Wednesday, December 29, 2010

From Bamako to Kolda: 54 Malian Representatives Take Part in the Public Declaration in Kolda, Senegal

Story by Claire Constant, Tostan Volunteer in Bamako, Mali

On the 28th of November, a very special event happened in Kolda, Senegal. Representatives from over 700 villages of this southern region of the country gathered to publicly declare their commitment to abandon harmful practices such as female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage.
As a volunteer in Tostan’s Bamako office, I accompanied representatives from the Malian government and from Tostan partner NGOs, as well as religious leaders, Community Management Committee (CMC) coordinators, and community members on the long journey to Kolda.
Tostan's National Coordinator in Mali, Abou Amel Camara, his Assistant, Dieynaba Diallo Diop, and I traveled to villages in Mali where Tostan implements the Community Empowerment Program (CEP) to inform participants that they had been invited by their Senegalese neighbors to attend the declaration. The communities democratically chose representatives for the trip to Senegal.

At the declaration, seeing new dances and hearing different rhythms and songs was a highlight for the Malian participants. Oumou Coulibaly, one of Tostan’s facilitators in the Koulikoro area who had never visited the southern region of Senegal, was particularly happy to discover a different culture and be able to see such lively and joyful performances. “We were all very happy to meet with new people, to discover traditional dances that we had never seen before. Overall, being able to talk to people from different cultures, and to march with them here in Kolda as a family, made us all very happy,” she said.

The public reading of the declaration in three languages─French, Pulaar and Mandika—was a moving moment. “I was particularly impressed by the content of the declaration itself,” said Dieynaba Traoré, a participant from Sendo, Mali, a village in the Koulikoro area where Tostan works. “It was probably the most remarkable moment for me, and I will remember it for a long time.”
On the way back to Mali, despite fatigue, everyone reflected on the busy weekend. As their communities’ chosen representatives, the members of the Malian delegation now have the important responsibility to share their experience with their friends and families. This is a task that they take seriously. “Now that I have attended this declaration, I believe that one day, Malian communities will do the same,” stated Minata Diarra from the village of Fégoun. “It is so very important that I share what I saw with people from my community,” she said.

Photos by Claire Constant: Top- the delegation from Mali marches to the public declaration. Middle- Tostan's National Coordinator in Mali tells CEP participants they have been invited to the grand event. Below- members of the Malian delegation at the declaration.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The village of Tankanto Mauondé, Senegal: A Village of Activists

Story by Caitlin Snyder, Tostan Volunteer in Kolda, Senegal

Rich in tradition, the village of Tankanto Mauondé prides itself on a history that spans over 400 years. These villagers speak with even more pride, however, when they discuss the future of their daughters. The next generation of girls will grow up in a community which has declared to abandon female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage.

Takanto Mauondé was once a community of Fulani farmers who cultivated rice, maize, and peanuts, crops which once constituted the main source of revenue for the original 700 inhabitants. Today, the most important value in the village is that of teranga, or Senegalese hospitality. A strong interest in the well being of others is reflected in the character of the villagers and it is this interest that influenced their participation in the Tostan program. After Tostan began implementing the Community Empowerment Program (CEP) in the community in 2008, the 76 participants – 66 women and eight adolescents – responded enthusiastically to the lessons on health and human rights. Women created a Community Management Committee (CMC), a group of 17 democratically elected individuals, and initiated awareness-raising campaigns to introduce nearby villages to the negative effects of harmful traditional practices. 

Boubakry Baldé, the husband of a CMC member, described the committee’s work: “We have seen many changes in mentality in the village and there is now greater potential for the development of young girls.” Today, the villagers speak about the importance of sending children to school, and they proudly insist that no girl will be forced to quit school due to an early marriage.

“It’s the women who took the initiative,” said the village chief’s representative. Today, women have a more central role in the village. “Before, women didn’t speak during meetings,” recalled Fatoumata Baldé, the coordinator of the CMC. “Now, even during baptism ceremonies, marriage celebrations, and religious events, women are involved in the decisions.” 

The changes brought about by the CMC are extraordinary. The CMC initiated a dialogue on the importance of birth registration as well as registering children for school. Women have won respect and now have the full support of everyone in Tankanto Mauondé, from the village chief to religious leaders.

Thanks to knowledge gained in the areas of mathematics and project management during the Tostan program, the CMC leads income generating activities such as selling vegetables and dried fish. Entrepreneurs meet two times a month to calculate their expenses and the benefits of their sales. They speak with enthusiasm regarding projects they will begin in the coming year.

The community’s decision to abandon harmful traditional practices ─ which they shared with the world in a grand declaration held on November 28th ─ shows a strong wish to preserve the health and the rights of their daughters. According to Mamoudou Baldé, “We will show the government, neighboring communities, and other countries that we have decided to abandon FGC and child/forced marriage.” On the 28th of November, the village of Tankanto Mauondé was one of 700 villages investing in the future of every girl in Senegal. 

Photos by Caitlin Snyder


Monday, December 20, 2010

91 Villages in Wack Ngouna, Senegal Abandon FGC Thanks to the Power of Social Mobilization

Story by Sydney Skov, Tostan Volunteer in Dakar, Senegal.

In the village of Wack Ngouna, I watched as dust spiraled up from the quick steps of countless dancing feet.

