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Bringing Down the House - Ann Jones in Sierra Leone
April 3, 2008
By The IRC
|Chief Cyril Foray Gondor II and his wife Lucy Foray Gondor preside over the first-ever all-women’s photo exhibition in Pendembu. Photo: Christiana Gbondo|
|The International Rescue Committee is working with women’s advocate Ann Jones to help women in war zones — survivors of conflict, displacement and sexual and domestic violence — use photography to make their voices heard. Learn more and read Ann’s earlier posts here.
Part 8 - Kailahun, Sierra Leone It’s nearly showtime again. Time for the women and girls to review their photos and pick two—just two apiece—to present to their community at a final exhibition. Choosing is never easy. Think about it. These women rarely if ever get to decide anything. And they’ve got a lot to choose from. Altogether 17,792 photos to be exact. How fast could you do it? I know they’ll need a lot of patience and support.
The photographers of the Women’s Action Group of Pendembu. That’s Christiana Gbondo (Chris G.) on the left and Christiana Massaquoi (Auntie Chris) in red on the right. Photo: Ann Jones
Trouble is, I can’t get out of bed. One by one my African colleagues stick their heads around the doorframe, lift the mosquito net to peer at me, and say: “Malaria.” They’re used to it—this scourge that kills more Africans each year than does that other plague HIV/AIDS. I’ve seen my colleagues break into a drenching sweat, pop a couple of pills, and carry on working. Not me. I’m flattened. If malaria attacked Americans at home, the US would launch another “war” against it. But to our shame, we spend our wealth on other wars. Chris G. perches on the bed, notebook in hand, for some quick computer instruction. Then she and Auntie Chris set off for Pendembu to help the photographers choose their photos and make plans for the show. IRC’s Dr. Jeff Kambale Mathe, a physician from the Democratic Republic of Congo, drives four hours over rough roads, carrying a plastic bag full of pills, to save my neck. Thanks to him, I get up again in time to print the chosen photos and hang the shows.
Our eager girl-photographers occupy the front row in the packed assembly hall of the Girls’ Primary School—ready to begin the show. Photo: Ann Jones
Then, as we saw in Cote d’Ivoire, what happens next depends largely upon the community leadership. In Pendembu, the progressive chief tells a large crowd gathered in the Court Barrie about the country’s new gender laws that raise the legal status of women. He goes beyond the new laws, which don’t recognize rape in marriage, to admonish men: “Do not force yourselves upon your wives. That is rape, even if the law does not say so.” Then he hands off to his wife, Auntie Lucy, the chairlady of the Women’s Action Group. She wears a fabulous hat for the occasion. The chief and his wife are the ultimate power couple, bravely hauling their ruined village into a new century. Aunty Lucy summons the women photographers one by one to present their photographs, and then she holds forth herself, making sure that no one misses the point or the message of gender equality.
Gender Club advisor Mr. Shariff holds the megaphone and listens attentively as 12-year-old Isata Amadu presents a photograph she took of him. Isata is about to bring down the house. Photo: Ann Jones
Two days later at the exhibition in Kailahun town another chief rises angrily to warn the audience, “You must not speak of female genital mutilation. It is our tradition.” The audience applauds. Even women of the Women’s Action Group applaud. The Global Crescendo team hasn’t spoken a word about FGM; we leave it to women participants to talk about what they will. But since the chief has raised the issue, Amie Kandeh, the GBV country manager, and Navanita Bhattacharya, the regional GBV technical advisor, try gently to respond. A prominent woman leader shouts to drown them out. The chief stalks out of the meeting. Later, when Amie and others go to talk with him, he says he knows that FGM is wrong and that it must be stopped—but gradually. How will he justify to himself, I wonder, the hundreds or thousands of girls who will be mutilated, their lives irreparably wounded, while he lets the practice he knows to be “bad” phase out? Surely the last girl mutilated, like the last soldier to die in a mistaken war, will be an enduring rebuke. Yet African “tradition,” here as in Cote d’Ivoire, rests on the courage or backwardness of men like these chiefs.
The photographers of the Women’s Action Group of Kailahun. Christiana Massaquoi is on the right in the front row. Photo: Ann Jones
The girls’ show comes last, before a packed house in the assembly hall of the Girls’ Primary School. Parents attend, all dressed up, and teachers from other schools. The Pendembu chief sends a representative, as does the District Office of Education, and the Family Services Unit of the police—a uniformed policewoman who delivers a rousing diatribe against rape and sexual exploitation. Then it is the girls’ turn. One by one they speak about their photos, displayed on the blackboard, while their Gender Club advisor Mr. Shariff holds the megaphone that carries their reedy voices to the corners of the big room. They speak of early pregnancy and sexual exploitation. They speak of the importance of girls’ education. Then 12-year-old Isata Amadu connects the dots. Pointing to a photo of Mr. Shariff, she says: “He gives us information to help us in our lives. I took his picture because all teachers should follow the example of Mr. Shariff—and they should desist from impregnating schoolgirls.” Parents gasp. One mother shrieks. The room buzzes. The headmistress puts her head in her hands. Isata returns to her seat while the other girl photographers cheer and throw her high fives. Shy little Isata has voiced the unspeakable truth that everybody knows. She speaks for every girl in the room. She speaks for every girl who wants to get an education, every girl who wants to contribute to her community, every girl who wants to be all she can be. Isata herself wants to be a teacher.
Girl power: the photographers of the R.C. Girls’ Primary School Gender Club on Exhibition day. Christiana Massaquoi is on the left, Christiana Gbondo on the right, and Isata Amadu is third from the left in the front row. Photo: Ann Jones Later all the schoolgirls sit under the trees in the yard, sipping Kool-Aid—provided especially for the occasion. It’s a Kool-Aid kind of day. Something has happened. Something different and special. That’s what this Global Crescendo project is all about: Women’s Voices from Conflict Zones. Girls voices too.