Sister Fa, on Senegal, her Hip Hop Career and "Education sans Excision"
Kunst, 8 Apr 2011
Sister Fa

With eyes fixated on the hotel lobby TV, Sister Fa looks at me and apologises for losing her thought, but still her eyes wander back to the images of the March 2011 earthquake in Japan. Even though Sister Fa has experienced her own pain, she is so taken with the struggling of others that we turn the TV off to continue talking.
Seeing any form of injustice in the world is what has fueled Sister Fa's drive as an award-winning hip hop artist, and so the compassion for those on the screen beside us is no surprise.

Born in Dakar in 1982, Sister Fa gravitated to hip hop because it “fit my character” and she was surrounded by it growing up in Senegal, she said in an interview in The Hague, Netherlands. Hip hop gave her the ideal platform to voice her thoughts and opinions on social and political issues. Traditionally, music in Senegal is of a style known as Mbalax, a mix of Western music styles, such as soul, mixed with sabar, the traditional Senegalese drumming and dance music. But, Sister Fa felt Mbalax wasn’t critical enough and didn’t address the issues she cared about.

A challenge Sister Fa faced was not only entering the hip hop industry as a new artist, but also as a woman. She had to fund her own career because people found investing in women risky. Her hard work and gamble paid off: She put out a solo album in 2005 and no other solo female acts have followed. Fatou Diatta, her real name, wanted to include the word “Sister” in her stage name because she’s proud of being a female in a male-dominated field.

Sister Fa Her first releases were on issues such as illegal immigration, AIDS, and human rights. But, female genital mutilation was the most personal issue for Sister Fa. It soon began to play a role in her music.

At roughly three years old Sister Fa was told by her aunt that they were going to visit family. The little girl soon found herself at a house filled with other young girls of the area who had all been gathered for the Niaaka ceremony, the traditional ceremony of female genital mutilation. At the time, it was common for people living in Dakar, who were from the south of Senegal, where female genital mutilation is practiced, to have their uncut daughters of similar age, all attend the same ceremony. Of the experience, Sister Fa says, “I remember the pain and the blood”. While she knew it was not malicious and her family had taken her there as dictated by tradition, Sister Fa realised as she entered her teenage years that although traditional, FGM, as it is known, should no longer have a place in women's lives.

According to the World Health Organisation, there are an estimated 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide who are currently living with the consequences of FGM.

With a history dating back to Egypt in the 2nd century B.C., female genital mutilation today is still practiced in many nations worldwide, including some in West Africa. The ceremony is deeply rooted in tradition and so Sister Fa understands the importance of how she communicates to locals and to explain that she wants to stop mutilation for the health and safety for young girls. Sister Fa also faces the task of educating men about FGM. Many men feel that women whose genitals haven’t been cut are unclean and more likely to be unfaithful. As a result, women continue to have their daughters cut so they won’t be ostracized.

It is a ceremony performed by women, on women, who then pass the tradition on when they have their own daughters. As a result, FGM is often considered by men to be a “woman’s problem”. There is one woman who did the cutting in Sister Fa's village, with the actual degree of cutting decided by each village themselves. The challenge for Sister Fa is changing the stigma that only cut girls are clean. She also is trying to change the perception that the women who do the actual cutting are considered to have a prestigious and honourable role in the community.

After moving to Germany with her Austrian husband, Lukas, she began to experience loneliness and homesickness, which gave her time to reflect and think about issues important to her, including her own mutilation. She found singing about her experience helped her work through the pain. Realising the importance of the issue, in 2007 Sister Fa came out with her first song on the subject, Mutilation. She traveled to Senegal to perform and although a powerful message, the song was not well received. The word “mutilation” was too strong and insulted people who accept the practice and don’t believe it is mutilation. Sister Fa traveled back to Germany and began re-working the title. What evolved was not only a new title, but a new project: “Education sans Excision”, or Education without Cutting. Created in 2008, Education without Cutting focuses on raising awareness through music and workshops. Although Senegal created a law against cutting in 1999, it is hard to enforce and so Sister Fa wanted to add her voice.

Sister Fa in Thionck EssylWith her band, who she met in Germany, Sister Fa wanted to travel back to her native Senegal, to the Thionck Essyl region where she had lived as a child, to discuss the importance of stopping FGM. It was a year-long process to set-up her return to bring light to a topic nobody discussed. In Senegal she met with local mayors, midwives and NGOs to gather support for her project. If she was going to succeed where others had not, she would need to communicate differently with the villagers, and so she also worked with communication specialists. She also financed her trip herself to remain independent of outside interests.

Rather than telling villagers outright to stop the practice, Sister Fa educated about the dangers of genital mutilation and the misconceptions of the tradition. She also worked with local communities to find ways of still maintaining cultural and social norms, while removing the practice of cutting.

After the series of concerts, meeting and lectures Sister Fa held in her home region, the women of Thionck Essyl, decided that they would stop. It has now been 2 years since the village’s declaration and there have been no reported cases. While Sister Fa continues to work with the region locally, she realises that she also faces battles overseas. Senegalese women living abroad still continue to practice genital mutilation to ensure their daughters are not different from others, should they return to Senegal.

The future sees Sister Fa continuing to work on her Education without Cutting project, and also working with other artists and meeting with organisations like the UN, Amnesty International and UNICEF about other issues affecting Senegal. Her work is also reaching wider audiences through events like the Movies That Matter Film Festival in the Hague, which screened the film Sarabah in March about Sister Fa’s efforts to end female genital mutilation. (Sarabah trailer on TouTube.) The film also won a Golden Butterfly, A Matter of ACT Documentary Award that is awarded to the director of the best film in the ACT program, films presented by Amnesty International on prominent activists.

As a mother and wife, Sister Fa has many people’s voices and futures that she considers in the work she is doing. It is most likely how she communicates and the connection other women feel to her that allows her messages to be heard so effectively and to be a role model to so many other females. Sister Fa’s music and strength have already changed the future for the girls of Thionck Essyl and as she says in Sarabah, “It’s easier to talk to young people because their ears are still very open.” Let’s hope her message is being heard loud and clear by everyone.
Sarah Taylor

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Sister Fa

Movies that Matter Festival

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