Friday, May 20, 2011

Back to Where It Began: A Public Declaration in Mbour, Senegal

Story by Will Schomburg, Communications Assistant in Dakar, Senegal

We talk a lot about public declarations at Tostan, and rightly so. It often takes years of Tostan facilitated discussions on human rights, health and hygiene before communities unite in their decision to abandon female genital cutting (FGC) and child/forced marriage. In the run up, planning and preparation both here in Dakar, where our headquarters are located, and at the regional coordination where the public declaration is to be held, ensures that the event runs smoothly. Everything from the transportation of attendants from across Senegal and beyond to the traditional ceebu yapp dish of rice and meat devoured after the event, is painstakingly organized by participant communities, staff, and volunteers. Due to the nature of Tostan’s work and our mission to support capacity building of those least connected to metropolitan society, this often means these landmark gatherings are in the most remote corners of the countries in which we work.

On Sunday May 8th, a public declaration took place in Mbour, Senegal, where we witnessed 22 communities renounce these harmful cultural practices. The day was deeply emblematic of the new way in which rural villages across the continent are taking the lead in their own development. As Tostan Executive Director Molly Melching highlighted when thanking those present, declarations in this area of Senegal are symbolic as in 1997, the village of Malicounda Bambara, also in the department of Mbour, was the first community to declare its abandonment of FGC and thus laying a path for communities throughout Senegal and across Africa to follow suit.

Women community leaders marched through the
village holding a banner declaring "We can fully abandon
FGC in Senegal."
The day of the public declaration started with a lively march that brought a crowd of hundreds through the streets of Mbour to an esplanade in the centre of town where the declaration would later take place. Participants and community members, young and old, filed in and took their seats under the bright canopies that provided shade from the mounting sun. A wave of excitement rippled through the crowds as dignitaries mingled, children played and community members chatted jovially.

During a brief interlude between the long string of speeches, I struck up a conversation with the woman I happened to be sitting next to, Jeatou Njage, a Tostan facilitator. I was keen to ask her what she felt the main benefits of the Community Empowerment Program (CEP) were to the community.

“People had never heard of human of rights before Tostan came to these villages, and communities would never really talk to each other,” Jeatou explained. She went on to tell me that since Tostan’s arrival in the region, this lack of communication and knowledge of human rights has slowly changed, stating, “it was sometimes quite difficult but we helped villagers to talk to each other and us about their rights and their hopes for the future. We were able to talk to women about their rights and their health for the first time. This knowledge became the motivation for communities to abandon [FGC].”

A konkoran, representing a traditional Jola spirit,
 performed to the delight of young and old.

After the speeches, a marching band and group of drummers provided the beats for the singers and dancers as they entertained the crowd with traditional performances. The most impressive of these performers were the extraordinary dancing konkorans. Covered head to toe in long yellow grasses that exaggerate their every complex move, these artists represent a good spirit in Jola culture. The valorization of positive cultural expression and indeed its employment pedagogically is at the heart of Tostan’s approach. Facilitators and communities often use traditional African song, drama and dance as an awareness raising tool as we witnessed in the dramatic sketch CEP participants presented to an eager audience. The performance dealt with the issue of child marriage, as an adolescent girl was encouraged to marry an older man against her will. Her parents insisted she comply with their wish, but this young woman was keen to complete her education and consequently was shunned by her relations. In the end, through family mediation, dialogue and education this daughter came back to her family and happily went on to finish her studies. An eldery man I sat next to cooed ‘c’est bon’ or ‘it’s good’ to himself as the play came to an end and those around us applauded. I felt little could have been more representative of changing attitudes that day than this reception the sketch received.

The afternoon was brought to a close as various community representatives read the declarations in Dioula, Mandinke and Pulaar as well as French, underscoring Tostan’s commitment to local culture in its facilitation of the CEP in national languages.

That Sunday was of course a celebration but more than that, a turning point for 22 dynamic communities who are determined to further the health and development of their daughters and sons alike, for generations to come.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Portrait of a Leader: Oumou Ndiaye

Redefining Women’s Empowerment in Mboss, Senegal

Story by Sarah Freeman-Woolpert, Operations Assistant in Tostan's DC Office, and Sarah Harris, Nike Project Manager for Tostan Senegal

It takes initiative, innovation and courage to stand up and say,”What we are doing is not working.” It is assertions like this one that changed the village of Mboss in the Kaolack region of Senegal when the women’s association decided the time had come to change their leadership and approach.

