Nutrition Conference and Forced Hindsight

This story is a month old but due to some internet failures and travel craziness I haven't been able to post it in a timely manner. So we can all pretend that it is still late July...



Filen, Seko ni Donko am Balokonyuman

Le Bol Communal, L’Art et Une Meilleure Nutrition

The Communal Bowl Conference, The Arts and Improving Nutrition


                  Our conference took place this past Wednesday and, as was to be expected, addressed some interesting questions about both Malian malnutrition and the nature of doing “development work” in this country. The idea was to invite both local and international NGOs to a day-long conference here at Yeredon where they would collaborate with Malian artists to brainstorm possible future projects dealing with malnutrition here. In terms of NGOs, we invited Project MUSO, the Mali Health Organizing Project, Madame Togo (the director of an orphan dance group), and Dr. Akory IKNANE. Dr Akory IKNANE is a leading nutritionist in Mali and works for the INRSP, the main public health body here. The artists attending included

·       Joni Sissoko, a composer and arranger who is famous for his collaboration with Viviane Seck

·        Baisa Diallo, the director of the internationally recognized dance group Troupe District du Bamako

·       Issiaka Kone, comedian and internationally known actor

·        Troupe Fakoli, a traditional drum and dance group

·       Papi “Pap Coul” Coulibaly, a young rapper who presented a rap he’d written about the social responsibility of young people in Bamako and how imperative it is to stand up for what you believe in

There were also other dancers, singers, musicians, actors, and comedians in attendance, but these were some of the most vocal ones. The day began with everyone trickling into Yeredon for breakfast around 10 in the morning. It was really incredible to watch the social hour before the conference even began because the truth of the matter is that NGOs and artists would not meet each other in many other circumstances. Development workers and artists don’t really have overlapping social circles here. After everyone had eaten, we all went upstairs to the dance studio to listen to some ngoni playing and then to begin the introductions to the conference. Sekou Camara served as the English/French/Bambara moderator and began by explaining the goals of the day and introducing the participants to one another more formally. Dr. Akory, our keynote speaker, then began his address.

A brief summary of his message: Malnutrition in Mali is both an issue of resources and of education, but the educational issue is more pressing. This is demonstrated by the fact that even rich people in Mali are malnourished because they simply do not eat nutritious food. For example, there was a study done here in Bamako on school-age kids of different socioeconomic groups. The richer kids would buy croissants for snacks and the poorer kids would buy benye (fried millet dough) for snacks. While neither of these is particularly nutritious, it was found that the kids eating benye actually had better nutritional levels. Although money is an issue here in terms of food, Dr. Akory suggested that education is of equal if not more importance. Another interesting point of the lecture had to do with clinical psychology. The word for malnutrition in Bambara, balokojuguya, literally translates to “not giving good food” or “not giving kids the right food,” and therefore is often taken by women as an attack on their mothering skills. Malnutrition is, therefore, very hard to address in Bamanakan without offending women. Paradoxically, however, it is the women who have some of the greatest power to change their families’ nutritional habits because they are traditionally charged with buying and/or making the food.  Dr. Akory therefore said that one of the greatest contributions that artists could make to the national fight against malnutrition would be to come up with a better word for the issue in Bamanakan and then publicize this new perspective using artistic tools such as comedy and song.

Dr. Akory’s speech was followed by a Q&A session. One of the female comedians present stood up and said that she understood what Dr. Akory was saying about malnutrition being a derogatory term towards women here, but that she felt that women should be accepting a large portion of the blame for the issue due to their traditional roles. She went on to explain how she had been married and then had to divorce because her husband’s family did not support her in her career. The question she had raised, though, was a very provocative one for me as a Westerner and “feminist” here in Mali; Is it fair, or more effective, or both, to deal exclusively with women when addressing issues such as malnutrition? Blame is going to be placed either way on SOMEONE, but how can it be?

Anyway, the day continued with the artists and NGOs brainstorming in groups, followed by lunch. After lunch, Pap Coul Coulibaly performed his rap about mobilizing local youth to fight for their beliefs. Watching the participants during this performance was incredible. I feel that in adults in the US often see rap as the hobby of young delinquents, or just noise. At this conference, however, the adults clearly viewed rap and Pap Coul as a vital tool to engage youth in social initiatives. All of the attendees were swaying to beat and just beaming with pride and excitement at the amazing message and beat Pap Coul had created (he really is incredible, look him up on YouTube). Sekou then facilitated a large group brainstorming session of specific actions these newly found partnerships  and friendships could take. Some ideas that came out of the session were a traveling caravan theater group that would go to villages and perform on the theme of malnutrition, more television broadcasts creatively addressing the issue, and using artists as the follow-up community health workers for some of the medical NGOs work, thus capitalizing on local trust in the arts and distrust in doctors. The day ended with closing remarks from Seydou Coulibaly and closing interviews and surveys.

It was a long day, we departed from our announced schedule, we had to rework some parts of the day at the last minute, but I am really excited and happy about the outcome. I think that some really important and relevant messages were imparted to the artists for their future work and that the NGOs really began to think about the prominent role that the arts could play in their work. Mali is in a unique position because the arts really do have social significance here and mobilize people more than anything else. The United States does have a thriving scene in terms of using the arts for social change, but economics definitely take precedence in terms of mobilizing people to do things. Here, however, the arts and economics are more interwoven because the arts ARE Mali’s primary export. As a dancer interested in public health and social development, this is a really exciting culture to be working with. Yeredon is now considering having monthly or quarterly workshops for local artists to learn about different social issues here in Mali so that they can create work to address problems relevant to daily life here. I feel so lucky to have gotten to participate in the joining of NGOs and artists here, and I can’t wait to here how the ideas expressed at the conference take shape in the future.