Using Performance and Poetry to Break the Silence in Somalia

29 October 2015
©Male and Female entertainers performing a skit

The troupe of male and female entertainers emerges from their van in the centre of town, stomping and clapping and drumming on empty water bottles as a crowd, drawn by the music, gathers in the cool of the late afternoon.

Shortly thereafter, a skit begins. Three women debate the merits of FGM/C.

"It's part of our culture," says one. "A girl who hasn't been cut feels too much - she can't stop herself." Some members of the audience clap and cheer.

"But if we find out it's harmful, we must abandon it," says her companion, who holds a baby. "Some girls who have been cut can't restrain their desires anyway." More cheers.

"The behaviour of girls depends more on education," says the third women. "All of my daughters have been cut, but if it's harmful, we must stop."

The skit echoes sentiments in public that are usually discussed only in private. One of the main characters, a strong woman who has herself been cut, and who has had her daughters cut, shows her willingness to change her mind in the light of new information. In essence, she gives permission for others to do so as well. Or at least to think about it.

"It's such a wonderful feeling to see large numbers of people all flocking to view our drama," said Abwaan Jama, one of the young performers. "You need only see their faces to realize how much they love it."

"It's great," adds Adwaan Cawadgale. "I never thought I'd be able to use my talent and art to change people's old mindsets."
Somalia is a land of poets and musicians. With no written language until the 1970s, Somalis over the centuries acquired rich oral traditions. Still today, interactions among family members -- even presentations to a council of clan elders - are commonly framed in poetic language, enlivened with proverbs, riddles, prayers, chants and words of wisdom.

"Building on this strong cultural heritage, the Joint Programme in 2013 and 2014 partnered with the Ministry of Women's Development and Family Affairs to train 40 young musicians, poets and dramatists to produce lively, improvisational street theatre designed to get people talking about FGM/C, child marriage and other forms of gender-based violence. Key messages were developed and continue to be refined and harmonized by the Country Office," said Isatu Sesay -Bayoh, the Gender-based Violence Technical Specialist for UNFPA Somalia.

During 2014, the trained troupes fanned out across villages in conservative areas of Puntland. They would set up during the late afternoon in a high-traffic location when many people have time for a break. In Somaliland, similar performances were organized during 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence (25 November -- 10 December 2014). In both Puntland and Somaliland, the performances reached a total of some 8,000 community members.

"The Somali community is very vocal and they love theatre arts, sketches, music," said Bahsan Said, a programme officer on gender, youth and HIV/AIDS for UNFPA Somalia. "These performances go beyond community engagement on FGM/C, they're also a way to revive the Somali culture of music and traditional dance."

And with a medium that is so distinctly Somali, the messages don't seem to pose a threat to the cultural identity of the crowd.

Moreover, the improvisational nature of the performances allows the performers to quickly adapt to the mood of the audience, which is also asked to join in. In a country where most people are used to creating, and challenging each other, with short poems, a kind of poetry slam can ensue, with members of the audience responding in poetry -- either supporting or opposing the ideas presented, said Ms. Said.

Some of the performances end with individual or collective declarations against FGM/C. In other cases, discussions follow. Older women, often the staunchest defenders of the ritual they themselves have endured, protest. "This is not what we want -- our girls will be unmarriageable," they say. Yet younger men, who are increasingly taking a stand against the practice, may dispute this.

There is considerable anecdotal evidence to suggest that young men, as well as young women, are traumatised by the expectations placed on them regarding achieving penetration of brides who have been infibulated, according to a situational analysis conducted in 2014 with support from DFID.

"Attitudes toward FGM/C in Somalia are definitely changing," said Ms. Sesay -Bayoh. Anecdotal evidence is backed up by preliminary findings (Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, 2012), which show significant reductions in the numbers of people who support the practice. "The fact that people are openly discussing the issue is in itself a huge change," she added.