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Visitor relates African human rights strides

[Times photos: Daniel Wallace]
Abdoulaye Cisse recently describes visual teaching methods he uses in his work in Thies, Senegal, to overcome language and cultural barriers to teach people in West Africa about their basic human rights.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 24, 2001

The organization he works for has helped rid West African villages of female genital cutting, he tells members of a Tampa Bay interfaith group.

ST. PETE BEACH -- Abdoulaye Cisse pulled out flip charts and demonstrated the simple games used to tell fellow citizens in Senegal about their basic human rights.

These informal lessons, he told those gathered in a house off Gulf Boulevard last Sunday, have brought important changes to countless lives. Among the most dramatic, he said, has been the pledge by residents of 282 villages in his West African nation to halt the practice of female genital cutting, a form of circumcision usually performed with unsterilized instruments such as razor blades.
Community leaders and members of a small interfaith group called Wonderers of the World (WOW) listen as Abdoulaye Cisse of Senegal speaks at the St. Pete Beach home of a WOW member.

Among those listening to his talk were Noreen Brand, education director for the Florida Holocaust Museum; Carl Lavender, executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Suncoast; and George Farrell, a member of the Florida Commission on Human Relations.

Present as well were members of a small, informal interfaith group, Wonderers of the World, which uses the synonym WOW. It was one of their own, St. Pete Beach resident Ann Haendel, who invited Cisse, 33, to the Tampa Bay area. His stop in Florida was a side trip from New York City, where he had addressed the United Nations about the very program he discussed last weekend.

Cisse, a former English teacher, said that he is employed by Tostan, a non-governmental organization based in Senegal and funded primarily by UNICEF. He told the almost two dozen people who had crowded into Ms. Haendel's living room early Sunday afternoon that his organization's name means breakthrough, a feat it has been accomplishing in Senegal and several other African countries.

Tostan's program, he said, was designed to provide basic literacy, math and life skills to Senegalese villagers, particularly women.

Now, said Ms. Haendel, who did volunteer work for Tostan, the emphasis is on human rights.

Tostan's founder, American Molly Melching, "came up with the idea to provide a course in women's health and child development," Ms. Haendel said.

During the work, "one group of women in one community decided that, based on their new understanding of the dangers to themselves and their daughters and their right to bodily integrity and to speak out for themselves, that they would abandon the practice of female genital cutting," Ms. Haendel said.

"And when Molly was informed of this . . . that is when she recognized that human rights training was a powerful tool. And she made human rights training the basis of Tostan education."

Cisse, who met Ms. Haendel during her work in Senegal and has conferred upon her the honorary title of Grandma, is Tostan's human rights coordinator for the city of Thies, Senegal. The United Nations has designated Thies a human rights city.

Initially, Cisse said, Tostan's programs were aimed at residents in the countryside. In 1998, however, the peer-taught classes were introduced to cities, an effort that at first proved challenging, he said.

"In the village, it's much easier because people don't have anything to do. If you call them, they will come. They want to know," Cisse said.

Tostan solicits support from community leaders to spread its program, he said.

"We invite the imam (Muslim clergy), the priest, the authorities," Cisse said.

"People think that human rights is something that is being dictated by Western people or something that the United Nations wants to impose," he said. "If we invite the imam and the priest, he will let them know that these articles (of human rights) are taught in the Koran, in the Bible, in all holy books."

Ending female genital cutting has been an unanticipated benefit of the Tostan program, Cisse said.

"We didn't expect that at all in the beginning," he said. "It was a cultural thing they had been practicing for hundreds of years. It was like foot binding in China."

The women of Malicounda-Bambara initiated the movement against female genital cutting in 1997. First, though, they consulted the imam, who assured them that the ritual is not required by Islam, Cisse said.

Female genital cutting, which opponents say causes life-threatening child birth complications, hemorrhaging and even death, has been regarded as a rite of passage into adulthood in many parts of Africa and the Middle East. Those against it typically refer to the practice as female genital mutilation, which Ms. Haendel says is a pejorative term.

"That's attacking a cultural tradition," she said. "The Tostan approach is to not stigmatize the practice or its practitioners. The approach is to suggest that this custom or tradition is one that can be abandoned . . . that cutting has been done over the years as an act of love that made daughters marriageable."

Despite public declarations to the contrary, is it possible that the ritual has gone underground?

"No," Cisse said, "because (Tostan) has follow-through committees in all of the cities. They cannot do it in secret because it's a ceremony they organize every year. . . . Since they made the declarations, we haven't heard of anyone doing it in secret."

Last week's visit was Cisse's first to the United States.

It was "a happy coincidence," said Ms. Haendel, a retired administrator for the federal government and a volunteer with the American Jewish World Service, which sponsored her work in Senegal.

WOW, the newly created interfaith group to which she belongs, had been searching for a service project, she said.

The group includes Ms. Haendel, who is Jewish; two Unitarian Universalists; and a Hindu, a Sufi, a Bahai and a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister. It was formed during an interfaith gathering in May.

At the time, Roy Kaplan, executive director of the local chapter of the National Conference for Community and Justice, asked participants to form groups that would continue to meet and work together. Last weekend's gathering at Ms. Haendel's home was the second for the group.

A third has been scheduled. Barbara Bostian, the Bahai in the group, has invited members to attend a public talk at 7:15 p.m. on June 30, at the St. Petersburg Bahai Center, 676 Second Ave. S. The speaker will be another African visitor, Mawushi Nutakor of Togo, whose topic will be, "Is Racism Universal?"

Ms. Haendel believes the program featuring Cisse was successful.

"It really went beyond my expectations," she said.

"I thought that Abdoulaye could share Tostan's approach for empowering people and hopefully have some of this filter back through the community."

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