A new documentary captures Senegalese communities embracing human rights education and transforming their lives.
Kenyan born US-based director Kenny Mann of Rafiki Productions describes Walking With Life: The Birth of a Human Rights Movement as a glimpse into the profound positive social changes that can come about when people anywhere in the world learn about their fundamental human rights.
Narrated by Senegalese human rights advocate Issa Saka, the 39-minute documentary shows how some communities in Senegal chose to abandon customs like female genital cutting (FGC) and forced early marriage.
The film is based on the work of the Dakar-based human rights education NGO known as Tostan and is told in a variety of languages including Wolof, Mandinka, Jola and French, with English narration and subtitles. It was filmed between 2006 and 2010.
When a small group of women from the Malikunde village learnt about their right to good health they triggered a revolution. With the help of their Imam, Dembe Diawara, they proved that FGC is not actually a requirement of Islam, but predates Islam. Therefore they can abandon the custom without being regarded as “bad Muslims’.
Tostan’s human rights learning programme has no particular agenda other than to make people aware of their human rights and to teach topics like democracy, problem solving, and literacy. It is what people do with this new knowledge that fascinates Mann.
“The entire movement to abandon FGC was a surprising offshoot of the programme,’ she explains. “It was never planned and has subsequently spread across several countries. Tostan supports the movement but did not initiate it.’
After her first trip to Senegal in January 2006 Mann thought she had shot enough footage for the film. “But when I began editing I realised that I hadn’t even touched the surface of the subject.’
She adds that the Tostan programme evolved while she was filming, which meant some of her early material was no longer relevant in 2009.
“I conferred a great deal with the director of Tostan, who lives in Dakar, to ensure that I was interpreting the programme correctly. Translating all the languages into English proved a real obstacle until I found Senegalese people in New York who were able to do it.’
During the shoot extreme dust caused problems for some of Mann’s equipment. As she often likes to shoot out of the window of a travelling car she had to wrap her camera in many layers of thin cloth to protect it. Mann shoots her films by herself and for this film used a Mini DV Sony DCR VX 2100.
Walking With Life is regarded by Tostan as an essential tool in human rights teaching, especially regarding women’s rights in Africa. Tostan also trains people to make their own films and tell their own stories in their own words. Mobile screening units travel around the country to show these films.
Distribution of Walking With Life in the US is handled by Goliath Promotions, Ostrow & Company, and Tomcat Films. The film has won two awards – the Award of Merit, La Jolla Independent Film Festival, California (2010), and Best Documentary at the Hamptons International Black Film Festival (2010), New York.
Mann’s two other related films – Building Partnerships Through Human Rights Education and Human Rights Cities: Paths to Peace, have not been screened but are sold as a package on the same DVD as accessories to Walking With Life.