According to ancient Chinese philosopher and writer Lao Tzu, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” In my case, it began with a single local minibus leaving Dakar—Tata #31 to be exact—followed by several sept-places, shared seven-passenger station wagons. We traversed the barren, bumpy landscape deeper into the interior of Senegal, heading to the community of Soudiane, where Marième Bamba was waiting for us.

Upon arrival, we quickly greeted the entire family, which was spread throughout the large compound doing various daily chores and activities. I felt more content than I had in weeks—the bustling city of Dakar is too much for this small town Wisconsin native.

Lunch was waiting for us: Marième had prepared ceebu ginaar, rice with chicken. After a short introduction, my first interview was underway.

The purpose of the interview was to get a deeper understanding of Marième Bamba, where she came from, how she got to where she is, and most importantly, her work with Tostan as a Social Mobilization Agent (SMA). Although some of the pieces of her past were sad and dark, Marième has remained full of smiles and laughter.

Portrait of Marieme Bamba in Soudiane. Tostan Interview Portraits. Thiès, SN. 25 Jul. 2008Dressed in a colorful boubou, Marième recounted her childhood to us, first sharing with us that she underwent “the tradition”—female genital cutting (FGC)—at the age of eight and was married against her will at the age of 12. She recounts, “One Saturday, my uncle came to me and said, ‘Next Monday you will be married.’” She explained that in Senegalese culture, the maternal uncle is like a father; therefore, he was able to make this decision on her behalf.

It is tradition in Senegal that after a marriage, the bride moves to the husband’s village. So starting at the age of 12, Marième spent the next several years travelling around Senegal as her husband, a marabout (religious leader), worked.

She gave birth to two boys before she divorced her husband at the age of 16. One of her sons passed away and her ex-husband took her other son without her permission and moved him to Mali—she has only seen him twice since then. Two years later, Marième married again to the man with whom she has spent the rest of her adult life. They had four children together, although one son has since passed away.

Later, Marième started classes in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP) shortly after Demba Diawara, a long-time Tostan advocate, came to her community and raised awareness about the themes discussed in the CEP. But soon, most of the participants had dropped out of the classes and Tostan was on the verge of leaving the community due to lack of interest. Having never attended formal school, Marième was worried about missing an opportunity to receive an education. Marième took matters into her own hands: she went door to door to convince and motivate her community members to attend the classes. She was very successful. After her efforts, Tostan chose Marième to be one of five Social Mobilization Agents for the Fatick region.

My research focuses specifically on the work of the SMAs because their method of social change, or social mobilization, is much different than what we have historically seen around the world. Usually, we see one figure leading a large movement of social change that happens rather quickly. Take for example Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi. These people were very well known and received celebrity status for their work. Here with Tostan’s program, we have the opposite: not only are the SMAs working as a team, they are also relatively unknown outside of their own communities. This slow, yet impactful change leads to Tostan’s “organized diffusion.”

For Marième, the objective of her work as an SMA is simple: to see an end to FGC in Africa. I asked her to tell me how being a SMA makes her feel. She said it gave her a “xol bu sedd,” or a “cold heart.” At first, this might sound negative, but on the contrary, in Wolof culture, it is one of the best sentiments one can feel. This is said about something that touches you deeply – something that makes you feel good all the way to your core, to your heart.

I also asked Marième why the SMAs work in teams. She replied, “Because we complete each other.” She recounted a story about one time the team went to raise awareness in a village that did not welcome them, or their educational agenda. They accused the SMAs of being paid and wouldn’t even gather for a village meeting to hear what they had to say. They had to spend the night sleeping in front of a small shop in the street. When in remote villages, there are no hotels, hostels, public places to stay – usually SMA lodge with community members. They waited until sunrise to take a horse-drawn carriage to the next village. Despite all of this, the team remained positive, stuck together, and continued their work of organized diffusion.

She stressed the importance of being flexible and patient while working as a SMA, never forgetting the objective. She stated, “Whatever happens, it’s worth it in the end.” When asked about her hopes for her daughters’ futures, she focused on the importance of education and explained that she wanted to make sure that her daughters got the kind of formal education she was never able to get.

I left Soudiane impressed with the hardships Marième had endured and the change she was able to incite through social mobilization. Her optimism about the future of her family and her country is contagious.

By Antonia Morzenti, Independent Researcher