 Oumou Ndiaye was one of the assertive women who decided things needed to change in her community. After joining the village’s Community Management Committee (CMC) in 2009, Oumou started to realize why the local women’s association had become inactive. The group was run in a top-down approach with members following the leader’s decisions without question or discussion. Oumou recalled feeling that while the women’s association had been in existence for 20 years, “it was sleeping.”

As community members participated in the Tostan Community Empowerment Program (CEP) classes, an idea took root: in a democratic society, every voice matters. One woman in the association explained, “Before, we did not have the confidence to speak up…we thought, ‘Well, the association president is an elder, so we should follow what she says.’ Now, we know that we each have our rights, and it is our responsibility to speak up and participate in the decision-making of the association.”

 Inspired by this idea, women in the community realized it was their responsibility to fix a broken system and begin leading the women’s group in an open, accepting and empowering way.

Fortune would have it, Caurie Microfinance, a close collaborator with Tostan, expressed interest in implementing a microfinance initiative in Mboss. This opportunity emboldened the women’s association to turn their calls for change into action. The women knew that in order to properly manage any loans granted by Caurie, the group’s leadership would need to be refreshed and community enthusiasm for the association would need to increase.

In November 2010, the village chief, also a member of Tostan’s CEP classes, learned of the women’s desire to change association leadership. He called a meeting of association members, facilitating a nonthreatening atmosphere for a discussion to take place. It was at this meeting that the women diplomatically and democratically elected a new leader: Oumou Ndiaye.

Under Oumou’s leadership, the women’s association changed the way they managed money and thus enabled the group to increase their level of engagement in their community’s economic growth. They invested their finances in income-generating activities, transforming their formerly stagnant resources into a profit source.

“We did not know how to put our money to work,” Oumou explained. “Now, we have used that money to buy chairs and cooking pots that we rent out for celebrations, and the money from these rentals goes back into the women's association's fund.”

Mboss was one of two villages selected to receive funding from Caurie. Through the initiative, each woman in the association received a loan of 50,000 CFA (approximately $110 USD) to repay over six months. To support the women, representatives from Caurie visit Mboss each month to work with the loan recipients and increase their understanding of financial management.

“Before, we didn't know what was going into our association fund, what was going out, and what was left,” Oumou said. “Now we get together and talk about these things so that everyone in the group knows. We document this by writing it down.”

Despite her role as the president of the women’s group, Oumou has not become attached to the power of her position. She constantly reaffirms the idea that every five years, leadership should be changed, regardless of whether she is re-elected to the position.
“The women's association leadership had not changed in 20 years, and now we know that that is not the way an association should be organized,” she asserted. “In five years, we should refresh the association's leadership again.”

Oumou’s commitment to involving all members in decision-making directly aligns with Tostan’s inclusive approach to community-led development. Through open dialog, these women have taken progressive, ambitious steps for the betterment of their community as a whole and for the ideals of democracy.
But change in Mboss did not end with the women’s association. Oumou explained that other associations in Mboss have undergone similar changes to leadership. The women’s association hopes to use the lessons and experiences they gained to guide other groups in replicating their model and refreshing community leadership.

Following the success of the women’s association microcredit initiative, international development organization Freedom from Hunger is now exploring the possibility of implementing a youth microcredit program in Mboss. Following the display of initiative, courage, and ingenuity of their mothers, enterprising youth are now taking a larger role in their futures. The women of Mboss not only acted as inspirational figures to other associations, but they are influencing their children’s actions and aspirations as well.

Monday, May 9, 2011


Interview with a Regional Volunteer

Jonah Meyers is Tostan’s regional volunteer in the Fouta region, Senegal. He recently chatted with communications assistant, Will Schomburg, about his experiences at the half way point of his service.

Will Schomburg: Could you tell our readers a bit about what you were doing before you came to Africa?

Jonah Meyers: I'm originally from Columbia, Maryland and now an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, College Park. I study anthropology, international development, and French. I lived in France for a year after high school, and wanted to continue my French language skills in a development context in West Africa. Other than school stuff, I spend a lot of time in the outdoors; I like to mountain bike, rock climb, etc.

WS: What drew you to Tostan specifically?

JM: What drew me to Tostan was a combination of being impressed with their work and the opportunity to volunteer with them over a long period. It's difficult to find an international development internship with little experience without having to pay somebody, so Tostan was the perfect fit. Not only do they have an awesome volunteer program, their approach in the field is pretty unique in its grassroots approach and has really been a catalyst for change in Senegal for health, education, and so many other issues.

WS: What are your views on what Tostan does?

JM: I think Tostan does really important work here in Senegal and in the other countries the NGO has worked in. Whenever I go to a village the community thanks Tostan for all the changes that have happened, from women being more comfortable speaking in public to a water tower being funded by the village and the government. It's important to say though, as well, that Tostan's work wouldn't be possible without the dynamic and motivated leaders it works with in the communities.

