Friday, February 25, 2011

Snowballs, Senegal and Social Change

Madeleine Balchan, a Global Citizen Year Fellow in Senegal, recounts in a recent blog post her first memory of building a snowman. This seemingly simple memory gains new meaning as she recognizes its similarities to positive development work, specifically Tostan’s community-driven approach to human rights and empowerment. Continue reading to learn more about Balchan’s thoughts on Tostan and development work.

Top: Tostan office in Dakar, Senegal
Bottom: Madeleine Balchan and other GCY Fellows

February 18, 2011
Madeleine Balchan

This is my first winter without snow.

I remember the first time I ever made a snowman. I scooped snow into my mittens and tried to form a ball, but the powder just crumbled apart and fell as I separated my hands. I watched in jealous frustration as my older brothers rolled their rapidly expanding snowballs around the yard. I knew I could do the pushing part, but I couldn’t get it started! Then my dad came and handed me a ball already half a foot in diameter. Using all the strength of my two-foot-tall-puff-jacketed self I slowly rolled the ball across our yard. Eventually, my snowball was the head of our family snowman, towering high in the front yard with 2 coal eyes and sticks for arms.

My father enabled me. I recognized something I wanted but couldn’t do on my own, and he gave me the help I needed to take things into my own hands and “run with it”. The most effective aid addresses the needs and wants of the receiver, and requires the end-user to push the ball along.

I’ve often talked about “developing countries” in the past. But “developed” countries are still developing. The cultures within families and organizations and countries are dynamic and always changing, always developing. I now approach the term “underdeveloped” with caution. This land rich in culture and history has developed, though perhaps not in ways apparent to the West.

We had the opportunity to meet with Molly Melching, a woman who left the “developed” US almost thirty years ago to commit herself to service in Senegal. Her response to people who gasp and wonder at her having given up the luxuries of the States? “This is no sacrifice. I’m living here because I love it.”

My favorite thing about TOSTAN, the non-profit Melching founded, is that after 12 years of service they looked back on their approach and totally changed it. They took out literacy as a focus of the program to fit into the culture of oral tradition. Their current strategy is to train one community member to lead community think-sessions based on Human Rights and the responsibilities that come with them. In these community sessions, they begin by valuing the positives, and then ask where they are not respecting the rights of everyone in the community.

TOSTAN is widely recognized for the number of villages that have ended the process of Female Genital Cutting. That was never a part of their goals. TOSTAN’s culturally sensitive educational approach to development empowers the community, but develops “only” in the direction, and “only” as far as, the community is willing to push their own snow-ball.

This Senegalese snowball has grown bigger, and broader, and farther than Molly Melching could have ever imagined or pushed it on her own.

To learn more about Global Citizen Year and application deadlines, please click here.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Tostan at The World Social Forum

Story by Will Schomburg, Tostan Communications Assistant in Dakar, Senegal

As delegates to the World Social Forum (WSF)—representatives from organizations as well as those simply interested ─ poured into Senegal from across the region and far beyond, the buzz in Dakar became palpable. While on a normal Monday morning at Cheikh Anta Diop University, the chatter of busy students might echo around campus in Wolof, French or any other of the Republic’s numerous spoken languages, on that Monday, 8th February 2011, Arabic, English, Spanish and Portuguese crowds joined their chorus, as delegates poured into the Forum.

Tostan's stand at the World Social Forum
The gathering witnessed 75,000 participants from a widely diverse range of backgrounds and disciplines. South American journalists, French unionists and Palestinian women’s groups to name but a few of those represented were joined by myriad organizations from across Africa, small and large, the combination of which provided the backbone to the dynamic week.

WSF was set up a decade ago to act as an ideological counterbalance to the World Economic Forum that takes places annually in Davos, Switzerland at approximately the same time. This Swiss counterpart is often criticized for its capitalist, pro-globalization agenda, while WSF aims to create a space in which grassroots movements and humanitarian causes have a platform on which they may better promote their work.

Visual aids used by facilitators
of the CEP
Tostan had a good-sized stand near the dining area that welcomed a strong flow of development enthusiasts throughout the week, many of whom were full from the array of Senegalese delicacies on offer around us that helped to create a lively atmosphere. This was added to by the spontaneous outpourings of music, dance and protest that almost hourly would spring to life and reverberate across the campus.

Jokko solar suitcase

We lined our stand with pictures from the ‘image box’,’ a visual aid used by the facilitators of our Community Empowerment Program (CEP) to facilitate discussions of human rights amongst participants. As we explained to visitors, the CEP not only approaches the question of human rights and responsibilities, but also teaches numeracy, literacy and small-business management in 16 different national languages in our 8 national offices across Africa. In collaboration with UNICEF, Tostan’s innovative Jokko Initiative promotes skills learnt in the program through mobile phones and SMS text messaging, connecting even the most remote villages to the wider community. The Jokko solar suitcase Tostan exhibited drew throngs of curious local students, eager to learn more about the initiative. During our conversations we stressed that Tostan is primarily an organization that promotes sustainable, community-led education but also highlighted other projects such as our Child Protection Project and work in women’s prisons throughout the event.

Tostan staff engaging in conversation
about the Jokko solar suitcase
On several occasions, Tostan staff spoke with men and women for whom the organization meant more than the average passerby as they themselves had directly benefited from the implementation of the CEP in their village. None of us could promote our work better than these people whose lives had consequently been changed for the better. One engaging woman from Senegal’s southern Casamance region had completed the program and now works for a local women’s group promoting children’s education.

At the end of a tiring yet hugely satisfying week, Tostan spoke with countless passionate and engaging people keen to share ideas. We hope to build on the contact made and forge friendships from which our organization and communities will forever benefit.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Advocate, Julia Lalla-Maharajh, Inspired by Recent Public Declaration

Julia Lalla-Maharajh, "passionate advocate" for the abandonment of FGC and founder of the Orchid Project, recently visited several communities where Tostan's Community Empowerment Program is in place. Her experience talking with community members and witnessing the excitement at Sare Ngai's public declaration left her energized, ready to continue working towards positive social transformation. Here is the full article from The Huffington Post:

Dancing to End Female Genital Cutting

February 8, 2011
The Huffington Post
Julia Lalla-Maharajh

I'm here in Dakar, Senegal. It's a long way from London, Davos and Ethiopia. I'm seeing different things, learning so much and marvelling constantly at the changes that are happening here on the ground and in communities.

As a "passionate advocate" to end female genital cutting, my story is a pedestrian one, mimicked (I'm sure) across the Western world. A lifetime of mortgage enslavement, corporate kowtowing and daily commuting on packed London Tube trains led me to rethink. My second life began about two years ago, when I headed out to Ethiopia to volunteer. It was in Addis Ababa that my eyes opened in wonder as I viewed the lives of women and girls around me. How had they been born into this life of hard work, of carrying loads far too heavy for their backs, of little schooling?

It got worse when I heard about female genital cutting, its scale and impacts. The shock I felt was tangible. On a trip to Lalibela, an ancient relic of a holy city in northern Ethiopia, I met two little girls who have stayed in my mind's eye throughout this journey. I wanted to talk with their parents, their community, beg for them not to be cut. But I knew I had no agency, no right, no legitimacy to intervene in anyone's culture in such a stumbling, righteous way.

Back in London, I volunteered with Forward learning about a better way to engage with communities. Rather incongruously, I appeared on the plinth in Trafalgar Square and exhorted crowds not to look away from this very complex, heart-rending issue.

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Blog adapted by Salim Drame