The following is a guest post from AUA Mosaic Scholarship recipient Alisa Hamilton. She is currently volunteering with Tostan in Senegal. To find an amazing opportunity like this one, search the AUA Directory of Recommended Organizations© today!
A couple weeks ago, I was fortunate to be able to attend a social mobilization event organized by a Community Management Committee (CMC) in Guediawaye, a suburb of Dakar where Tostan has recently finished its three year Community Empowerment Program (CEP).
In addition to education on human rights, health and hygiene, literacy, math, and project management, part of the CEP is the formation of local organizations called CMCs. CMCs are made up of local leaders and are responsible for carrying out projects to better the community even after the completion of the Tostan program. Some examples of CMC projects include constructing a well, fundraising for a millet grinder, selling millet, creating an irrigation system for a community garden, making and selling soap, etc. CMCs focus much of their effort on “income-generating activities” (IGAs), but they are also responsible for maintaining the health and safety of their community. Each CMC is made up of several commissions (health, child protection, education, the environment, etc.) which raise money and lobby for new projects. For example, the Health Commission may lobby for a new poste de santé or small health clinic. The Education Commission may raise money and purchase school supplies. Guediaweye’s Environment Commission is lobbying for a new fence around the water basin to keep children and animals from falling into the water.
At the social mobilization event, Guediawaye’s CMC, which is made up primarily of women (way cool!), showcased its recent projects, which include cereal preservation, soap making, and fabric dying among other income-generating activities. But before attending the main event, Elaine, Lucy (Tostan volunteers), and I interviewed the CMC Coordinator, Nogoye, and another key member, Marième, for the article Eliane was writing for Tostan’s blog. Marième is blind, and her success has made her a local celebrity. She attended all of Tostan’s CEP sessions and participated in every activity except those concerning literacy. She and other CMC members in Guediawaye are urging Tostan to translate materials into Braille so that people who are visually impaired can fully participate.
Even though Marième cannot see, she sells vegetables and braids hair for a small profit. At the end of our interview, I asked Marième how she could count money if she could not see it. I knew that she would be able to but thought she might enjoy showing off her skills. We role played me buying a handkerchief from her. Instead of giving her 100 CFA, the price she stated, I handed her 50 CFA, a smaller coin. She immediately called me out. To make things more difficult, I handed her a 2,000 CFA bill. She took less than 10 seconds to name the bill. Then she pulled out a handful of change from her purse and counted it out rapid fire. The seven or so women in the room cheered her on. The exercise was a lot of fun and made every one laugh.
Eliane, Lucy, and I headed to the main event after the interviews. First we looked at the table of products made by the CMC (bags of millet, soap, beaded sandals, and dyed fabric). Then we took our places in plastic chairs under the big tent. The MC introduced the event, and then Nogoye, Marième, and other community leaders gave small speeches. After the opening words, there was a small competition where the MC asked audience members (mostly girls and women who participated in the CEP) questions relating to the Tostan program. Those who responded correctly chose from a table of prizes, which included soap, hair gel, and sanitary napkins. For the quiz questions, the MC had the audience members read sentences in Wolof, answer simple math problems, and answer questions about human rights.
After the competition, a handful of girls acted out a skit in which a woman, Aminata, learns that she has HIV. During the play, the girls acting giggled after their lines and audience members often laughed in the way you would when someone you know really well is acting in an informal skit. I imagine that the situation addressed in the play does not often result in such a happy ending. The stigma surrounding HIV/AIDs in rural/suburban Senegalese communities is significant largely because of misinformation and lack of education. In addition, any illness of a family member is a hush-hush topic not talked about openly. The fact that these girls acted out such a taboo issue in front of a large audience is huge and signifies a milestone in health education and reducing the stigma of HIV/AIDs in Guediawaye.
I asked Nogoye, the CMC coordinator, why all of the Tostan participants in this town were women. She told me that the men and boys were usually at work or at school. Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program gives people without access to formal education, who are usually female, the opportunity to learn and better their. One could argue that instead of providing informal education, Tostan should be working at the systemic level to make sure that women and girls do have access to formal education. I’m not sure which approach is best, but from what I’ve seen and read, working at the grassroots level is more sustainable. If decisions and social movements come from the bottom up, then systemic/policy change is more likely to be long lasting than if some outside party pushes reform from the top down. Though this process may take a long time, the results are long term benefits instead of temporary successes.
The highlight of the afternoon may have been when word got out that I could dance Uusa (pronounced “yooza”), the current popular dance in Senegal. The MC called me up to dance in front of the audience. I told him I couldn’t dance without music, so he quickly had the DJ put on some tunes. So I danced. People clapped, cheered, and laughed hysterically. There’s nothing funnier than a toubab chick trying to dance to Senegalese music. I really have no idea how to dance Uusa; I just mimic what I see other people doing. Apparently, I do alright because people always ask me, “How did you learn to dance so well?” Either I actually look like I know what I’m doing or they’re just humoring me – probably the latter. I don’t mind, however, because my dancing seems to make people very happy, which makes me happy.
After Uusa-ing off the dance floor, Eliane, Lucy, and I said good bye to our hosts and hopped back into the Tostan car for the 30 minute bumpy ride back to Dakar. The afternoon was very pleasant and a great way to take a break from the office. I would love to go back and visit the CMC women again. I’m sure they would all recognize me as the dancing toubab. There are worse things to be remembered for!