Celebrating a collective decision which will effectively change the future for girls in Wack Ngouna, a district near Kaolack, Senegal, hundreds gathered to watch as representatives from 91 communities shared with the nation their decision to abandon female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage

As I listened to local dignitaries speak, sharing their enthusiasm for Tostan and for the future of women and girls in the surrounding communities, I realized the magnitude of this public declaration. While a much smaller event than the giant public declaration in Kolda last month during which 700 communities declared abandonment of FGC, this declaration was particularly powerful because none of the 91 declaring villages had taken part in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP), a 30-month, holistic education program teaching human rights, democracy, health, hygiene, and literacy, among other subjects. 

The villages of Wack Ngouna are proof of an incredible feat of community-led development: social mobilization. A group of five Community Management Committee (CMC) members – individuals who have been elected as leaders within their respective communities – was led by Tostan’s Ousmane Ndiaye and Marietou Diarrou, responsible for social mobilization in the Kaolack region. The team traveled from village to village, sharing knowledge they had gained from the Tostan program with other communities while encouraging village leaders to address issues of women’s rights and health. This  method of social mobilization allows shared knowledge to spread from one village to the next, creating a web of communities connected by the understanding that harmful traditional practices undermine the health and human rights of women and girls.

Skits performed by local youth during the celebration in Wack Ngouna illustrated their understanding of the negative effects of FGC and child marriage. One skit portrayed a 12 year old girl who was to be married to an older man in exchange for a dowry. But the girl stood up in protest saying, “the money that you put in your pocket today is the happiness that you take from me tomorrow.” She then convinced her father that she should continue her education so she could one day find a good job to help the family. 

Within the last two months alone, almost 800 villages have declared their abandonment of FGC and child/forced marriage thanks to the dedication of thousands across Senegal who, by sharing knowledge and discussing ideas learned through the Tostan program, are creating positive social change. The incredible movement continues. 

Photos by Sydney Skov and Verneva Ziga. Top- members of the performance group Alalaké. Middle- The social mobilization team in Kaolack. Below- local youth perform a skit which discussed the harmful consequences of FGC.   

Friday, December 10, 2010

Additional Communities in The Gambia begin the Community Empowerment Program and Take Development into Their Own Hands.

Story by Jana Shih, Tostan Volunteer in Dakar, Senegal

I arrived in The Upper River Region (URR) three weeks ago.  As a member of Tostan International’s Monitoring and Evaluation Team, my role here has been to train local interviewers and oversee the assessment of 33 communities who are slated to begin Tostan’s holistic education program, the Community Empowerment Program (CEP), in December. The 30-month CEP, which includes modules on human rights, democracy, health and hygiene, literacy and problem solving, will give communities the tools they need to make informed decisions about their own development. 

The Gambia is the smallest country on continental Africa with a population of around one million people and a land size roughly that of Jamaica. It is ranked 168 out of 182 countries in the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Index, ranking it as one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world.  According to UNICEF (2009), 78% of The Gambia’s population practices female genital cutting and 36% of all marriages in the country are considered child or forced marriages.  Since 2006, Tostan has been working in partnership with the Gambian government to address these issues.  
During our training meetings, or “Community Situational Site Studies,” experienced Tostan supervisors interview community members about certain aspects of their village, such as infrastructure, health, education, economy, women’s empowerment, and relationships with other villages.  The Monitoring and Evaluation department will use this comprehensive baseline information when evaluating the community-wide impact of the Tostan program. 

To date, 80 communities in the URR—the the country’s poorest region—have taken part in the CEP.  This month, we will have the opportunity to celebrate alongside over 50 villages as they participate in the country’s second public declaration to collectively abandon child/forced marriage and FGC.


Photo by Katie Seward, Tostan Volunteer in The Gambia
 

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

700 Villages in Kolda, Senegal Declare Their Abandonment of FGC and Child/Forced Marriage

Story by Sydney Skov, Tostan Volunteer in Dakar, Senegal

Over 3,000 people gather in the school yard. Community Empowerment Program (CEP) participants, government officials and delegations from Guinea Bissau, The Gambia, and Mali, as well as representatives from 700 communities in the Kolda region of Senegal take their seats. I hurry to find a place in the shade of an enormous tree and sit, propped up by ancient roots. The crowd is a rainbow of color, spilling out onto the dusty ground, painting the day.

This event, complete with speeches, dances, and inspired musical performances, marks a historic change in the lives of thousands. In one of the largest public declarations the country has seen since the movement began in the village of Malicouda Bambara in 1997, communities declare their abandonment of harmful traditional practices such as female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage. Today, communities call for an end to practices that have undermined the rights of women and girls for centuries, and add their voices to the abandonment movement. A national action plan adopted by the Senegalese government looks to have the practice of FGC completely abandoned throughout the country by 2015; the thousands who have gathered today in a grand display of solidarity make it clear that this goal is within reach. 


50 young performers from local villages sing and dance for the crowd, expressing through song the harmful consequences of both FGC and child/forced marriage. Thanks to the CEP, Tostan’s 30-month human-rights based education program, communities come to understand the negative effects of certain social norms and are equipped to make their own decisions regarding change.

Tostan originally implemented the CEP in 23 villages in the Kolda region. Through impressive awareness raising activities conducted by each village’s Community Management Committee (CMC), a group of 17 elected leaders who handle everything from awareness raising activities to microcredit loans, 677 more villages learned about human rights and joined the movement to abandon FGC and child/forced marriage.
  
