas that move people towards change. But he also warned that change agents must speak with “respect, intelligence and courage.”

Respect, or politeness, to get people to listen to you without feeling they are under assault or are being insulted or condescended to. Intelligence to convey to your listeners that you know what you are talking about. And most of all, courage to overcome opposition or skepticism, even when people “look at you with death in their eyes.”

Tostan’s program is best known for its work in putting an end to female genital cutting, the more polite and judgment-neutral term for FGM or female genital mutilation. Practiced widely throughout Africa, cutting has resulted in deaths, injuries, infections, infertility and delivery complications for thousands of girls (who are typically pre-adolescents when they undergo the procedure). But parents make their daughters undergo the procedure (which ranges from nicking the clitoris or cervix to totally excising the clitoris and surrounding tissue) in their belief that this makes them “marriageable,” as uncut women are viewed as “unclean.”

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Female genital cutting emerged as an issue as a result of Tostan’s education modules on human rights, especially the rights of women and girls. This was followed by modules on health and hygiene, and the risks faced by girls undergoing the procedure.

The women talked of their experiences with cutting, especially their sorrow when their daughters died or bled after the procedure. They wondered what they could do to bring an end to the practice. It was the community management committee of Keur Simbara, formed after extension workers completed the three-year community empowerment program, which decided to call for a public declaration to put an end to FGC. But it backfired when relatives and in-laws in neighboring villages shunned girls from Keur Simbara, saying they would never let their sons marry a girl from there because they were all “unclean.”

It was then that Demba conceived what has since been called the “social diffusion” theory of social change. It was not enough that a single village declare an end to FGC, he pointed out. Considering the inter-locking social and familial relationships of African societies, it would be necessary to create a network of villages which together would declare their abandonment of this practice.

This Demba did (and continues to do) by visiting village after village. Together with a team of grassroots educators, including a former “cutter” who decided to abandon her practice, he talked with village leaders about the rights of women and girls, the health risks of cutting, and related issues like child marriage. “Social diffusion” was also employed through radio shows that increased the reach of interpersonal communication.

In the ensuing years and with the growth of the organization to other countries, Tostan could claim the collective abandonment of FGC and child marriage in over 6,000 communities in six countries apart from Senegal. Alongside this effort, it has also helped push the development of communities, through projects conceived and managed by the villagers themselves.

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