WS: What do you think makes Tostan different?

JM: What makes Tostan different is its effort to create a truly holistic program. With a director who has lived in Senegal for over 30 years and a staff over 99% African, the program is tailored to the local cultures and centers on important collaboration. The staff knows that development needs to address every possible issue in the community. For example, without health a community cannot prosper economically or continue to educate itself, and without respecting human rights a population cannot be truly healthy. Tostan has really figured it out over the past 20 years and I reckon gotten it right.

WS: Can you describe your role?

JM: I'm the Regional Volunteer in the Fouta coordination. That means I assist
the Regional Coordinator and the staff with a lot of different things. Generally, I have a lot of administrative responsibilities like writing reports and going on village tours in order to supply donors with good village portraits. I also help organize staff events, visits by donors and partners, attend some of our events in the region, work on the website, teach IT skills, and many other things. An initiative of my own I'm working on at the moment is starting a partnership with Peace Corps volunteers from the regions that we work in.

WS: What have you enjoyed the most so far?

JM: Hands down, sitting around with the people. Even if I don't understand much Pulaar, I like to sit around and learn, drink sweet tea and eat grilled corn on the cob. The people here are amazingly nice; Senegal is the country of hospitality, or terranga as it is locally called.

WS: Can you mention one interesting thing you've experienced since arriving?

JM: I usually find myself laughing at situations I'm in because I would have never imagined something happening. But one funny thing that happened was when I had to chase goats out of our office while I was on Skype with my brother.

WS: What has been your biggest challenge?

JM: My biggest challenge has been balancing my own desires with those of the people surrounding me. In Senegalese culture it's often rude to refuse an invitation, especially when it comes to eating. I've gotten frustrated when people expected me to eat with them and then gotten mad when I didn't show up for dinner, for example. After making a couple mistakes I tried to please everybody, which meant I also wasn't always doing what I wanted to do. It's important to find a balance between being friendly and fitting in here and also making yourself comfortable and happy, which I think I'm finally getting the hang of after a few months.

WS: What would you say to people thinking about applying to Tostan or more generally considering development work in Africa?

JM: Africa may not be rich in dollars, shiny cars and nice apartments, but it is rich in warmth and friendship. Take advantage of your situation to get to know the people around you. It will not only give you a better understanding of your work, but will also help the local community to understand (and hopefully appreciate) your efforts if not your results, as well.

WS: What will you miss most about Senegal? What do you miss most about the US?

JM: Due to the weather and the social status here, the lifestyle is completely different. I like sleeping on my roof, and walking to get good bread in the mornings, both of which are more difficult to do in the States. What I miss most about home, besides friends and family, is food. Things like cheese, granola, pizza, and generally just a wide variety of food options that doesn't exist here.

WS: What do you think has been the most important thing you have learnt in Senegal?

JM: Senegal has made me a lot calmer. In the U.S. I get antsy sitting around for more than a half an hour. Here I can literally sit in the same place and not get up for six hours. I've done it, provided there's a big bowl of food to share and some tea to follow. Besides that, living in Africa is just such a humbling experience. Meeting the kindest people who don't have electricity gets you thinking about why people in my hometown get upset about the smallest things and how unreasonable we can be when we have so much more.
WS: What do you hope to do next?

JM: In life? Well I need to finish school and then I'll see what happens. Maybe I'll be back in Senegal at some point to an international development job. Or I might just go climb rocks for a bit, we'll see.

WS: What do you hope to have achieved at the end of your service here?

JM: I don't want to think about my stay here as results-oriented. I do want to leave happy with my service, feeling like I've developed personally and professionally and contributed to Tostan's work here.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

VOICES OF TOSTAN: Sarah Freeman-Woolpert

An organization is nothing without the passion and dedication of the team of individuals behind it. Tostan is comprised of talented, committed people ranging from village elders to directors, Community Empowerment Program facilitators and participants to volunteers and interns. Each individual contributes his or her unique personality and skills to further the work of Tostan, thus creating a dynamic environment in which positive change can take place.

We would like to highlight the diversity of interests, talents, and backgrounds within the Tostan team here on the blog in a series entitled Voices of Tostan. Specifically, we will explore what brought each unique voice to Tostan and why Tostan’s efforts to bring about positive social change are significant and meaningful to each individual.