The declaration text is read to the gathered crowd in three languages: French, Mandinka, and Pulaar. Delegations from Mali, Guinea-Bissau, and The Gambia have arrived to attend the event and show their support for Tostan and for the movement to abandon harmful practices.

As the celebration comes to a close, the feeling of excitement doesn’t fade. Dancers in traditional costumes create an atmosphere of gaiety as communities take pride in their heritage and in the human rights education that has led them to this momentous declaration day.

To read more about the public declaration, check out the article from AFP on the incredible Kolda declaration or read the report written by Tostan volunteer Caitlin Snyder.

Photos by Sydney Skov

Find more photos from the public declaration on Flickr!   

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Festivities Begin for the Public Declaration in Kolda, Senegal

Story by Sydney Skov, Tostan Voluteer in Dakar, Senegal 

November 27— Engulfed in a singing sea of people, we dance our way into the rural village of Tankanto Mauondé near the city of Kolda, Senegal. Voices celebrating education and human rights welcome our small delegation; Tostan staff and volunteers, including myself, have arrived to take part in an afternoon of cultural activities and celebrations preceding the department-wide public declaration scheduled for tomorrow. In the morning, thousands of people from local communities will add their voices to the international movement advocating for human rights by announcing to Senegal, to Africa, and to the world their commitment to abandon harmful traditional practices such as female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage.

Khady Baldé, the vivacious president of the Tankanto Mauondé women’s association, greets us and invites us to dance (above). 

The energy of the women is infectious, the happiness pervasive. High spirits are almost louder than the clacking calabashes, the high-pitched whistles, and the pounding drums.

Young girls hold up posters proclaiming No to Female Genital Cutting, [The Village of] Tankanto Welcomes Tostan, No to Child/Forced Marriage,The Community Thanks You for Everything.

Thanks to an understanding of human rights gained from Tostan’s 30-month, holistic education program, the Community Empowerment Program (CEP), both men and women of the community have made the decision to abandon the practices of FGC and child/forced marriage

Harmful traditional practices not only undermine women’s rights, but often lead to devastating and even fatal health complications. A new generation of women and girls in this community, and in thousands of communities across Senegal, will have the opportunity to live free of the harmful effects of FGC.

Photos by Sydney Skov 


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Excitement Builds in Anticipation of Public Declaration in Kolda

Story by Sydney Skov, Tostan Volunteer in Dakar, Senegal

Equipment for the celebration makes its way 
to the village of Tankanto Mauondé in Kolda. 
 
November 26—It was a long and bumpy car ride from Dakar to the southern city of Kolda, Senegal. Two Tostan volunteers – Amma Serwaah-Panin, the Program Assistant for the Jokko Initiative, a program focusing on literacy through text messages, and myself, the Assistant to Tostan’s International Communications Team – are joining a delegation of Tostan staff from all over the country in preparation for the grand event to take place November 28: a public declaration for the abandonment of female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage.

Over 700 villages will come together this weekend to make an incredible commitment, one that will bring the country of Senegal one step closer to the total abandonment of a 2,000 year old practice which undermines the rights of women and girls. We will have the amazing opportunity to witness history in the making and to watch as over 2,000 women and men from rural communities raise their voices to help end harmful traditions.

The department-wide declaration is happening at an appropriate moment, as world leaders turn increased attention to the importance of women’s empowerment and the delicate issue of changing harmful social norms. November 25th marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and in a piece which ran in The Vancouver Sun, Hillary Clinton boldly stated that men are equally important in the effort to eliminate gender based violence. Through holistic, human-rights based education and a community-led approach, Tostan is helping to do just that: bring women and men together to change the course of history. 

It’s muggier here than in Dakar, the big city seems far away, but the atmosphere of excitement has already begun to seep into the Tostan office and into my little hotel room where I’m anxiously awaiting the festivities planned for tomorrow. A documentary filmmaker and I will be traveling to a nearby village with a group of journalists representing all facets of Senegalese news media. There, Tostan will hold a press conference in order to share details of the upcoming declaration. Tomorrow night will be a cultural celebration including music, dance, and cheer. I will continue to post on our blog as the events unfold!   

Photos by Sydney Skov: Top- preparations begin in the village of Tankanto Mauondé. Below- men and women dance together in the village as declaration day approaches. 

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Gnima Diamé, Treasurer of the Mbour Association of Ex-Cutters

Story by Matthew Manley, Tostan Volunteer in Mbour, Senegal

It has been five years since Gnima Diamé last performed female genital cutting (FGC), the trade her mother taught her.

Originally from Biñona in the Casamance region of Senegal, Gnima has been a resident of the city of Mbour since 1992, as well as the treasurer for the Mbour Association of Ex-Cutters since its formation in 2004. The organization—comprised mostly of women of Mandinka ethnicity except for Gnima who belongs to the Diola ethnic group—raises awareness about the risks associated with FGC and supports women who have abandoned careers as cutters.

The goal of the group of ex-cutters is to attain government-recognized status as an economic interest group. This status will enable the women to acquire financial assistance from government lending agencies and other sources. Other goals include implementing income-generating initiatives and developing awareness-raising programs focused on the health of young women.

