‘Education sans excision’ in the Casamance – part one: Ziginchour and Thionck Essyl
When last the Orchid team in Senegal managed to find a) internet access and b) time to blog, we were in sunny, hot Thies at Tostan’s national office. Now we’re all back in gloomier climes (UK and Denmark, to be precise) and it seems fitting to tell you a bit more about the time we spent with Sister Fa and her band in the Casamance region, on Sister Fa’s ‘Education sans excision’ (that’s ‘Education without cutting’ for non-Francophones) tour. Sister Fa herself did some blogging from the tour and the Orchid team have posted links to these already.
Speaking out about FGC in Ziginchour
In total, 24 of us set sail from Dakar to Ziginchour on the overnight ferry, a group made up of musicians, DJs, sound engineers, photographers, kids and general dogsbodies. The ferry journey was relaxing, and most of us slept well (despite some snoring in the shared cabins), rising in the morning as the ferry was making its way inland along the river towards Ziginchour – already noticeably hotter than it had been in breezy Dakar. Docked in Ziginchour, we sped off the boat and into our tour bus, driven by the excellent Papis, the unsung hero of the whole epic undertaking, and immediately headed for some school visits. Being there as Sister Fa walked into classrooms to an amazing reception, and hearing her speak eloquently, passionately, and above all honestly and accurately about FGC was a real highlight for the Orchid team – in fact we welled up and felt so moved and excited that we were there with Sister Fa, enabling her to do this vital work.
Sister Fa’s key messages to the teenagers? That things in Senegal are changing, and that they have a choice about whether they cut their daughters when the time comes – their agency and their choice will make the difference. After visiting eight different classes (of varying ages from 13-17) in two different schools, and giving a couple of impromptu rap performances it was time to head back to the port and pick up the rest of the group, before an afternoon of building the stage and sound-checking in preparation for the Ziginchour concert.
Along with Bebe Diatta, Sister Fa’s cousin, NGO founder and all-round right-hand-man the Orchid team went with Sister Fa to ZigFM where she talked about that evening’s concert and the purpose of the tour with the local DJ.
Then it was time for the concert, with Sister Fa and her band coming on stage just as the sun was going down, to an audience of about 1,000 people – varying from young children to older teenagers and beyond. The reception Sister Fa and her band received was incredible, and the audience so excited to see her there. Something which repeatedly came out in interviews and discussions on our trip was that the Casamance is a bit of a ‘forgotten region’ – the people there were so pleased that Sister Fa had gone to the effort of coming to the south. After Sister Fa and her band finished, local musicians and performers took to the stage, including some who had participated in Sister Fa’s ‘Day of Reflection’ about music and human rights in January.
The next morning Orchid went with Sister Fa and Bebe to meet with Bakary Tamba, Regional Co-ordinator of Tostan Ziginchour, where we heard more about Tostan’s work in the region, and discussed plans for our next location – Thionck Essyl. After lunch, the whole ‘Education sans excision’ crew (plus a few extra!) piled back into Papis’ bus for the journey to Thionck Essyl – a hot and sweaty couple of hours.
Homecoming in Thionck Essyl
Sister Fa is originally from Thionck Essyl, and in 2010 visited the village (Senegal’s largest) on her last tour – following which women of the village declared their intention to end FGC – so it was something of a hero’s welcome that greeted us on the outskirts of the village, with an escort of scooters and representatives of the Sister Fa and Band fan club heralding us into the village.
After a welcome from the village chief, and much singing and dancing, we went with Sister Fa to the local cafe for a meeting with the youth to talk about female genital cutting, along with Bakary from Tostan. The questions asked and points made varied, but we were especially struck by one teenage girl, brave enough to speak out about her own experiences. Un-cut, anti-FGC and from another region, she told of how she is called names and can be treated as an outcast by her friends, showing that, even though Senegal is well on its way to abandoning FGC, there’s still a long way to go. Sister Fa encouraged her to continue to speak out and talk to her friends and peers about ending female genital cutting. Sister Fa and Bakary together made a solid double-act, with Bakary managing to use humour to engage the young people on this trickiest of subjects.
We left Bakary speaking with the group, and headed for a meeting with local musicians and artists. Sister Fa fervently believes in using music as a mode of communicating messages, and a vital part of the work she does is about encouraging others to do as she does. As she says, “hip-hop shouldn’t just be about champagne and bitches, there should be a message”.
The next day was spent visiting schools in Thionck Essyl, where Sister Fa and Bakary Tamba spoke to the oldest classes in the village’s primary schools. Sister Fa and Bakary both amended their approaches according to the age of the children, and as most of these were about 11-12 years old, the emphasis was on talking about female genital cutting in the context of child rights rather than talking about the (sometimes scary) consequences of cutting. Sister Fa and Bakary both engaged all the classes fully, getting the children singing and dancing.
Preparations were well underway for the evening’s concert, a really special one for Sister Fa and her band, and once again they took to the stage as the sun was setting. A huge crowd, most of the village in fact, had gathered to see its most successful export perform, and Sister Fa and her band did not disappoint, immediately getting the crowd dancing. After they’d finished, some members of the Sister Fa fan club performed their own renditions of her songs along with dance routines, before a screening of ‘Sarabah’ in time for the event curfew of 10pm. We all headed back to our house where we were treated to some incredible dancing and food by our hosts and local women, late into the night.
The next morning we were up bright and early for the next leg – onward to Sedhiou – but that will come in another blog!