Massive progress in small measures in the fight against female genital cutting in Gambia
Banjul, Gambia, 28 October 2008 - Today, everyone is energized. Villagers gather inside the large empty store- which is held together by tall beams of steel and covered by heavy corrugated sheets, which rest atop massive grey concrete walls. This building had decades earlier, housed thousands of tones of peanuts- the main cash crop of The Gambia. Today the nuts are no more. Groundnut production, which employed most, and brought in much need money into the country, has decreased and grounded to a halt in this community. But the warehouse that played host to such valuable commodity now accommodates a different kind of wealth- knowledge.
The Glow that Illumines
Light penetrates through the transparent covering high above the rafters, like a spot light beaming down on a stage, where a special place, in a special production, at a special time, is reserved for stars. There are plenty here: Shona Makalo, a young woman who realized her true potential as a mother, a teacher and a leader in the community; Fisa Kieta, an elder in the village, who saw to it that cooperation within the community was the only way toward progress and relative communal prosperity; Adama Fofana, an older woman, who married young and saw many missed opportunities due to lack of education- and now vows that her children will have a better future as adults than she did; and Fansu Darbo, the young man who inspired a whole community to take responsibility in their civic duty and cast their ballot in an election- helping the community to realize that every vote counts and everyone has an opportunity to make their voices heard.
There were many farms in Kanubeh, owned by many people, each cleared, brunt and tilled the soil and grew what they wanted, on their own. Patches of land far into the distance had been sliced up like a giant pie and each piece owned by different families. That was how the villagers lived, thrived and survived. There were times when some realized a good harvest, and made money. But often times, even though the harvest was good, it was too small and thus the returns on the crops was poor. Villagers in Kanube toiled on for decades- farming for money and not getting much in return. Poverty lingered, children were not going to school because parents could not afford to send them to school- uniforms were too expensive, and so were books. Most families could not afford insecticide treated nets, and the mosquito, which carries malaria, caused untold suffering, misery and illness. There was little happiness in Kanubeh. Everyone tended to their patch and to their lot. It was a community in name.
Today, however, there are fewer farms- and more produce, and money for the village. It took about a year before Fisa Kieta, the old man, who had tilled the soil for decades like his father had done, took it upon himself to mobilize other family heads to a meeting. At that gathering he applied a little theory he had learned from lessons he had months before- a concept called Kobi ONE and TWO, which taught collective cooperation, and demonstrated the culture of sharing and problem solving through consensus building. The others also understood and saw what the wise old man saw. An approach to community farming was born in Kanubeh- one which identified three main crops- rice, millet and groundnuts as the main produce of the village. These were sown on four large patches of land, that earlier were many patches for many people; transformed today into few plots for one community.
The harvest was good. Kanubeh for the first time realized profits from their produce. Half of which was kept for consumption, saving them money and the other half sold, making them money. From that moment on, Fisa Kieta remembered, everything began to change. “We started something that affected every aspect of our lives- everything we did from that point on, turned out just right”, he says with a smile. Things did change. The community managed to save huge amounts of money into a fund, which catered for the education of the children. The community also engaged in ensuring that health issues- such as a clean environment, and the use of bednets for all children and pregnant women were adopted, and through the fund they brought the nets.
Sowing the seeds
There is laughter, shuffling feet, and chatter about the compound outside the huge warehouse where the gathering of elders continues. These little citizens of Kanubeh are out of school- they are on holidays. Their parents are the ones that will be showing what they have learned today, as the TOSTAN periodical evaluations takes place. A young lady, not more than twenty-five years of age, steps up to the evaluator and commences the interview. It is about democracy- the question is asked on the importance of voting. “Because my voice, no matter how small it may be, should be heard- since I too have something important to say about the future of my children,” she replies. It was only last year that Kanube residents turned a chapter in its history which showed them that everyone had a right to exercise their vote- and that voting was an important part of establishing a democratic and peaceful society. The young man responsible for scripting this shift in thinking was Fansu Darbo, who stood in as a polling agent with the Independent Electoral Commission during the Presidential and National Assembly elections. “Very few people came to vote during the presidential elections from this village, because they thought that it was pointless voting- there was nothing that they could change,” he says. “But after I spoke with them- from the lessons we have been taking and things we were talking about, I made them realize that our collective voices count, and during the National Assembly elections almost 700 people from here, voted!”
The urgency for answers in Kanubeh is almost infectious- a community transformed by conversation and knowledge sharing through a practical approach that teaches cooperation, openness and curiosity is brimming with promise. Fast changes that can only be described as incredible are made even more revealing by the visible signs of accelerated progress. Each answer produces another question, and each question an answer. Like the one that an old woman was asked, when her turn came to face the evaluator on health practices. She replies and talks about the importance of personal hygiene and attending Maternal Health Clinics for mothers, exclusive breastfeeding, and the importance of having a clean environment through collective responsibility. Then she added, “Even the practice of female circumcision is a health issue- the risks to our own daughters are great, and it is something that we have now stopped doing for the past year,” she pauses. “Hopefully we will openly declare that the people of Kanubeh have stopped the practice soon.” She is cut short by the typical down pours that visit The Gambia during the month of September- a period when the rains fall hardest. Adding to the intermission is the call to prayer in the distance- serine, almost soft and sharp as it cuts through the sound of the bulky rain drops tapping on the leaves of the huge mango trees and rolling corn fields. The old woman looks up into the skies, and mutters, “Ah, my prayers have been answered.”
by Jeggan Grey-Johnson
According to “Female Genital Mutilation in the Gambia: A Desk Review”, conducted by Gambia’s Women’s Bureau and funded by UNICEF, Female Genital Cutting (FGC) is widely practiced in The Gambia. It is estimated that 60% of Gambian girls and women undergo the practice of FGC. In 2006, Tostan, an international NGO based in Senegal, established a partnership with the Women’s Bureau of the Government of The Gambia and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to facilitate non-formal education and community development in the Upper River Region (URR) of The Gambia, which has the highest prevalence rate of FGC- 99.9%.
To create a supportive and enabling environment for social transformation, the project, entitled Community Led Development in The Gambia” ensures that all levels of government, other Gambian NGOs (NAYAFS and WASDA), religious leaders, women’s associations, the media, and other partners understand the strategies and activities of the program and that all partners are included in the processes of development and social transformation. Tostn has adopted various modules of engagement in these communities: Kobi 1 (democracy, human rights and responsibilities, and the problem solving process) and Kobi 2 (health and hygiene) modules of the Tostan non-formal education program have been completed by the 40 Mandinka and 40 Fula facilitators in their respective communities in 2008.
A Memorandum of Understating to abandon Female Genital Cutting by 2009 has already been signed and agreed to by 20 communities in URR including Kenubeh. This has been made possible by the generous donors and unflinching support of the Swiss, Swedish and Italian National Committees who have collectively mobilized US$1.51 million (Swiss- $661,000, Swedish-$416,000, Italian- $74,000), from the generous donors of those countries who have invested in the women and children residing in The Gambia.