For Gnima, her decision to abandon a career as a practitioner of FGC stemmed from recognizing the health hazards related to the procedure. However, abandoning her career took a leap of faith. Over the course of six months in 2004, she took classes in order to become a physician’s assistant and is now certified as a childbirth specialist. She is currently looking for a health related post in Mbour.

Gnima has four daughters and one son of her own. None of her daughters have undergone FGC, and according to Gnima, they will never feel pressured to cut their own daughters.

Monday, November 15, 2010

TRAVELOG- VISITING TOSTAN'S NEW MANDINKA VILLAGES

Story by Katie Seward, Tostan Volunteer in The Gambia 

As we ride the 30 kilometers from Kuraw Kemo to the next village of Touba Wuli, my fear of motorbikes begins to give way to exhilaration. I feign nonchalance by resting one hand on my knee in an attempt to look casual, while still tightly gripping the tail light behind me with the other.

Day 2
TOUBA WULI

In the village of Touba Wuli, education is on the tip of everyone’s tongue when I ask about challenges facing the community. There is no English school here, only a Koranic one, and even that has no desks, no chairs, and just one blackboard for over 100 students. Nearly all adults in the community are illiterate but they have greater hopes for their children, many of whom attend English schools in neighboring villages.

Unlike many Gambian villages, there is no skills center in Touba Wuli where residents can learn  marketable trades. Ajafay Camara, the head of the women’s kafo (committee), attends meetings in Basse as part of her duties and on one such occasion, she received a brief training in fabric dyeing. Though she wants to teach this to the women of the community, there is no money to hire a more qualified instructor or even to purchase the necessary supplies.

On the subject of female genital cutting (FGC), Karmo Sanuwo, the secretary for the Village Development Committee (VDC) expresses his support for the practice on the basis of religion, tradition, and the necessity for “cleanliness.” But Ms. Camara told me previously that she attended the Tostan declaration in the nearby village of Darsilame. When I turn to ask her opinion she sighs and says, “It is very difficult to stop this tradition, but if people are educated about the problems, if they are sensitized, they will abandon.”

Despite never having previously met any of the inhabitants of Touba Wuli, Lakamay and I are graciously fed and lodged that night as guests. We join the community in watching a soccer game until the sun sets. Without electricity, the arrival of night feels more profound, but it is still not as dark as one would expect as we sit outside for hours. The village is illuminated by the Milky Way, the flickering of candles, the flashing of a lightning storm on the horizon, and the glow of the coals used to brew attaya or green tea.

Photos by Katie Seward: Top- Sunset over Touba Wuli, Middle- fom left to right: Ajafay Camara, head of the women’s kafo; Ibrahim Jawo; and Karmo Sanuwo, VDC secretary, Bottom- A soccer match in which the juniors beat the seniors 3-1

Monday, November 8, 2010

TRAVELOG – VISITING TOSTAN’S NEW MANDINKA VILLAGES

Story by Katie Seward, Tostan Volunteer in The Gambia 

It is the rainy season in The Gambia and the river had risen up to seize the streets of Basse, making the nearest blocks almost Venice-like as they are only navigable by boat. Tostan Supervisor Lakamay Gaye and I began our journey. Once we get out of Basse and across the river, we climb onto the motorbike; an anxiety-inducing experience. A barely competent bicycle rider, I have never ridden on a motorcycle before and I am terrified by the bumpy, red dirt roads I know lay before us, but I strap on a helmet and throw my leg over the vinyl seat. The bike sputters and starts and we are off, heading towards the Mandinka villages that will constitute the newest participants in the Tostan Community Empowerment Program (CEP) in The Gambia.

DAY 1 
KURAW KEMO


The village of Kuraw Kemo feels empty upon our arrival. The alkako (village chief), the record keeper, the head of the women’s kafo (committee)—they are all out working in the community garden. A small boy leads the way and when we approach the group, I am handed a hoe, to everyone’s amusement. After a few minutes of haphazardly hacking at rice, the village decides it has been sufficiently entertained by the agricultural ineptitude of a toubab (foreigner) and we settle beneath a wolo tree to discuss life in Kuraw Kemo.

The surrounding field, they explain, is full of knee-high rice now ready for harvesting and also knee-high mango tree seedlings that are five years away from bearing fruit. The village purchased 141 trees for 75 dalasi (about 3 USD) apiece and they will share the benefits communally, as they plan to do with the rice. Using the same idea, the women’s kafo in the village intends to start a vegetable garden once the rainy season is over.

This community, so proactive about initiating their own development, has already started to feel the impacts of the Tostan program. The neighboring village of Kuraw Arafeng participated from 2007 to 2009 and has shared the knowledge they acquired about the harmful effects of female genital cutting (FGC). Now the community says they have largely abandoned the practice as they found it difficult to continue once they became aware of the consequences.

Photos by Katie Seward: Top- the streets of Kuraw Kemo. Middle- Hawa Konoba in front of the rice and mango fields and community-gathering wolo tree. Below- Ibrahim Danso (right) and Bacary Malang (left), discuss problems in the village

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Portrait of a Leader: Aïchèttou Babou and Tostan Partner for Women’s Empowerment in Ranérou, Senegal

Story by Michelle Rintelman, Tostan Volunteer in the Fouta

Born in 1968, Aïchéttou attended primary and secondary school in Matam, Senegal and is fluent in French, Pulaar, and Wolof.  She travelled extensively throughout Senegal before returning to the northern village of Ranérou in 1992. When she arrived, she felt that women did not have anything to occupy themselves with outside of laundry, cooking, and housework. With this realization, she was inspired to create a local Groupement de Promotion Féminine (GPF), a Ranérou chapter of the women’s development organization called Groupement Bammtare.

