By Marianna Levine
A bit of brightest Africa will enliven Sag Harbor’s rainy spring this coming Sunday from 2 to 6 p.m. at the Bay Street Theatre, thanks to Kenyan filmmaker and educator, Kenny Mann.
Mann who has made Sag Harbor her home for over 20 years, has enlisted a Senegalese band to entertain before and after her showing of the documentary “Walking with Life – the Birth of the Human Rights Movement in Africa,” a film about the non-governmental organization Tostan’s work in the West African republic of Senegal.
The event, a celebration of Senegalese culture, was organized by Mann to highlight the positive impact Tostan was having through its human rights work in traditional African communities. Tostan, which roughly means “breakthrough” in Wolof, one of Senegal’s many languages, was started by the American expat and 30-year Senegalese resident, Molly Melching.
Mann explains why she decided to highlight Tostan’s work over other NGO’s strivings. “Tostan has no set agenda. They only teach people what their human rights are,” says Mann. “They don’t tell people to change or what actually to do. The villagers make up their own minds. Tostan just gave them the possibility to discuss their pressing issues within the community. It is completely up to the villagers what human rights they want to take up.”
Mann emphasizes that in Senegal people may feel more empowered than perhaps in other countries in Africa because “Senegal has signed on to follow international human rights. So therefore people are entitled to these human rights. They just need to realize they are.”
Mann’s documentary, which is under an hour in length, shows this process of discussion and change in action. Tostan uses traditional African storytelling, dramatic recreations, and song to explain human rights to a largely illiterate population. At one point Mann interviews a group of women in the village of Malakunda who decided it was their human right to stop female circumcision within their community. They used the human right to good health as their rallying point.
Mann tells the story of how these women empowered themselves through their knowledge of human rights and thereby changed a long-standing tradition.
“They were quite sophisticated about it,” she said. “They invited local government officials, and contacted both the local and international press to come to their village and support them.”
Perhaps the most touching aspect of this challenge was the support given to the women by their local Imam, Dembe Diwaara, who explained they needed to involve the whole community in order to bring about real change. He also consulted the Koran and found no law prescribing female circumcision, which gave the women the religious support so crucial in a largely Muslim country.
“He was the one who taught Molly (the founder of Tostan) that change couldn’t happen alone,” said Mann. “It needed to involve the whole community, the men and the boys as well.”
Although the topic of “female cutting” is quite a difficult one, the film focuses on how the village embraces change and celebrates it through colorful song and dance, rather than dwelling on the gruesome specifics of the actual act. One comes away from a viewing of the documentary, not only educated but also truly inspired by the villagers and their desire for knowledge and positive change.
Mann, who went to Senegal three times in order to film Tostan’s progress, says she learned quite a lot from the experience and had one of her big questions about Western aid in Africa answered by the village’s elders.
“I’ve always been allergic to foreigners coming in and making changes,” said Mann. “So I asked Imams and chiefs ‘do you resent people coming in and trying to change your traditions’ and they said ‘No we don’t. We are an illiterate society for the most part and need the help to educate our people.’”
Both Mann and the film’s narrator, Senegal native, Issa Saka, explain that a great part of the problem in changing local customs is the way in which children are educated. Saka explains in the documentary, “kids are not allowed to ask too many questions. They are asked to listen to their elders. No one is taught to ask why, why?”
Therefore an organization such as Tostan’s greatest challenge is undoubtedly to start people asking themselves “why is this traditional, and is this tradition benefiting the community?” according to Mann.
“Walking with Life” is not Mann’s first foray into documentary filmmaking. She has spent a lifetime working in the film industry both in Europe and America prior to working as an educator in the New York area. She has also written several books about Africa.
For those who would like more information about “Walking with Life” a preview can be viewed at www.rifikiproductions.com.