SENEGAL—Because a revered member of the community was seriously ill, the village folk of Saam Njaay couldn’t welcome us with the same raucous reception we received in Keur Simbara the day before. But we found a good number of them seated in a circle beneath a tent, with the village elders in a row in front, waiting to give us their blessing.
“The village is famous for its blessings,” Molly Melching, executive director of the NGO Tostan, told us in the bus. And indeed, the imam and the village chief both exhorted us visitors to “open our hearts” to receive their blessings, and if we did so, they said, we would all “go on to do great things.”
One of the first villages to complete the three-year Community Empowerment Program of Tostan, Saam Njaay has become a showcase for what poor village folk can accomplish, if they could get organized enough to decide their priorities and work together to meet those goals. “Even President Clinton’s wife came here during her husband’s term,” the village chief boasted. “Saam Njaay’s name has gone out to the rest of the world.”
Because we were late getting started, the program they had prepared had to be truncated. But it began, as many education sessions in Tostan villages do, with a play, a dramatization of the power of knowledge-sharing and education.
Two wives seat together with their baskets of peanuts to sell. A customer comes and engages one of the wives in conversation, taking advantage of the distraction to confuse her and get more than her money’s worth. The other wife tells her that if only she had attended classes, she would have known how to keep track of her goods and how much money she was making.
Later, in a conversation with their husband and a schoolteacher, they discover that with literacy comes economic power and the ability to manage money. The schoolteacher convinces them about the need to study and understand the importance of human rights and the role of women in society.
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As the Tostan materials put it, the organization believes in starting with the villagers themselves, engaging participants in “discussions about their visions for the future of their own communities,” typically expressing “their hopes and dreams for well-being, peace and prosperity.”
At the end of the empowerment program, the villagers organize themselves into a community management committee. In Saam Njaay, the 17-member committee has drawn up a 30-year plan. Starting from scratch, the village has in the ensuing years put up a health clinic (supported with funds from the federal government), water system, vegetable gardens, a grains milling facility, a “French” school (secondary), and a cereal bank. They were also able to raise funds to enlarge their mosque and organize an animal-fattening project. Now, said Dior Diene, the committee’s woman secretary, they are working to get electricity in the village, set up a kindergarten, and “a place to hold community meetings,” put up a wall around the school, and have a road built leading directly to the highway.
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Family planning in Tostan villages is included in the health and hygiene module, where birth spacing is tackled as part of the women’s “aspiration for good health.”
“Before, women were just buying pills on the street,” explained the head of the village health committee. “So we went through the different methods of family planning and made the women decide what was the best method for themselves. Then we encouraged them to see a doctor or nurse to get a consultation so they could be ready for the changes in their own bodies.”
In Keur Simbara, Ramata Sow, a community trainer, explained the workings of the Standard Days Method, a variation of natural family planning that uses beads to remind couples about a woman’s “safe” (infertile) and “unsafe” (fertile) days. The method is very much appreciated by the village folk, she said, but there is currently a shortage of cycle beads in the local health center.
(During the International Conference on Family Planning, participants’ IDs hung from cycle beads. The PRB organizers talked about collecting the beads at the end of the conference to distribute to the women of Keur Simbara.)
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During much of Melching’s presentation and the talk of Demba Diawara, the “wise man” who is helping spread word about female genital cutting, there was much emphasis on using the “right words” to win over audiences.
“Don’t assault people with your accusations that they are doing wrong,” said Melching, referring to their preference for using the term “cutting” instead of “mutilation,” which is loaded and implies malice on the part of mothers.
“Mothers are hurt and insulted,” Melching said, “because they have been doing this mainly for what they think is their daughters’ well-being. We first begin to talk about human rights and not doing harm to anyone. Only then do the villagers understand why they have to put an end to the practice.”
Diawara approaches the issue from a “biblical” point of view. “Eve, the first woman, did not undergo cutting,” he points out. “So how can we say that God ordained that women should be cut?”
None of the religious leaders in Senegal or elsewhere (he even went to Egypt to consult with religious scholars), he added, are in favor of FGC, and this knowledge and encouragement “gave me so much courage” in the campaign to convince villagers to forego the practice.
But one must approach people with kindness and humility, he emphasized. Cutting is a practice that has lasted for centuries, and cannot be ended with mere exhortations and accusations. Instead, he advised, quoting from the Koran, you should “beautify your words,” and discuss issues with sincerity and openness.