Aïchèttou Babou was instrumental in welcoming the Tostan program to Ranérou and remains a strong advocate and partner to this day. She has devoted her adult life to women’s empowerment. Currently serving as the President of Senegal’s Comité Consultatif National de la Femme for the Matam Region of Senegal, she represents more than a thousand women’s groups, associations, and income generating enterprises in the regions of Matam, Ranérou, and Kanel. For the 28th anniversary of the Quinzième de la Femme, or Senegal’s annual Fifteen Days for Women, Aïchèttou helped to produce a video highlighting her organization’s goals and priorities. With the recent passage of legislation promoting gender equality in electoral positions, Aïchèttou takes advantage of every available opportunity to encourage the women in her community to continue their education and political involvement.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

When Europe Meets Africa

Story by Sun-Min Kim, Intern at Tostan France, Paris

October 6 – I am standing in front of the Satellit Café, a world music bar in the 10th district of Paris, waiting for the rest of the Tostan France team to arrive. I started interning at Tostan France in June, and today, I will have a chance to be part of an off-site event. Volker Goetze, a German friend of the organization, is performing tonight with his Senegalese partner and fellow musician Ablaye Cissoko, and he invited Tostan France to come and present its activities during the break.

Volker plays the trumpet, Ablaye plays the African string instrument the kora, and together they perform jazz music. While I am trying to picture how two such different instruments could fuse into jazz, everybody begins to arrive; that is, the three regular members of the Tostan France office, Sabine, Marine, and Seydou, two volunteers Eric and Makhoudia, two friends of the organization, and Gannon who is visiting us from the Tostan DC office.

Established in Paris in 2007, the Tostan France office was born out of the need to involve members of the African diaspora in the development process in their communities of origin. Through years of experience in Senegal and other African countries, Tostan has learned that members of the diaspora are influential forces that can either hinder or fuel social development. Development in African villages is only sustainable when the diaspora communities are involved in the decision-making process. Tostan France therefore meets the crucial need of maintaining an on-going dialogue between those who have emigrated and those who have not.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Molly Melching Representing Tostan at Major Women’s Conference in California

We are excited to announce that this week, Molly Melching, Executive Director of Tostan, will be participating in a major event: The 2010 Women’s Conference in California. Organized by the First Lady of California, Maria Shriver, and the Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, The Women’s Conference is the premier forum for women in the US.  The goal of the conference is to empower women to be architects of change in their own lives, their communities, and in the world.  More than 150 remarkable speakers—including women leaders, politicians, and actresses— will come together with 30,000 conference participants to educate, motivate, and inspire one another.  The Women’s Conference is also a global online community, where more than one million women unite to exchange ideas about how to really change the world.

Molly will be presenting Tostan's experience directly to this high-level audience as a part of a panel discussion at the main event entitled "Overcoming the Unimaginable." Molly's participation is a wonderful opportunity to share Tostan's mission and experience. The invitation alone is a testament to the ever-growing recognition for Tostan and the Community Empowerment Program.  
 
Please see the links below for more information.
 

A list of speakers which includes Molly Melching

Monday, October 4, 2010

Portrait of a Leader: Fatimata Ba

Story by Michelle Rintelman, Tostan Volunteer in the Fouta

Fatimata Ba, a Tostan Facilitator in the village of Ranérou, Senegal,  brings a wealth of experience and conviction to the Community Empowerment Program (CEP). As a facilitator, Fatimata leads CEP courses within the community, spearheading the discussion of topics like democracy, human rights, health, and hygiene. 

Fatimata first participated in the CEP in her home village of Bokidiawe, Senegal in 1992. She says that she was originally drawn to the program because of the program’s emphasis on human rights and how that focus aligned with her belief that everyone has the right to peace, security, health, and education.

In a recent interview, Fatimata shared that she has grown as a person through her involvement with Tostan.  There was no hesitation in her voice when she spoke of her aspirations.
“I want to live a better life. Take charge on my own so that I don’t have to wait for others to give to me.”

But for Fatimata, it doesn’t stop there. She has a passion for sharing knowledge. Fatimata has already seen widespread, positive change in Ranérou since the Tostan CEP was first implemented there. As a result of the health and hygiene components of the CEP , community members are more eager to keep their neighborhoods clean. They are also more conscious of preventative health measures including vaccinations and pre- and post-natal care, and in general are more willing to get help when they are sick. Women carry a heavy burden of work, but Fatimata affirms that men have realized that they need to participate in the household work as well.

Fatimata humble but proud of her role in the community and for that, she is well respected. Wherever she travels, Fatimata Ba is an agent for change, embodying and sharing the vision of human dignity for all.  

Photo by Michelle Rintelman

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Volunteer Voice

Participants in Tostan’s Africa Volunteer Program bring unique educational experiences and expertise to their work at Tostan, supporting community-led development across Africa in a number of different capacities. Volunteering is more than just a professional experience─it is a chance to broaden horizons and develop understanding through cultural exchange. 

