In ‘Walk on My Own,’ a 16-year-old filmmaker documents the history of Keur Simbara — one of the first villages in Senegal to abandon female genital cutting and child marriage
A teenager shares what life is like in her Senegalese community two decades after they decided to end these practices.
When 16-year-old Ndèye Fatou Fall is not in school, she enjoys playing soccer and basketball, or practising for her village’s next theatre performance. If she had been born a decade earlier, however, she would not be able to enjoy these freedoms.
Twenty years ago, child marriage and female genital cutting (FGC) — a harmful practice that can cause bleeding, infections and even death in young women — were widespread in Ndèye Fatou’s community of Keur Simbara, located in western Senegal. Demba Diawara, a village leader and Ndèye Fatou’s grandfather, educated hundreds of communities — including Keur Simbara — on the benefits of ending these practices. Thanks to his work and others in the community, Ndèye Fatou is able to go to school, pursue her passions and even direct her own film.
With the organisation BYkids, Ndèye Fatou created the documentary, “Walk on My Own,” which looks at the history of FGC and child marriage in Keur Simbara. Ndèye Fatou interviews mothers and community elders, and shows viewers how the community has changed since they took this important step for women and girls. Keur Simbara is now more peaceful and its female villagers have the freedom to complete their education and hold careers of their choosing.
Child marriage and FGC impact millions of girls and women around the world. As of 2017, over 100 million women and girls have experienced some form of FGC. Every year, about 15 million girls around the world get married before their 18th birthdays, increasing their risk of dropping out of school and experiencing domestic violence. Senegal has led the charge against FGC by banning it in 1999. However, FGC and child marriage are still practiced in some parts of Senegal and other parts of the world.
I spoke with Ndèye Fatou to discuss her film, “Walk on My Own,” the strides that have been made in her own village of Keur Simbara and her vision for Senegal’s future.
Omolara Uthman (OU): Tell me about making “Walk on My Own.” What part of the process of making the documentary did you enjoy the most and what was the hardest part?
Ndèye Fatou Fall (NFF): What I loved the most about making the film “Walk on My Own” was the interview I did with my grandfather, Demba Diawara, who is our village leader. He explained things to me that happened in our village before I was born. Baay Demba opened his heart to me and told me so many things — especially about the tradition [female genital cutting] and child marriage that were practiced here in Keur Simbara. You know I would never have dared to question him as I did because in our culture, a young girl doesn’t ask such questions to an elder. In fact, I had never before asked questions like this to other elders in the community — you just didn’t do it. I learned so much from Baay Demba who opened doors to new learning for me. I realized how important it is to understand the past and I was proud of the role he played in ending these harmful practices in so many communities.
As for the hardest thing for me in the film, it was to go to a religious and traditional leader in the neighboring village to ask him questions. It was so difficult for me and I couldn’t believe I had the courage to go interview him — but actually, I did the interview and he was kind and open and he answered all my questions.
OU: How does it make you feel that people around the world are watching your film?
NFF: When others around the world watch this film, my heart will be full of joy and I’ll feel so proud because I was chosen among many girls around the world to make this film. I first watched the final version with my community and with neighboring villagers and I was amazed and even had goosebumps!
And now when other villagers and others who practice the tradition and child marriage watch this film, I believe they will realize how much girls and women have suffered. They will be inspired to discuss after they see the film and then they will hopefully decide to end these harmful practices which violate girls’ human rights.
OU: How would you describe Keur Simbara to someone who has never been there before?
NFF: I would tell them that Keur Simbara is a small, typical rural Senegalese village where people live together in peace and harmony. Everyone supports one another! But now Keur Simbara is famous because of our Imam and Village Chief, Demba Diawara. He was one of the first African traditional and religious leaders who, more than 20 years ago, dared to openly advocate for the abandonment of female genital cutting and child marriage. He traveled to hundreds of villages to discuss ending these practices with people from our same ethnic group. He was so courageous, so intelligent and so thoughtful and wise in the way in which he approached these issues that people were open to abandonment for the first time!
OU: Why did you choose to focus your film on how Keur Simbara has changed since abandoning traditions of child marriage and FGC?
NFF: Many communities in Africa still practice the tradition and child marriage. It has been so important to all of the girls like me that Keur Simbara abandoned these practices. Child marriage is not good for a child’s physical and mental health. And FGC is a dangerous practice because it can lead to problems like hemorrhage, tetanus, sterility — and girls can even die from undergoing FGC. And yet a girl was obliged to undergo this practice because she had to obey her parents. If she wasn’t cut, she wouldn’t be respected, she wouldn’t be considered pure — and if she cooked a meal, no one would eat her food! She wouldn’t even be able to do the laundry for others because it would be considered dirty. People would insult her so much that the girl could even decide to have it done to herself if she wasn’t cut.
So, I wanted to share with other Africans who practice FGC and child marriage why Keur Simbara abandoned this practice and what it has meant to us, the girls and young women of my generation, what it has meant for our well-being and for our future. I am hoping that others will follow the example of our community.
I also wanted people from other countries where FGC and child marriage are not practiced to see that Africans themselves are leading the movement for abandonment of harmful practices in Senegal.
