20 years of community work – an interview with Mariama Bah

You may have seen her on TV, heard her on the radio or read about her in the newspapers. This summer, we interviewed Mariama Bah. A committed woman concerned about female genital mutilation. Shw has been in charge of the Community Voices pool since January 2022. Her struggle, however, dates back much longer. Together, we will take stock of these first months of work at GAMS Belgium, the 10 years of the programme and we look back on part of her personal journey.

What is your connection with GAMS Belgium?

My history with GAMS Belgium is a long one. I first came to know GAMS Belgium as an organisation that helped me to save my daughters from excision and to get them out of my country, Guinee, in order to save them. When we arrived here in Belgium, GAMS Belgium helped us a lot in our integration. I often took part in the activities proposed, such as the Last Friday of the Month and the 8 of March events, and my daughters in the activities for the children. For months I was here every fortnight and then I had a break because I also had to attend courses and training as part of my integration process. But I always kept in touch with its members, especially Fabienne Richard, the director, who was always there for me in difficult moments. I am also thinking of Carolina and Annalisa at the Brussels office and others, such as Halimatou Barry, former coordinator in Wallonia.

A little over two years ago, I contacted Fabienne to tell her that I wanted to change course. I studied management in Guinee. I have a master’s degree but I had difficulties finding a job in this field, even though I obtained my equivalence. Fabienne advised me to contact the Centre Bruxellois d’Action Interculturelle (CBAI), which offers a two-year training course to become an intercultural development and mediation agent.

I asked around, applied and was accepted. As part of the training, you not only had practical training but you also had to do internships. This led me to the Maison des femmes de Molenbeek, which is a service of the association “mouvement pour le vivre-ensemble: MOVE”, where I developed a project on life stories with a group of women. This experience was very enriching and also facilitated my arrival at GAMS because it corresponded for me to the moment when I finished the project and the position of Community Voices Officer was opened. So I didn’t hesitate to apply. Three days later I had my interview. It went well and here I am.

It’s a long journey where you were originally a beneficiary of GAMS services before being employed there, how do you feel about this change of perspective?

Indeed, even if I did my psychological follow-up elsewhere, I had a social follow-up with my now colleague, Carolina. When I arrived here as a beneficiary and I saw how the team worked, it made me want to work with them. But at that time, it wasn’t possible. Since the job search pushed me to reorientate myself towards social work, didn’t hesitate for a moment to apply. It’s true that the change of status changes a lot of things. I no longer have the same position. Before I was one of those who asked for help and now I am the one who gives it. The fact that I have been there as a beneficiary makes me understand the requests well and I can put myself in their shoes more easily.

Can you explain your work as a leader?

I am in charge of the “Community Voices” pool, which is one of GAMS’ pillar projects. The peer educators are the voices of the programme. They are people from the communities concerned: men and women who have already aware on the issue of FGM and who understand the usefulness and urgency of the fight for its abolition.

My role is to coordinate the training of peer educators and to equip them to act and raise awareness and informative events within their communities, whether individually or collectively. We also equip them to accompany newcomers affected by FGM, for example, to travel in the city by metro to go to a medical appointment. They can also just be a moral support or do intercultural mediation. They know their community, know how communication works with their cultural codes. They help to better contextualise certain situations with professionals and help the person being supported to better understand Belgian structures and institutions and the support offered by professionals.

This programme has been running for 10 years. How has it evolved?

Indeed, this programme has existed since 2012. The former colleague who was in charge of the peer educators since 2015, Seydou, left GAMS at the end of August 2020 so I had to reorganise everything at the beginning of 2022 when I arrived. It waa a challenge I liked. My role is not only to train but also to maintain the relationship between GAMS and the community workers. Training is continuous. This means doing quarterly supervisions and also listening to feedbacks and remarks to adapt the training according to the difficulties encountered. It is also important to allow them to be constantly equipped and to be able to face all types of situations.

Today, the strength of the project is to be able to offer continuous training and maintain links with volunteers, is that right?

Yes, because it is easier to report the difficulties encountered and organise events. We would like the peer educators to be able to participate more actively in GAMS’ activities. They are the bridge between the association and the communities. They do crucial work to raise awareness and transmit the message that excision must be abolished and fought against.

Initially, the volunteers do not always understand the complexity of the consequences of excision. Each person affected by excision has their own particular suffering, which must be legitimised. This training allows them to realise, for example, that certain problems in their sexual life are linked to excision. As a result, thanks to the strength of the group, it is easier to deconstruct, to explain the consequences, to give concrete examples based on real life experiences and not on “hear say”, and so to better understand the danger to which women are exposed.

What difficulties can be encountered in training?

Above all, it is the awakening of the traumatic memory. Even in cases where women have done work on their pain and trauma, the training can awaken them and it is sometimes difficult to deal with this. The psychological and medical aspects of the training make us aware of some of our problems related to FGM.

The other difficulty is to reconnect with the elders. As I explained, the programme has been running since 2012. In some cases, the relationship was cut off and Covid has also complicated things.

We must not forget that this is not a paid job, only compensated by a volunteer allowance. The peer educators, have to, like everyone else, think about feeding themselves and it often happens that once they find a job, they are much less available. For all these reasons, it is important to renew the training every two years to maintain a pool of volunteers and continue the work in the field.

It’s cyclical. I suppose that, depending on their situation and their life path, some people also need, at some point, to detach themselves from that part of their history. What do you think about that?

Absolutely. It is not easy to bring up the trauma all the time, however, it is also part of the process of liberation and healing. At the same time, when you help other women to come out of their silence and the difficulties they face, it reinforces and helps you to face your own trauma. It’s true that at some point it is normal to say  that you have done your part and that you need to move on. Then there are people like me, for whom it has given the meaning to continue. That’s why there are some who sometimes work in the sector as a community facilitator. We also have the example of Diariou Sow, who has also been a beneficiary, an peer educator, then a member of the board of directors and now she is the president of GAMS.

Among the new recruits for 2022, there are 27 people, namely 16 relays for Brussels and Wallonia and 11 for Flanders. Were there any nice surprises during the training that you would like to share with us?

At the end of the training, we asked our new recruits to present an outreach project. Some of them submitted projects that we intend to support and accompany. I would support the peer educators throughout the process. All the volunteers showed impressive commitment and investment.

Other good news: some have been taken on as interns for the Network of concerted strategies to fight FGM and will be called for the community diagnosis in Wallonia. There are real prospects for collaboration. Depending on the activities proposed at GAMS, we will see how to further involve our new and old recruits.

If volunteers were to leave with one piece of information, what would it be?

You would have to ask them. For me, according to the feedback I’ve heard, it’s to fight to the end to eradicate this practice and to actively participate in the fight for the abolition of female genital mutilation.

Your wish for the next volunteers?

My wish is to recruit volunteers who are just as committed and proactive as those in 2022. I would also like to organise more events with the communities concerned and co-construction with the volunteers.

A date for the next edition?

We will first focus on all the projects proposed by our new volunteers and renew the relationship with the former ones, create exchanges between the different classes before proposing a new training. We will therefore have to wait until the end of 2023 or the beginning of 2024 for a new edition but I can already tell you that the registration list is long.

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