Thiérno Moussa Diallo, social mobilization (SM) agent for Tostan in the Kolda region of Senegal, gets off his bicycle again and pushes it off the road to avoid yet another puddle. ‘Puddle’ is a bit of an understatement — this pool of water covers the entire width of the dirt road and would probably reach halfway to his knees if he tried to wade through it.
Joined by four other team members traveling by bicycle and on foot, Thiérno is making his way to the next village on their list. On this Orchid Project-funded social mobilization mission, the team is visiting six villages, as they have done every month since December 2012. Through awareness-raising meetings, the team presents on different human rights and health issues, ultimately leading to a discussion on female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage. July marked the start of a difficult three-month period for the SM teams in this region as Senegal’s rainy season brought additional challenges to facilitating these meetings.
When I asked members of the SM teams about the conditions of conducting the missions during the rainy season, they all spoke of the same difficulties. The Kolda SM team’s supervisor Thiérno Yaya Diallo said, “the rains make it difficult because there is so much water on the road.” Because of this water, Abdoulaye Kébé, the supervisor of the Sédhiou SM team, explained that “the villages are nearly inaccessible. There are gullies and rivers and rice fields, and sometimes you are forced to get off [your bicycle or motorcycle] and travel on foot.” Thiérno Moussa told me about the impact that the rains have on their actual meetings. He said, “You can set the hour of the meeting, but if it rains, you have to wait.” And the rain can fall for hours at a time.
Not only do the heavy rains disrupt and delay meetings and make travel between villages difficult, the rainy season is also the agricultural season in rural villages. Communities dedicate hours each day to planting, maintaining, and harvesting crops that are an important source of revenue and sustenance. It is difficult for the team to organize awareness-raising meetings when communities have so much work to do. In order to accommodate the work that the communities do during the day, Abdoulaye Kebe said his team often holds their meetings at night; they want as many people to be able to attend as possible. After the sun has set and the electricity-less village is dark save for flashlights, the team will still wait for the moment that is most convenient for the community. “What we want,” he said, “is for the communities to accept the principle of abandoning FGC, no matter whether it is during the day or at night.”
Despite the doubled travel time that washed out roads can cause or being forced to hold meetings outside in the dark, I could tell by the passionate way these SM agents spoke that it would never occur to them to suspend their efforts until conditions became easier. While activities were paused in July to avoid the heaviest rains and to permit the teams a short break, the agents picked up their work again in August even though the rain still poured. The rains pose certain logistical difficulties, but they are not the only challenging aspects of the job: the agents are gone from their families for 12 days every month, they sleep in a different place every two days, and they rarely have access to electricity. I asked the agents why each of them, in light of these difficulties, chooses to continue this work. Abdoulaye Kébé said that once he learned about the consequences of FGC during his participation in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program years ago, he was convinced of the harm the practice can cause. Since then he has been motivated to educate other communities on this issue.
Thiérno Moussa responded to the question by saying, “I choose to do this work because it is helping our population.” He volunteers his time because he believes in the value of the awareness-raising he is helping to lead and the benefit it will have in his own community. This is why he, and the rest of his team, continues to willingly trek down muddy roads and wait for hours for the rains to subside – they have the opportunity to share important health and human rights information with yet another village and potentially bring an end to the harmful traditional practice of FGC in that community.
Story by Allyson Fritz, Tostan.