Thursday, July 22, 2010

My African Hand (English)

We are in São Domingos, in the north of Guinea-Bissau, almost at the border to Senegal. The region is full of soldiers because of a conflict between two countries about a seven kilometres stripe of border territory. The presence of soldiers isn’t at all exceptional; the proximity of the Casemanche region and the other “sensitive” areas is given as reason for it.

We did one more qualification program with the group of Theatre of the Oppressed GTO-Bissau, which was focussing the training on gender questions with a theatre of the oppressed women – Madalena’s Laboratory – and the challenges for the stability of the peace process in a country marked by instabilities. Our tool is the Theatre of the Oppressed with its committed and provoking aesthetic.

We occupied a huge hangar with a roof from zinc, a vestige of the cultural centre created and left by some international NGO, equipped with fans, reflectors, music instruments, spotlights and other dusty and useless electronic gadgets, because there was no electricity. The excess of dust in the air is drying our throats. From high noon the heat is intensifying and we feel like baked in an oven. Beside the adversities our work is intense and productive. Some ancestral energy is leading and animating us.

At the entrances of the hangar dozens of children are observing us every day. They post themselves at the doors from the moment we come till the hour we will leave. They are very amused watching adults, who play like children. When we effort, we include them into the activities of the aesthetic exercises.

At the middle of our working days we eat a “mata-bicho” (strong snack) under surveillance of eyes between curious and hungry. We organize a reinforcement of the lunch to enable them accompanying us and to participate fully in this daily ritual.

One of these days we realize something special in the movement they are doing. Even that we concentrate on our production of the public event. Eventually the work is interrupted when one of the multiplicators is entering the room bringing with his hand the hand of a shocked girl. He opens the hand of the girl and presents the result of something, what came out as the result of an educational process: a burned circle. What’s that? A burning! The girl appeared with a coin at home and the grandmother burned the girl with the hot coin for her to learn, that she cannot take, what’s not belonging to her.

We remained shocked; the burning had been transformed into a crust of cooked skin and has got infected. It was difficult to examine without feeling the stomach wrapped. Visually horrible. It seemed painful for the girl, the injury as well as our reactions.

A part of the group went out to look for any family member of the girl. A young woman presented herself as the aunt of the girl and reported that the reason of the burning has been the appearance of a coin of unknown origin, which made the grandmother mad. To make the girl understand it, the grandmother was heating a coin and pressed it in the hand of the girl, to make her learning it definitely.

Another part of the group organized the treatment in the community health care centre, where the crust of skin was taken out without anaesthesia and the nurse told how dangerous the situation was. The girl could have lost their hand, if the treatment would have delayed more time.

In the same day the grandmother came to our meeting and declared that the girl had burned herself accidentally, playing with fire. The whole conversation took place in Creole and was mediated by the multiplicatiors of TO of the region, especially by the ones, who understood the ethno-cultural base of the lady. They made it in a very careful way, because in the culture of Guinea-Bissau elder persons (the Grand’s) have to be respected whatever it costs, because they carry with them the experience and the wisdom.

Whenever one of them seemed to loose his patience with the lady, he or she was substituted to let the conversation be continued in the pattern of absolute respect. Meanwhile it was clear, that the grandmother won’t reveal, what happened in fact. So the group started to think about strategies to protect the girl, because the situation could get worse, as the grandmother started to feel humiliated and could take revenge on the girl.

Someone who knew some who knew someone of the local radio proposed that the situation should be advertised on air. Without revealing the name of the grandmother they advertised that something very serious had been happening in the community – a girl had a burned hand – and that this practice should not be a way to educate a child. Moreover, they asked the community to take care, that children would not suffer more. The strategy was to make the occurrence public, so that everybody would get know about and the grandmother would feel embarrassed, without courage to attack the grand daughter.

The next day the girl came with a bandaged hand and no other trace of aggression. The whole community knew what has been occurred. We were satisfied but not calm, because we did not know, what would happen, when we would leave the place. The practitioners of the course, some of them inhabitants of the region, assumed the responsibility to visit the family and to guarantee their return to the community health care centre.

This tragic and in the same time beautiful example shows, how the things are changing in Guinea-Bissau from the first time when I was there in 2004 to set up a program of qualification of multiplicatiors of the Theatre of the Oppressed. That time the majority of the participants, in the one or the other way had seen and felt themselves as victims of the civil war. Victims waiting for help.

Now in 2010 a big part of the group is still from the beginner’s turn of 2004. But the same participants became other people. They became activists committed to transform the reality. People who are not expecting to be rescued by others, but who are looking for alternatives to help others and to help themselves. People who do not accept, that injustice is reproducing in the name of traditions. People who are questioning the traditions even respecting traditional people. People who assumed the TO as a philosophy for their lives and therefore could not anymore shut the mouth, close the eyes or ears or tie their hands in front of injustice. People who understood, that there is no sense to make TO inside of the hangar, if the injustice is settled at the doors. People who know the sense of TO and of the transformation of the reality and the promotion of concrete and continued actions.

The GTO-Bissau is a partner of the CTO in the project Theatre of the Oppressed from point to point, developed in the country since 2006. GTO has been highlighted as example of empowerment of the civil society of Guinea-Bissau in the last years, acting from north till south of the country, stimulating a public discussion and taking position in the society in front of the crucial issues, inclusively the taboo topics. Their recent productions are questioning the structure of power which is based in kinship and sponsorship and the violent oppression, which the women are suffering, who can’t have children or don’t want to be mothers while they are still young.

The maturity shown by this collective is reinforcing our confidence in their process of autonomy, which is enabling the leadership in the conduction of local projects.

The concrete action, which occurred while this last process of qualification is a scathing example of what we understand from the proposal of Boal. We understood, that the burning of the hand of the girls is not a private problem of the girl and her family, not even just of the city of Sao Domingos, not even a special issue from Guinea-Bissau. We understood, that its about our own burned hands, the hands of all the children, who need protection, about the markings left by traumatised adults in authoritarian processes of education and with concepts of pedagogy, where torture helps to educate discipline.

My African hand stayed in Africa. In my hand I brought a memory of the strength of hand committed to the transformation of the reality and certainty that I can count on my comrades from Guinea Bissau, who assumed the responsibility to keep our hand on the body of that girl safe.

Translation: Christoph Leucht

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