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Tostan Youth spread Human Rights across The Gambia’s Upper River Region

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!

Participants march to the Governor’s residence on the sixth day of the caravan

Recently I attended a Youth Caravan in The Gambia to cover the event for Tostan’s Communications Department. The objective of the annual six-day caravan was to inspire cross-village and cross-generational interaction. One youth participant and one facilitator from 73 Tostan villages came together to form a large group that visited five other Tostan communities representing three different ethnic groups. This caravan visited two Serahule, two Mandinka, and one Fula village. In each village, youth participants presented to the host community what they had been learning through Tostan’s three-year Community Empowerment Program (CEP) as well as its importance. After spending a night in a village, the group moved on to another the next day.

Getting to The Gambia from Dakar was a bit of a hassle. The initial voyage took 17 hours. I woke up at 6:00 a.m., was at the gare routière or transport station by 7:30 a.m. and on the road in a sept-place by 8:00 a.m. A sept-place, an old station wagon that seats seven people plus the driver, is Senegal’s preferred mode of transportation for long distances – always very crowded with a lot of luggage strapped on the roof (often including large farm animals like sheep). I always get stuck in the back.

A sheep on top of a sept-place

Once I reached the border six hours later, I grabbed my bags, got my passport stamped on the Senegal side, walked across the border and bought my visa at the Gambian immigration office. I then took a taxi to another garage in Bara where I met up with Lilli, the Tostan volunteer in The Gambia. We waited three hours for a sept-place to fill up and then embarked on another six-hour ride to Basse. The Gambia has a gazillion police checkpoints so we stopped every half hour, which chewed up a lot of time. After crossing the Gambian River, we arrived in Basse, the Upper River Region’s (URR) largest city, around midnight.

A crowd gathers around caravan buses arriving in a village

A youth participant speaks about human rights during the afternoon ceremony

The next day was the first day of the six-day Caravan, which was an amazing experience but super exhausting. We spent each day in a different village. In the morning we woke up, ate breakfast, packed up the vans and headed to the next village. Each afternoon featured a ceremony where participants spoke about youth rights, for example, the right to education, the right to chose one’s husband, and the right to be registered at birth. Then host community members performed a skit. Participants in the last village we visited performed a powerful play about a teenage girl who gets seduced by a young man who promises her money; she becomes pregnant and dies during childbirth. In the final scene, the actors sang a funeral song warning about the dangers of teenage pregnancy. Other skits addressed the importance of education and the consequences of child/forced marriage. The speeches and skits were in local languages, so Tostan Supervisors translated for Lilli and me.

Scenes from the play in Bassendi

After closing words by local leaders, such as the Female President of the village and the National Coordinator of Tostan Gambia, we had some down time before dinner. I ate a lot of rice and meat that week. It seemed we had fruity soda after every meal, as well (I’ve been eating a lot of vegetables and drinking a lot of water this week!). Every evening included a cultural night of dancing, poetry recitation, and cultural entertainment. Lilli and I were usually so exhausted that we left the soirée early to go to bed.

Alisa with the crowd during a cultural night

The sixth day took place in Basse and was my favorite. All of the Caravan participants, over 200, and Tostan organizers gathered at the Tostan office and marched to the residence of the Governor of URR. There youth participants presented a manifesto stating what they wanted from the government as support in their quest to improve the lives of Gambian youth. Key points included education scholarships for girls and boys, skill training centers for technical jobs, and better enforcement of laws prohibiting child/forced marriage.

Youth participant, Fatou Baldé, presents the manifesto

My favorite part was riding on the back of Moussa’s motorbike while taking video footage of the march. I took a lot of video throughout the week and am hoping to put together a short piece for Tostan’s blog or website. My written article is currently featured on Tostan’s blog and soon to be in the November Newsletter. Very exciting!

Alisa filming on the back of Moussa’s motorbike

I had so much fun and hope to cover another Tostan event in the future. The experience was incredibly enriching and one of the best times I’ve had since living in West Africa, although I was quite anxious to get back to my bed and overhead shower after a week of changing mattresses and taking bucket baths!

Ba beneen yoon! – Until next time!

Photos courtesy of Elizabeth Loveday, Tostan Regional Volunteer in The Gambia.

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