Singing the Unsayable: Female Performers and Global Health in The Gambia
McConnell, Bonnie Bree
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Female performers in the Muslim West African context of The Gambia have become an integral part of the public health landscape. The Ministry of Health and Social Welfare as well as numerous non-governmental organizations incorporate musical performances in health promotion campaigns in an attempt to disseminate information in ways that are culturally appropriate, gender-sensitive, and ultimately more effective. Based on 17 months of ethnographic research and 19 months spent working in the areas of HIV/AIDS prevention and care in The Gambia, this medical ethnomusicological study examines women’s performances as a form of “traditional communication” defined by adaptability and innovation. It focuses in particular on the performances of Gambian Mandinka kanyeleng groups (women’s fertility societies) and the songs of Fatou Ceesay and the Allatentu Support Band, a popular music group associated with a Gambian HIV/AIDS support society. Employing methodological approaches of performance ethnography, this dissertation interrogates the ways in which female performers negotiate local ideas about gender roles and Islam as well as the political economy of international development. Gambian women’s performances represent a crucial health intervention in a context of extremely limited government resources, rising wealth disparities and a growing chronic disease burden. At the same time, contemporary political and economic realities place additional strain on female performers as they take on new responsibilities while maintaining longstanding practices of health performance grounded in relations of reciprocity. This study finds that even as they communicate information about particular physical ailments, women use musical performance to address the social relationships that shape physical and psychological illness, health and healing. Drawing on Mandinka concepts of baadinyaa and sanawuyaa to position themselves within new arenas of health promotion, performers address sensitive health topics, foster participation, and promote memory as well as social and emotional engagement.
- Music