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/.
Blog adapted by Salim Drame