Jennifer Keuler, the Adopt a Village Program Coordinator from September 2009 through September 2010, shares a bit of her experience. 

After graduation, I realized that it was really the perfect time to travel and I looked into Tostan. I realized that Tostan’s mission—human rights based, non-formal education—was a great match for my interests and experience. Tostan provided very specific and applied work with quite a bit of responsibility. I saw an opportunity for professional growth and self-directed work as well as an incredible chance to be in the country I love. With a purpose.
The richness of Senegalese culture fascinates me. When I first came, I was impressed at how Senegal, surrounded by many countries in unrest, managed to be so safe and peaceful. I was very interested in how the Muslim brotherhoods interact with other religious groups and the [government] and how they influence society. I am so grateful that Tostan has allowed me to give back in a positive way to the nation that has been so formative in my life.
Volunteering, for me, means giving my time, skills, and love to make the world a happier place. It means making a sacrifice for the betterment of others. Field experience, and the learned skills that result—awareness of the many factors that impede or encourage development, the ability to identify problems and successfully resolve them, the ability to see opportunities for improvement or expansion of programs, working with donors and local partners and so many others—are irreplaceable. For me, the experience was an important step in deciding exactly what kind of development work I’d like to pursue.

Photos by Jennifer Keuler. Top: Jennifer during her time in Senegal. Below: Students outside of the CEP classroom in the village of Thiel Sebe, Senegal

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Supervisor Extraordinaire: Binta Diao

Story by Sydney Skov, Tostan Volunteer in Dakar, Senegal 

Tostan’s Binta Diao is an inspiring leader, a sensational speaker, and a dedicated development worker, devoting each day to empowering others. She also drives a pretty serious motorcycle.

I recently returned from an incredible tour of Senegal, one that took the Volunteer Coordinator, her assistant, and myself to each regional Tostan office. We met with regional staff in six different areas and were given a special look into the community-led events that are driving sustainable development in Tostan villages across the country. An effective awareness raising initiative led by Tostan supervisors in each region is a kind of communication tool that I, occupying myself with online media, have never used: radio. Aimed at informing populations about important health, hygiene, and human rights issues, Tostan radio broadcasts are delivered in local languages during evening hours when entire families are home to tune in. 

During our stay in the town of Kolda in the south of Senegal, I was lucky enough to meet an incredible woman by the name of Binta Diao, a Tostan supervisor in the Kolda region and an experienced radio announcer who has been leading awareness-raising campaigns via her thrice-weekly local radio show for eight years. Her dedication to community empowerment is clear: Binta rides her motorbike 80 kilometers from the Gambian border to conduct her broadcasts. Before becoming an announcer and a supervisor, responsible for overseeing Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP) in nine villages, she worked as a facilitator for seven years, teaching rural villagers about human rights, democracy, and literacy, among other subjects. She was also a participant in the CEP herself when the program was implemented in her native village in the late 1980’s.

Photos by Sydney Skov. Top: Bina Diao speaks about malaria. Below: Binta Diao and colleague Djabé Bathily in the studio in Kolda.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Tostan's Solar Power! Project Brings Light to 50 Households in Keur Simbara


Gannon Gillespie of Tostan's office in Washington, D.C. shares the story of his trip to the Senegalese village of Keur Simbara where the community celebrated the arrival of solar generated electricity.  

It rained all night. A hard rain like one only finds in deserts, rain that seems as if the clouds are falling to earth whole. It is windy, too, and the sound the wind makes it seem identical to that of the cold, dry winds that always came plunging across the plains of my childhood home in Nebraska. Yet the lightning, then thunder (after 6 seconds, for those of us who lie awake, counting), and the moist, stuffy air leave little room for winter fantasies. The deluge stops near dawn, and as I get up, I can hear the trickle of lingering water pattering down from the roof onto the earth outside the window, as the birds venture out to tell the world their opinions of the storm.

My first thought: All this rain is not a good sign for a sun-related project. Today, Tostan and one of our rural community partners, Keur Simbara, have planned to celebrate the launch of the Solar Power! Project. As we drive, it begins to sprinkle again and as we approach, we start to wonder if the event will even be held at all. Several partners and government officials are coming from Dakar, and the roads can flood at any time. Indeed, they may have already flooded.

 As we approach the rain softens, then stops as our Tostan delegation composed of myself, Tostan's ED Molly Melching, Board Chair Gail Kaneb, Senegal Director Khalidou Sy, our African Communications Manager Malick Gueye, and others, pulls into the village. We roll in behind the representatives from the Government of Senegal, who have been a vital part of this project.

I know this village well, having been here at least three times before. Keur Simbara is quite famous; it was one of the first communities to abandon female genital cutting (FGC), back in 1998. Indeed, Keur Simbara's Village Chief and Imam Demba Diawara came to Molly Melching with the critical insight that to end this practice, communities must engage their extended social networks. As we get out of the car and join the procession entering the village, it is clear that today has nothing to do with FGC. No, today is about power: power in the form of solar-generated electricity that will be coming to 7 villages, and the powerful women who are making it happen.

