Wednesday, January 5, 2011

After a Year of Volunteering, The Assistant to the International Communications Team Bids Farewell to her Tostan Family

Story by Sydney Skov, Tostan Volunteer in Dakar, Senegal

Directing a summer camp for kids at my local tennis club was a perfect, post-college career with a short life expectancy and excellent swimming pool perks, but I had my sights set on something more than arts and crafts afternoons. Driven by a passion for adventure and a desire to continue my studies of French and African relations outside the classroom, I searched single-mindedly for a way to live in Senegal. With deferred student loans and a non-existent budget, most programs I found seemed impossibly expensive. My high-top All-Stars were worn through at the heels and I had learned to live entirely off of instant oatmeal. Time and effort were what I had to give. 

Enter a little bit of luck and a good Google search. Tostan. The volunteer positions were exactly what I had been looking for: based in Senegal, lasting six months to a year, and focused on professional work with an NGO working to promote causes I believe in: human rights and education. I booked my flight.

I arrived at 6 am. As I began to sweat I thought how strange it was that I’d been standing in snow only hours before. The beads on my forehead were a subtle yet effective display of my new arrival status; men at the airport were wearing parkas, cold in the balmy January winter. The sun rose over the sandy roads and the raw brick buildings; after a quick taxi ride, I was home. I threw my jeans in the back of the closet in the Tostan volunteer house, donned a floor length skirt instead, and greeted a girl in red-striped p-js with blond hair and tired eyelids who was just getting up: my roommate for the next seven months. Exhausted from a month-long monitoring mission to The Gambia, Katie said nothing but, “Do you want to go to church?” Her invitation— to a local Christian church in a predominately Muslim country – sparked my curiosity. As the call to prayer sounded from the neighborhood mosque, I headed downtown to a gospel church. From the windows of the black and yellow taxi I caught my first true glimpses of the fascinating and diverse undercurrents of my new life in Senegal.  

Although I extended my stay with Tostan from six months to a year, I’m still not ready to go. Dakar has become a second home thanks to the warm welcome of Tostan staff and older volunteers who taught me how to greet a room with Wolof hellos and handshakes, how to bargain with a taxi driver, how to share lunch around a big silver bowl without making everyone else uncomfortable, how to exist in respectful harmony with a culture that is not my own. My dedication to human rights education continues to strengthen as I see proof of positive social transformation stemming from grassroots development. I have seen hundreds of communities stand up to publicly declare abandonment of harmful practices like female genital cutting and child/forced marriage. I have been lucky enough to be a part, however tiny, of Tostan and this history-making movement.

I have also been lucky enough to weave myself into this city’s vibrant fabric, to meet and mingle with inspired Dakar dancers who have, for me—a long-time contemporary dancer—re-defined what it means to be an artist.

My experiences of dance in Dakar have included many classes, rehearsals, performances, and workshops. And the more I learn, the more I give in to rhythms and steps my legs and feet find unfamiliar, the more I understand how everything is connected—how dance is in everything, in the steps of wrestlers by the water, in the rhythmic pounding of spices with a mortar and pestle, in the celebration of women as their villages abandon ancient, harmful traditions, in the melodic lilt of Wolof phrases that remind us that we are all together. Volunteering with Tostan and my experiences in Senegal have given me more than I could have hoped; they have shown me how we are all connected in our work, in the help that we offer each other, in the belief that we all have the right and the capacity to live better lives if we just have the courage to open ourselves up to something new. We can all change ourselves for the better. I can only thank my family at Tostan, and my extended family and friends in Senegal, for helping me to see this incredible truth as it develops in communities across West Africa, and within me.     

Monday, January 3, 2011

Discussing Community Empowerment in Koulikoro, Mali

Story by Claire Constant, Tostan Volunteer in Bamako, Mali

Tostan’s National Coordinator in Mali, his assistant, and I, the Tostan volunteer based in Bamako, Mali, visited the region of Koulikoro, some 60 kilometers from Bamako. The goal of our mission was to assist in the intervillage meetings, or RIVs, which bring together the rural communities of Dienandougou and Méguétan in the area of Koulikoro, a region in which Tostan has implemented the Community Empowerment Program (CEP).

Once in Koulikoro, we arrived at the Niger River and continued our journey across to Kénandou, the main village of Dienandougou, where the welcome we received from the community was truly remarkable. In the presence of the Mayor, health workers, and representatives from the Office of Radio and Television in Mali, CEP participants came in droves, excited by the news that the CEP would soon begin again.  

We were also welcomed by the Mayor himself. Village representatives and many CEP coordinators responded to the call for a meeting, demonstrating the strength of the communities’ commitment to the Tostan program.    

The object of the meeting was to share with the villages the essential points of the remainder of Tostan’s 30-month education program, which is based on a respect for human rights. The audience enthusiastically welcomed the news that facilitators ─ individuals from the region trained by Tostan to lead CEP classes ─ would soon be back to begin the second phase of the program: the Kobi 2. This module of the Tostan program, which deals primarily with the subjects of health and hygiene, follows the Kobi 1, a module focused on democracy and human rights.

Having paused for the rainy season, everyone gathered affirmed that they were eager to begin the next phase of the Tostan program in order to gain more  knowledge and skills. The community empowerment movement continues.

Photos by Claire Constant
Blog adapted by Salim Drame