Voices of Tostan Story by Sarah Freeman-Woolpert, Operations Assistant in the Tostan DC Office

The summer before starting as an intern at Tostan’s D.C. office, I graduated high school in Pembroke, New Hampshire. The previous year, while participating in an advanced studies summer program called “Changing the World,” I learned how non-violence and humanization are tools that can be implemented to create positive social change. After the course ended, I felt the need to become more engaged with the world. I sought a way to assume a more active role in my education, to explore possibilities outside the confines of textbook lessons and rote memorization. To pursue these aspirations, I chose to take a gap year before entering college at The George Washington University where I am planning to study journalism and international affairs.

Through a connection to the Bhutanese refugee community in my hometown, I decided to spend the first half of the year traveling through India and Nepal for a mixed experience of tourism, volunteer work, and non-traditional education.
 For the second half of the year, I researched internship programs in Washington, D.C. that would bring me full-circle from my hands-on experiences traveling and seeing problems firsthand to a position working with the issues in a more organized, effective manner. Coming from a town with just over 7,000 residents and a fairly homogenous population, I knew the year ahead would be mentally and emotionally challenging in my quest to gain a deeper understanding both of myself and the nature of the world beyond the limits of my community.

Fortunately, Tostan’s website surfaced during my search. As I read through the project descriptions and articles, I realized that interning for Tostan would not mean choosing between an experience with women’s empowerment, rural education, sustainability, or community development, but would mean gaining an experience that approaches the interplay between all these topics as a method for development. An internship at Tostan would expose me to methods of creating social change on several fronts to holistically prepare me for a career in social justice and community development.

Before leaving for India, I submitted an application to Tostan’s Internship Program and bought a copy of Half the Sky. I hoped I would be able to use the lessons and experiences I gained abroad to contribute a new perspective to an organization that does such meaningful work on the community level. As I backpacked through northern India and volunteered with imprisoned children in Nepal, I saw a scale of poverty and need that overwhelmed me with a heavy sense of helplessness. I remember thinking, ‘If I am accepted to Tostan’s internship program, I will be able to contribute to positive social change in a way that I can’t now.’ My worldview and desire to make a positive impact were growing every day; Tostan seemed like the ideal place to explore those new perceptions.

In Kathmandu, I stayed up all night reading about forced marriages and human trafficking in Half the Sky by the light of my flashlight. When I reached the chapter about Tostan’s work and the villages that declared to abandon female genital cutting, I felt proud of my distant connection to an organization that takes so much time to work with communities, empowering them to make their own choices about their lives. I have enormous respect for the way Tostan gives communities ownership of their decisions for change instead of dictating culturally irrelevant ideas down a detached Western chain of command.

On Thanksgiving Day, I returned to the familiar, safe, and snow-coated world I had always known. But I faced new and unexpected difficulties relating to my friends, many of whom have never left New England. I had no idea how to begin digesting and coming to terms with my experience. Isolated and left out from all the stories of dorm room drama, I sought out my parents’ Peace Corps friends for comforting conversations, finding companionship with others who had more experience with this kind of transition. One of my mom’s friends summarized my feelings by explaining, “On the outside you look and act the same, so everyone assumes you are. But inside, everything is different.”

When I received my acceptance as the Operations and Internship Program Assistant in Tostan’s D.C. office, I was overcome with relief and couldn’t wait to begin. Though I was intimidated by being the youngest intern, it was an enormous comfort to find a community of people who had traveled to similar places and dealt with the same emotional mosaic of inspiration, guilt, discomfort, and sadness that comes from seeing so much hurt without possessing an immediate way to help.

The aspect of Tostan I find most personally rewarding is the atmosphere of our office. The interns and staff members come from extremely diverse backgrounds and speak from a breadth of experiences based on their nationalities, courses of study and career paths. The fact that our team discusses development and world issues from individual experiences makes our jobs that much more personally rewarding. This sense of connection to the work we do ensures that we develop strong ties to Tostan’s mission, incorporating Tostan’s respectful and culturally sensitive approach into our own personal values and daily conduct.

For the past two months, Tostan has not only exposed me to the inner workings of an international non-profit organization, but it has broadened my knowledge of African cultures, traditional practices, and ways of life I never considered having grown up in New England. I realize now that there are two sides to many arguments about cultural practices and approaches to community development, and it’s important to listen to a wide range of perspectives in order to see past our own cultural contexts to gain an insightful understanding of these multi-faceted issues and possible solutions.

The diversity of the interns and staff at the DC office speaks to Tostan’s commitment to gathering a diverse array of perspectives and approaches to gain a deeper insight into different regions, issues, and ways of life. Tostan’s focus on building bridges of understanding causes me to rethink my preconceived notions and subconscious prejudices every day, and it challenges me to respect, listen to, and empower others in my daily interactions while learning methods of increasing education and social justice throughout the international community as a whole.
Blog adapted by Salim Drame