Monday, November 27, 2006

Visual Griots

My friend Shawn Davis just sent me great story about his work with Malian kids called Visual Griots, which he explains further on his website Shawn Davis Photo.

While somewhat long, I wanted to copy an e-mail he gave me permission to paste here. We need to get this show to London!!! Thanks so much for sharing the details of the evening!

Dear friends,

It’s 1:30 in the morning and god only knows when I’ll actually fall asleep. I’m so proud of these kids and truly excited by the reaction of their parents’ generation to their photos that I am really overwhelmed. Tonight was the “soiree culturelle” organized in honor of the children’s photographs by the local NGO that AED partnered with to implement the “Visual Griots”
project in the Tominian region of Mali.

Of course we were all honored yesterday at the dedication ceremony of the new US Embassy here in Bamako, when the US Ambassador asked our students to stand and be recognized before the entire crowd (that included the Prime Minister of Mali) and then eloquently weaved Visual Griots throughout his dedication speech, as an example of a rich and rewarding collaboration between Malians and Americans.

But tonight’s event had a different impact on a very different crowd. It was a cultural evening to celebrate the success of the Visual Griots Project organized for the Bwa population of Bamako by our local NGO partner, Association Vigne. Had I done such a project with kids in my hometown in Vermont, the equivalent would be calling together all of the Vermonters living in Washington, DC to celebrate the pictures taken by the kids in small town Vermont.

The event was held in a community center or “espace culturelle” called “La Cite des Flamboyants” owned by a successful Malian mathematician originally from the same region (Tominian) as the kids we worked with. It was a beautiful outdoor space filled with plastic chairs arranged around a few mango trees and facing a stage where a local band of drummers and guitarists played traditional Bwa music between the evening’s many speeches and presentations. Above the stage was a sign that read in French “Let us all unite.” A perfect theme for this evening that was essentially connecting the villagers to the city folk of the same minority ethnic group and empowering the young villagers to bring the city folks back to their roots! There couldn’t have been two more willing parties.

It was very impressive to see how Association Vigne had leveraged the students’ photographs to raise awareness of the importance of supporting development efforts in the Tominian region, especially in regards to education. They had managed to get their Congressman to attend and speak at the event and even had official representatives from the Office of the President of Mali. All of the kids were introduced, one of them spoke briefly, and then their mayor gave a remarkable speech.

He admitted to us all that when Association Vigne suggested our photography project to them the villages had wondered what impact a bunch of photographs could have, but they thought that with foreigners involved maybe it would bring some money. “Little did we know that money couldn’t buy what this project has brought us,” he said. “These students’ photographs have brought honor upon us. We have been reminded of who we are and what we are capable of. It was an awakening. These youth have drawn the attention of our own President to our region. This is only a beginning. And for the Bwa to be represented in the National Museum of the United States is a big honor for us. And the fact the pictures are hanging in the halls of the new US embassy in Mali we are so honored. We are teaching Americans about Mali and about Africa. Let me tell you how our involvement in the Visual Griots project has already impacted education in the Yasso Commune of which I am mayor. For four years in a row the community school of Damy, a school that is organized by the villagers and maintained by the villagers, failed to present a single student who could pass the sixth grade exam and pass to the second cycle (7th grade) and move to the middle school in Yasso town. Last year, thanks to God, 20 of the 22 students who participated in the Visual Griots project in Damy and Kouara passed the exam and are now traveling from their villages every day to attend the 2nd cycle in the Yasso School. I am also proud to announce that because of this success, we submitted a request to the Malian Ministry of Education to convert the Community School of Damy into a Public School (this means government funding and support) and on October 4th we received official notice that this request was granted. Also, when the Visual Griots team did their workshop at the village school of Kouara there was only a 3-room schoolhouse. Construction is almost finished on two additional rooms for the school, as the number of children being sent by their parents to attend school is rising. I hope that you, the “Tominianers” of Bamako don’t view this evening as a token Bwa folklore event, but as an opportunity to reconnect with the land of your mothers and fathers and to support the development of the area.” (Later in the event they put a big box out into the middle of the dance floor and asked people to donate money to buy books for the school. They raised $234.50!)

Following the mayor’s speech (my personal favorite of the evening) I projected a powerpoint presentation of pictures from the workshop and of the photographs taken by the children, which elicited lots of laughter and applause from the audience. I was lucky enough to end my speech, but saying “And now I will hand over the microphone to his Excellency the President of Mali, Amadou Toumani Toure." And then I played the video clip of his visit to the exhibit of the students’ photos in the Smithsonian, including his outburst of laughter at seeing the photograph of his own election poster with his image, hanging on the wall of the student photograph’s house next to the church calendar and a couple of cowtail fly swatters. Then followed his speech, aimed directly into the journalists’ cameras, and tonight, directly into the crowd of wide-eye children and Tominianers. The President spoke of the immense courage, solidarity, and work ethic of Tominianers and congratulated them on raising their children with these values. He congratulated the children as well on their ability to capture the richness of their culture and to share it with Malians and Americans. He said that the Visual Griots project could have gone into a rich neighborhood in Bamako and come back with pictures of villas and driveways full of fancy cars, but, he added, what would these images truly represent?

At the end of the evening (in an attempt at brevity I’m skipping the part where I was not only presented with a traditional handspun cotton Bwa tunic, but dressed in it and asked to dance with the whole crowd) one of the Bamako Tominianers drove me back to my hotel in his Mercedes. “You know what ATT (their abbreviation for the President of Mali) said about the villa and the fancy car?” he said to me. “I live in one of those villas and I’m driving you to your hotel in one of those fancy cars, but I come from the place where those children’s photos were taken. I can’t walk away from seeing those photos and listening to our President . . . and not begin to think about doing something myself for my village. We the professional Tominianers in Bamako can now “faire la politique” (lobby?) so that maybe even a road can be constructed that will further the development of the region.”

This night was full of such encounters. Sure, talk is talk, but people were bursting with pride at being Bwa, they were talking to each other and lifting each other up, and it won't surprise me if it leads to other developments. I’ve never felt so lucky to be part of such a project. Honestly, tonight was probably the most fulfilling moment yet on this long road. You ask yourself all along the way about the real impact that the project will have and then you end with a night like tonight.

Benjamin Diarra, one of the older men from the school administration that helped us during the workshop back in 2005 told me tonight, “Shawn, little by little a bird builds its nest. But the bird must keep being a bird because that’s what he is. If the bird tries to be something it isn’t, if it tries to pass itself off as a frog ie’s never going to finish it's nest. So keep being yourself and working on this project and pretty soon you’ll find that you’ve built a nest and that its full of eggs.”

I'm going to sleep on that now. It's 2:50 a.m!


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