Playing Telephone in Senegal: Installment #2

So what were we doing there anyway?

My colleague Hector Aristizábal (seen here with the gift Anta made for him using pebbles and sand)

Hector with Anta's giftwas facilitating a training session for people developing their skills as Forum Theater Jokers. Ummm, so what’s that?

Here’s a quick oversimplification: Forum Theater is one of the most important components of Theater of the Oppressed, a set of techniques created by the late Brazilian theater artist and activist Augusto Boal. The idea is that a community–in particular a marginalized or oppressed community–can use theater to explore and make visible negative conditions in their lives, seek alternatives, and explore possible consequences of different courses of action. The Joker functions as the facilitator, the director, playwright during the development of the play which emerges from the community itself through improvisations. The play always ends badly. The Joker then invites audience members to leave off being spectators and to become, instead, “spect-actors”–that is, anyone in the audience can come up onstage, replace an actor, and intervene in the action by trying out different words or behavior to see if a better outcome can be achieved. While remaining neutral and not imposing his/her own point of view, the Joker leads the audience in analyzing the interventions that are presented.

Mouhamadou Diol,


who invited us to Senegal and therefore gets my most sincere thank you, is the Joker for the Dakar-based company Kaddu Yaraax.

Kim works with people with disabilities in the Netherlands and wants to bring theater techniques to her work. Here, Dior is turning her into a Senegalese woman with braids.)

Kim gets braids from Dior

(I was sorry to hear from Kim that deep cutbacks are threatening the social programs that have provided such a strong safety net in her country for decades.)

Tiel is a friend and supporter of Sekou Odinga, imprisoned for 33 years for his role in the Black Liberation Army and the prison escape of Assata Shakur. He was freed in November and Tiel carried his story (and many T-shirts showing his face) with her. Children always flocked to her. Tiel made friends with everyone and taped shouts of support for Sekou that she would bring back to the US to share with him.

Tiel Be Sekou (Odinga)

I was very happy to meet Jamilah, from Oakland, who it turned out was instrumental in some of the programs I’ve learned about and so admire to reform school discipline practices in California. Jamilah and Thierno (who stayed with us but is from the village and was our connection to the community) connected right away

T & J happy

as she did, as well, with the kids.

laughing Jamillah carrying child on back

Carmen left LA last year to return to Spain, where she committed herself to grassroots activism in her hometown of Palencia.

Carmen writing She held the portfolio for arts and culture for the progressive association she helped get off the ground. While we were in Africa, she learned she’d been elected to one of 25 seats on the Palencia City Council.

Babacar has 30 years experience as a theater director in Senegal. He said he always told actors where to stand, where to move, what to say. In the workshops, he said he learned to trust the actors to use their own creativity to live their roles.

Babacar taking notes

Babacar says to him the most precious thing in life is freedom.

Marie Ngom was an invaluable addition to the group and much admired by me. If there’s a better example of a strong and independent woman, a Senegalese feminist, show her to me because she’d have to be Marie’s twin.

Marie A visual artist, I don’t think Marie had a lot of theater experience, but she has vision and intelligence. She did a great job advancing the creation of our play the day she served as Joker. And we, especially the women, relied on her for Wolof-French translations. Merci, Marie, et jërejëff.

When I did a (non-theater) exercise asking people to invent a magical product that could solve a social problem, Marie invented this microphone that speaks the words of people who’ve been silenced.

ta voix

Fax drew a torch that would bring peace and forgiveness to our world in conflict. It sells for the price of will and courage.

Fax's invention

Antonio, a superb photographer so that I wish you were looking at his photos rather than mine, came to us from Italy. He also lived for years in Uruguay so I sometimes lapsed into Spanish with him making the language situation more complicated still. (Thanks for this photo, Kim Potter.)


He also liked to bargain with vendors.

fruits and trinkets

You met Marianne in the first installment. Dare I mention she is a psychiatrist!?!?! And one with years of experience as a circus performer. She’s been with activist projects around the world, recently with the Freedom Bus in Palestine.

Marianne writing

There seem to be a lot of photos of people writing. We also had time for relaxation. Dior in the hammock.

Dior in hammock
Moustapha thought he was there as an observer to film documentary footage but was quickly induced to be a full participant. Here he’s preparing tea during a break.

Moustapha prepares tea

Adama, charismatic actor, musician, theater director, was the only one in the group without previous experience with Theater of the Oppressed.


In addition to working with his company, SantiyAllah (probably misspelled, the name means Thanks to Allah), he travels the country to work with children and youth and he thought TO techniques would be valuable. We spent a lot of time together. His intellectual curiosity meant he wanted to learn everything, and then some.

The language barrier kept me from getting to know Ndoumbè well till the very end when I learned more and was deeply moved by her story and her courage.


Dame (pronounced Dahm). He attended a Koranic school so his education was in Arabic. He learned his excellent French and his growing knowledge of English by looking words up in the dictionary and practicing. He has a great sense of humor and the most provocative dance moves. (Senegalese youth have copied crotch-grabbing from US music videos. It’s considered as vulgar there as it is here and as impossible to stop!)

Dame 2

Of course, many more people: Pape Sidy (whose name, until I saw it spelled, I heard as Vassily). Here he is as Joker, preparing to direct a scene.