After we have taken our seats, Dame Gueye of Tostan Senegal steps up as emcee, welcoming everyone and giving background information about the project. Everything that has transpired to bring these solar units to Keur Simbara seems far-fetched when laid out so plainly. Doussou Konate, a local woman leader who participated in Tostan's Community Empowerment Program, traveled to Tilonia, India in 2009, staying for six months, along with six other African women. Doussou trained at the Barefoot College where she became a solar engineer. The Barefoot system works only with mothers and grandmothers, and uses an all-picture-based training system to overcome language barriers. In other words, Doussou was trained to become a solar engineer without being able to speak to her teachers. After her training was complete, Doussou packed up the materials she would later use to install solar panels on fifty households in Keur Simbara and surrounding communities, and returned home. This event--moreover, these women's accomplishment-- is even more remarkable in a place where women aren't normally allowed to travel to neighboring villages, let alone India.

Photos by Gannon Gillespie. To see more photos from the event, click here

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Study Shows Promise for Innovative "Text Messaging for Literacy" Approach in Africa

DAKAR, Senegal September 8, 2010

On International Literacy Day, Tostan, along with partners UNICEF and the Center of Evaluation for Global Action (CEGA) at the University of California, Berkeley, have released initial findings of an evaluation that shows great promise for using text messaging as a means for improving literacy and community development.

The evaluation centered on a pilot of the Jokko Initiative, which was implemented in 25 villages in the Velingara region of Senegal, bringing innovative mobile technology education to 800 program participants. These villages were already engaged in Tostan's Community Empowerment Program (CEP), a 30-month holistic education program covering human rights, democracy, health and hygiene, problem solving, literacy, and numeracy.

Focusing on improving communication and reinforcing literacy during and after the CEP, the Jokko Initiative teaches participants to use cell phones and send text messages in local languages. It is designed to give participants a vital literacy practice tool and enable them to better reach out to their communities and social networks.

According to the evaluation conducted by CEGA in these villages, women and girls, who had the lowest rates of literacy and numeracy before the Jokko Initiative began, greatly improved over the course of the project. The percentage of women and girls who scored in the highest category for literacy and numeracy increased from 12% for women and 8% for girls at the baseline, to 29% and 33% at the follow-up. Moreover, the number of participants who were able to write a text message jumped from 8% to 62%.

To power the text message system, UNICEF contributed knowledge and expertise around the RapidSMS tool--a free and open-source framework for interacting with mobile phones. Much of the RapidSMS framework has been built and tested with users in sub-Saharan Africa.

During the evaluation, two rounds of data collection took place: a baseline and a second round after the first four months of Tostan's literacy and numeracy training. At the outset of the program, only 22% of the participants--the majority whom are women--reported being literate. Only 18% reported having any formal schooling. CEGA's research shows that after the four months, both literacy and numeracy increased substantially.

"While more research needs to be done to identify how best to harness cell phones in promoting literacy--the results from the pilot study are promising as they show that teaching people how to read and write messages on a cell phone can be a positive addition to a successful literacy program," says Theresa Beltramo, Economist and Evaluation Coordinator for CEGA.

Molly Melching, Executive Director of Tostan, said that this program, in her opinion, has incredible potential. "For years we have been looking for ways to address the challenge of making literacy relevant, finding ways for participants to practice their new skills, all the while engaging women and girls in the process and reinforcing existing social ties. This project does all of these things."


Today, International Literacy Day, is an occasion to celebrate these women in Senegal as well as women the world over who empower themselves and their communities through education and literacy.


Find more information about RapidSMS on their website www.rapidsms.org. To read more about the Jokko Initiative, visit www.tostan.org or follow the blog http://www.jokkoinitiative.org/.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

You should shave your head (it's covered with hair)

Today, the post we share with you is not a celebratory one. It is not the story of a community's declaration to protect human rights; in fact, it is just the opposite. It is with an equal measure of sadness and resolve to continue our work for human dignity for all that I share Seydou Niang's account. Seydou is a dedicated Tostan team member who has served the organization for the past seven years. While traveling by bus from Paris to London to see his wife, Sarah, Seydou was arrested, thrown in prison, and humiliated, all because the police said he did not look like the man pictured in his passport. "Your head is covered with hair. You should shave your head," they told him when he was finally released.

We have circulated Seydou's story, originally written in French, to our colleagues and partners worldwide. When overwhelming messages of support started arriving to our inboxes and voicemails, we decided that we needed to share Seydou's account in English as well. For me, it perfectly underscores why human rights education is essential in the 21st century, both in Africa and around the world. I think you will agree.



Molly Melching
Executive Director, Tostan


Seydou Niang, Consultant for
Tostan France on the
Jokkondiral Diaspora project

I would like to share a story of injustice with you. I want to share my anger and pain, but I also want to tell this story to show that these things still happen today. I have read stories like this in books and newspapers, but last month I actually went through such an experience myself.


Thursday to Friday night, June 24-25th, Calais, France

I was looking forward to seeing my wife, Sarah, who is eight months pregnant, at our house in London. I got on the Eurolines night-bus in Paris full of joy that we would soon be together again. We got to the French border in Calais at one o’clock in the morning. I was expecting routine questions about my comings and goings between the UK and France, but I was far from imagining what was about to happen to me…

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Moment of My Inspiration: Molly Melching’s Story

The following is an excerpt from a great article posted on the website Take Part, Inspiration to Action. It is one in a series highlighting international change-makers and the moments in which they dedicated their lives to making a difference.

In the fall of 1974, Molly Melching, all of 24 years old, landed in Dakar, Senegal. It was her first trip to the continent, a six-month stint to be spent studying African literature. She had one bag.
 