OU: How do you think that your life would have been different if your village hadn’t stopped FGC and child marriage practices?
NFF: I think I would have had many problems in my life. I would have undergone FGC and I would now be married to someone I might not love at all. I would not now be in school for sure! Before, it was the parents who chose a husband for their daughters. It was what we call “forced marriage.” I could have gotten pregnant when my body was not yet fully developed. So, I thank God and am grateful to my community because they — together with all of our other relatives living in other communities — made this important decision to abandon these practices before I was born.
OU: Since FGC and child marriage are no longer an issue, are there other issues you want to change in Keur Simbara?
NFF: Yes! There are other areas where we need improvement in Keur Simbara. For example, we really need a good middle school in our village because children now have to walk far — five kilometers to attend classes in another village. I myself did this for three years. It is dangerous for children because there is more insecurity these days and we hear that children — especially girls — could be kidnapped or assaulted, especially if you have to attend school later in the afternoon.
I also would like to have a health post closer to our community as we now have to travel to the city to get most of our medical treatment. We do have a small health center but there is no nurse or doctor. If we had a health post, then children could study and come back to Keur Simbara as doctors or nurses to help our community. Eventually, we would like to have electricity also as there are certain machines that cannot run on solar. So, we could eventually provide more jobs for the young people of our community so they would not have to leave the village to go look for work.
OU: What is your favourite subject to study in school? Why do you like it?
NFF: I love learning English. I have always wanted to learn English as I see that it opens up other worlds and possibilities for people. During the filming, I realized how useful speaking English is and I wish with all my heart that I had not needed a translator and that I could have directly expressed myself with Elizabeth, my mentor, who taught me how to use the camera. Also, I hope to read in English and to travel to other countries one day. I know many people in the world speak English so I want to be able to exchange ideas with them. Even to do this interview, we had to go through translators!
But I also was able to attend classes at Tostan’s non-formal school in national languages where I learned about human rights. That was my favorite subject because we learned about so many human rights that are important to know and understand. It really changes your life and gives you self-confidence and I know it was what led people in Keur Simbara to end child marriage and FGC in 1998. The right to be free from all forms of violence, to be free from all forms of discrimination, the human right to voice one’s opinion and to marry the person of your choice — these are so important to know about.
OU: Do all the girls in Keur Simbara go to formal school? If they don’t, why don’t they?
NFF: No, unfortunately not all girls in Keur Simbara go to school. The reason is that the public school is far away and often they don’t have the funds needed to continue their education after primary school.
Even for me, going to school was a problem. My mother and father went through a divorce, which was not easy for me. I lived with my grandmother in the village and I had to walk the long distance to school and at the same time, help my grandmother with housework. So, last year, I didn’t do as well in school. But also, my father had only paid half of the school fees needed. I was asked to pay the rest or I would be kicked out of school. Each day, the school director asked me: “Where is the rest of the money you owe?” and each day I would say that I know my father will come to pay the rest soon. The director finally called my father to confirm he was coming to pay. Again, my father said he would come — but then he never did come and so the director told me I would have to leave. It was the middle of the school year. I had to leave school and I was heartbroken.
After some time, my mother who had married another man in the city of Thiès, brought me to live with her to try to find a public school where you don’t have to pay. I went from school to school but they all turned me away and told me it was too late to enroll, that all the schools were full. So, then my mother told me I would have to go live in Dakar with my aunt and her husband and children. I was asked to stay home and do the cooking, cleaning, and laundry for the whole family. I was home alone each day with my aunt while all of the other children — my cousins — were going to school. I was so discouraged because I too wanted to be going to school.
Then in January of this year, before the film was to be released in the United States, I was invited to come back to Keur Simbara to view the finished film with the rest of the community and other neighboring villages.
In the film, I was reminded of the joy and hope I had for the future, and realized how many of my dreams had been dashed by not being able to attend school. Then, the family who helped to fund this film for BYkids, Mark, Lisa and Izzy Wheeler, asked me why I looked sad while watching the film — and asked how I was doing in school. I was ashamed to tell them I was no longer in school. When they heard what had happened, they decided to help me get me back in school, through Tostan’s support, to find a school nearby that would accept me so late in the year and I am now living with a family five minutes away from a very wonderful school. I am trying so hard to catch up with what I missed for many months. I feel very grateful to everyone and I’m so happy to be back in school!
But other children in Keur Simbara and many other villages, don’t have the same opportunities that I have had in my life. That is not right and it is something that has to change.
OU: What do you like to do for fun?
NFF: I like to play sports — soccer and basketball. I also like to study and I have a tutor who is helping me to catch up with my studies in English — that is fun for me! I also like to participate in the religious ceremonies where we sing verses from the Koran in a group of young girls. I also perform in theaters that we do in the village to promote health and human rights. Many local African NGO leaders have visited our community and I hope that this theater will be used to influence others to promote well-being throughout the continent.
This interview was conducted in Wolof and translated by Dame Guèye and Molly Melching of Tostan, an organisation working with rural communities leading their own development.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
This piece is also available in French.
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About the author
Omolara Uthman is a Malala Fund editorial intern and student at Johns Hopkins University. She loves reading, writing and food photography.