Pape Sidy directing (2)

So many more new friends including Anta, Aminata, Adi, Cheik, Leity, and more. Here’s just a few.

Anta in Shadow

Power Girl

Adi - better picture

Many of the Senegalese use theater for HIV/AIDS education and prevention. Senegal 101

But I was supposed to be writing about the play. For about a week we talked about issues and the community and did multiple improvisations about the issues that emerged.

an improvisationLots of gender issues: sexual double standards, rejection and stigmatization of women who don’t get pregnant, polygamy. In Toubab Dialaw, a fishing village, there are also issues about the economic exploitation of the fishermen by the boat owners.

fisherman perf

Finally, this is what we came up with. A young woman loves a poor fisherman who works alongside her uncle. The boat owner is cheating the workers but slips extra money to the uncle because he wants to marry the girl. The arranged marriage takes place, everyone happy except the bride.


The new husband is cold and angry when he discovers his wife is not a virgin. On top of that, she doesn’t get pregnant. The marriage is unhappy but the uncle and mother want her to remain with her husband and the mother prepares a potion and steps to take so her daughter can conceive a child and create a better marriage.

In the meantime, the boat owner is looking for a second wife for a legal polygamous marriage.

The union organizer has been talking to the fishermen. The real life organizer for the fishermen’s union attended a rehearsal to make comments and make sure the actors understood the actual issues and content. Here:

fishermen's union organizer

Here he observes and comments on the improvisation.

improv under eyes of union man

The fisherman who loved the girl joins the union and tries to convince others. Another is uncertain. The uncle, who is deriving benefit from the boat owner, is completely against the union. But the boat owner is angry at the union drive and at the girl’s whole family and fires all three fishermen.

He then takes the young woman he wants for a second wife to his home. There he is discovered by his first wife and her mother. The first wife pours the potion over his head in disgust. Her mother is torn between berating her son-in-law and placating him.

Dior pours water

We ended it there with the actors freezing. The audience could then intervene in the action at any point — in the relationship, in the issues involving the fishermen.

Development and rehearsals took play in three languages with us internationals playing some roles. Performances were in Wolof only and performed only by Senegalese.

We walked north through the village to the first performance.

boys play with tires

boys playing fussball

corner store

horse cart, motorcycle, goats


quartierSenegal 344

I am so fond of goats.

me with goats

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The stage was a weathered concrete platform outside a community training center. Children came by the dozens and Adam played Pied Piper till the show began.

The audience: audience

This boy found a good vantage point. watching from fence

first performance

Interventions were in Wolof. Here’s the first brave spect-actor to come up from the audience, but I don’t know what she proposed.

first intervention

We could have used more adults in the audience! We really needed to have spoken ahead of time with the local chief and local imam or marabout.

For the second performance, the next evening, in the south village, we should have taken the inland route. Instead we climbed over rocks and waded through tide pools in the Atlantic. My camera was tucked safely away so I didn’t not record our somewhat frantic scramble.

Senegal 418

Again, the children danced and rushed onto the stage before the show began.

child and drum

children dancing onstage goats in background

children dancing 2

children at 2

Hector likes a performance to move quickly, get right into the action, but the Senegalese like to introduce characters and address the audience before getting started. Watch!It really makes sense that way when it’s not as though people have tickets and take their seats when the lights go down.

Here, even more than the first performance, I gained such appreciation for the Senegalese actors. Performing in the open air, they can’t miss a beat when children and goats cross the stage.a little better with goatchildren and goats may wander onto stage

When a child chooses to watch from a tree in the middle of the stage. watching from treeOr when a horse cart cuts through the audience to make a delivery. and then a horse wagon comes through

Some scenes: aminata and adam

Anta's scene

first scene

Here comes an intervention:

An audience member comes up to change the scene

Not only did she intervene in the action, she tried to move the kids back from the stage area.


not only did she intervene

I understood from the translation that this woman intervened to tell the husband it might be his fault that his wife could not get pregnant. When a man mistreats his wife, the stress may make it impossible for her to conceive.

Four young women consulted together before one came onstage and proceeded to beat the actress playing the second wife. She had to be restrained. As Diol put it later, they were sending a message to the men of the village, making their opposition to polygamy very clear. Though we didn’t have many adults in the audience, Diol thought this intervention would be the main topic of conversation in town the next day.

Our last full day in Toubab Dialaw a drowned child washed up just steps from our house. Later that day, one of the wonderful women who cooked for us was possessed by a spirit and went into a trance. I will write about these events more seriously and in (I hope) more depth when I collaborate with Moustapha on our intercultural essay.

The next day, we prepared to leave. Some people departed early, needing to be back at their jobs. It felt so sudden and so very sad, breaking up the creative village we had made together.

Next installment. Thierno and Adama accompany me and Jamillah in Dakar.

First, I’ll include some more photos here. This little girl, related to Anta–oh, that face. She was so dramatic, so compelling, I could have taken pictures of her all day. But to be fair, I’ll close today’s installment with pictures of some other beautiful children.

oh that face


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girl in red and fingers

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boy on bench

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3 Responses to “Playing Telephone in Senegal: Installment #2”

  1. Carol A. Hand Says:

    A truly engaging account of respectful and inclusive community work with such a diverse and incredibly talented and committed team – and lovely, endearing photos of children! I so look forward to the next installments 🙂

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