And no ride.
 
Melching had missed a telegram from Dakar, which arrived at her Illinois home just after she had left for the airport. The program had been cancelled, it read. She shouldn't come. As she sat on the steps outside the airport wondering why nobody was there to greet her, Molly Melching had none of the feelings you might expect of a young, stranded traveler. She wasn't nervous. She wasn't worried.

"I can't explain the feeling," she says now, searching for the words. "It sounds weird, but I felt like I'd come home."So Melching stuck around. It wouldn't be the last time she trusted her instincts.

Thirty-six years later, Melching is the founder and executive director of Tostan, a Senegalese NGO that has impacted millions of lives across West Africa.
- From Take Part, Inspiration to Action  
 
Read more about Tostan on Take Part's website and how the Community Empowerment Program came to be.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Photos from the Road: Tostan Volunteers Visit Regional Offices

Story by Sydney Skov, Tostan Volunteer in Dakar, Senegal

In a brightly lit Tostan building in the lush, southern region of Kolda, Senegal, regional staff and 16 supervisors gathered to welcome us, a convoy of Tostan volunteers based in the big city of Dakar. The Volunteer Coordinator Zoe Williams, her assistant Cassandra Scarpino, and I, the International Communications Assistant, took a whirlwind trip to each region in Senegal in order to meet the staff in the Tostan offices located in the towns of Ourossogui, Ndjoum, Tambacounda, Kolda, Kaolack, and Mbour. Our aim was to present information on the volunteer program and on the strides we have recently made in using social media tools – such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the blog - to share Tostan’s work with a wider audience. Supervisors, who are themselves Senegalese and who often work in their home regions, spend the majority of their time in villages overseeing the implementation of the Community Empowerment Program (CEP). It was thrilling to meet them and to discuss the happenings at the Tostan International office in Dakar as well as the work being done in communities across Senegal. Below are just a few photos from our journey. 

Tostan volunteers pose with Tostan staff at the regional office in Ourossogui, located in northern Senegal.

Volunteers and staff, including 16 supervisors, gather to discuss the volunteer program at the office in Kolda, located in southern Senegal. 

Photos by Cassandra Scarpino

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

An Evening with Tostan

Story by Kate Acosta, Tostan Intern, Washington, D.C.

On Thursday July 22, Tostan’s Washington, D.C. office held its first ever event.  Tostan alumni, donors, partners and friends all gathered at the local restaurant Busboys and Poets for a screening of “Walking the Path of Unity,” a  movie that discusses the decision of several Senegalese communities to abandon female genital cutting (FGC) after participating in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP).  Local Tostan alumni and supporters attended the event, and received an update on recent Tostan programs and successes from Molly Melching, Tostan’s Executive Director and founder. 
This event marks the first of its kind for Tostan’s Washington, D.C. office, and we were very pleased with its success.  Attendees had many interesting questions, and the evening was filled with thought-provoking discussions.  We look forward to future events that will bring the Tostan community together again!
Photos by Tostan International: Top- Molly Melching addresses the crowd at Busboys and Poets. Bottom- US Director of Operations, Gannon Gillespie, talks with former Tostan volunteers.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Tostan Team in Mbour, Senegal Celebrates the Day of the African Child

Story by Matthew Manley, Tostan Volunteer in Mbour, Senegal

Paralleling an event held in Dakar that featured performances by famous musicians Youssou N’dour and Baaba Maal, a coalition of NGOs, municipal governments, and primary schools hosted their own event on June 18 in Mbour, Senegal, celebrating the International Day of the African Child. Begun in 1991, the annual celebration is held in commemoration of a 1976 manifestation in Soweto, South Africa, in which thousands of black South African students held a demonstration, marching for their right to education.

Today, the event continues to promote the spirit of the march, calling all African nations to prioritize education for youth. At the Mbour celebration, the Tostan Mbour Coordinator Aida Mandiang and I were honored with a place on the stage, giving us an excellent vantage point from which to witness speeches by representatives from local NGOs and local governments. The audience was treated to theatrical sketches and dance performances by students from area primary schools.

The children of Thionck-Essyl Demand Recognition: an Excerpt from an Article in Senegal’s Online News Source, Le Soleil.  

The Day of the African Child was celebrated Wednesday, June 18 in Thionck-Essyl thanks to the initiative of the national coordination of the NGO Tostan which invited delegations from Matam, Kolda, Kaolack, Tambacounda, and Ziguinchor.

This year’s Day of the African Child was themed, “Planning and Budgeting for Childhood: a Collective Responsibility.” In response to the theme of the day, Penda Mbaye, Program Coordinator at Tostan Senegal said, “it has to do with all of the actors involved in the development of African children - parents, the state, NGOs - recognizing the central position of the African child in the overall development of the continent.” According to her, “a concerted policy, something coherent and coordinated with available budgets remains… the only alternative to economic policies which, in many African countries, are showing their limits.”

“If we want the African child of today to be the responsible and well-adjusted African adult of tomorrow… the decision makers of our country should focus on the most pertinent economic choices which take into account the important dimension of the well-being of children,” she concluded.

Photos by Matthew Manley: Children in Mbour, Senegal contribute to the festivities held to commemorate the annual Day of the African Child.
 
Blog adapted by Salim Drame