Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Traveling Is Learning: Abdoulie Sidibeh Reflects on His Experience at the Women in the World Conference in NYC

The Tostan panel at the 2012 Women in the World Summit
Tostan Regional Volunteer in The Gambia Lilli Loveday interviews Youth  Activist Abdoulie Sidibeh in the second installment of our two-part series documenting Abdoulie’s journey from The Gambia to the Women in the World Summit in New York City.

To read the first installment of this series entitled “From The Gambia to NYC: Tostan Youth Activist Abdoulie Sidibeh to Speak at Women of the World Summit This Week,” click here.

When asked to summarize his experience of the trip, Abdoulie quoted a Mandinka proverb, saying, “tamo mu karang le ti,” “traveling is learning.” Abdoulie’s personal mission when going to America was to learn and gain as much knowledge as possible to bring back to his community. Laughing, he shared that before he had the opportunity to go to America, his friends used to mock him for spending his afternoons sitting with “women as old as his mother” discussing human rights and health issues. But now, he said, they have realized what opportunities can be brought through education and they are eager to learn as well.

Abdoulie was invited to speak at the conference on Saturday, March 10, the same day that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered her call for women to commit to their own empowerment. Joining that call as a male advocate for women’s empowerment, Abdoulie felt honored and proud to be involved in such an important and prestigious event, “I am so happy and so proud. I was the only youth from the whole Tostan program and that made me so, so happy. I was glad meeting Hillary Clinton. I knew her name since Grade 6 and used to see her pictures.”

Abdoulie (far left) speaking on stage
Alongside Tostan Executive Director Molly Melching and Community Activist Demba Diawara, Abdoulie delivered his speech about child/forced marriage and female genital cutting (FGC) with unbridled confidence. He explained, ‘‘No! I did not feel nervous! I believe in what I said and what I have learned through Tostan…. There were very intelligent people there who know what is going on in Africa and who can look for a solution.’’ During his speech Abdoulie captured the audience’s hearts with a personal account of his sister who was forced to leave school early so that she could marry. He highlighted the difficulties families face when trying to finance their children’s education, explaining how economic hardship is often the driving force behind early marriage: ‘‘my sister could not go further than Grade 9. There was no money, so my father did not know what to do…a man came to marry her. My sister still regrets it because she does not have her education and my father realizes his mistake now.’’

Reflecting on the summit and his time in the city, Abdoulie said, “you know, seeing is believing and it was amazing! What I was seeing was like in the screens!” Abdoulie was impressed by everything he saw. When asked if it was difficult to return to Bassending, he commented, “I went to America for a purpose. Many told me not to come back. They said America is a place where everything is okay. If you come back, you continue to suffer. And yes, the place is fine, the place is nice. The roads are big, the buildings are good. I love the place! But I know I must come back. [The Gambia] is my home.”

Abdoulie’s commitment to his community and to his future is remarkable. He plans to become an educator or nurse so that he can help improve the health and well-being of his community. In commenting on the grandeur of New York City, Abdoulie stated, “although we [people of the Gambia] do not have the same resources, if we have education, we can make small changes.” Abdoulie is a wonderfully enthusiastic, committed and considerate young man, and it is without a doubt that he will make changes, big and small, towards the betterment of his community and country.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Portrait of a Leader: Madame Dembele Mariam Touré

Story by Kyrra Engle, Tostan Regional Volunteer in Mali

Madame Touré, Community Coordinator
of Yorodjamboujou
When Madame Dembele Mariam Touré took the Sotrama last week, something unexpected happened.  Sotramas are hollowed out green vans that serve as Mali’s public transportation system.  They are usually operated by a driver and a young apprentice who collects the $.35 fare from each 20 or more passengers inside.  However  on this day when the apprentice came to collect the fare from Madame Touré, a young girl on the Sotrama refused to let her pay. The fellow rider explained to the young man that Madame Touré was the community coordinator and insisted that if she had to pay, the young girl would pay for her. 

Madame Touré is the respected and well-known Community Coordinator of Yorodjambougou, a rural village outside Mali's capital Bamako. As someone who was never given the opportunity to complete her formal education, Madam Touré's current leadership role within her community is something she never anticipated. According to Madame Touré, the basis of her success has been her new found access to education. As a participant in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP), Madame Touré learned how to read, write, and do basic calculations for the first time. “I was a very good student, but education for girls was not a priority in my village,” she explains. In Mali, many girls are kept home to help with housework and watch younger siblings instead of going to school. As a result, most women are illiterate. This is something Madame Touré has worked hard to change in her community. After each Tostan class, Madame Touré reviews the lesson at her house with five to ten women who are unable to participate because of work or other obligations. “Before [Tostan] there was no communication among women in my village. Now the women learn and discuss together,” says Madame Touré. 

The influence of the Tostan's CEP has also enabled women to actively participate in community development discussions. Moreover, the classes have provided an opportunity for the community's men to recognize the tangible benefits that come from educating women. “Before Tostan, women [in my village] weren’t allowed to make decisions or be educated because the men thought it would lead to bad things,” Madame Touré explains. Now, however, the men seem to better understand the added household benefits that come from educating women. According to Madame Touré, with education, women have learned how to start revenue generating activities that help support their families. “The women are now invested in creating revenue for their families and participating in economic decisions,” says Madame Touré.

Outside of these community-wide changes, big personal changes have also taken place for Madame Touré. As the community coordinator for Yorodjambougou, Madame Touré is directly involved in the development of her village. “Now people recognize me and respect me for the work I have done,” she explains with pride. Along with educating and inspiring other women, Madame Touré has lead health awareness activities and opened a women’s community fund.  Recognized by Tostan supervisors as one of the strongest participants, many more free Sotrama rides can be seen in her future.                

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Solar Panel Catalog: An Innovative Solution Ensures Electricity in Rural Regions of Guinea-Bissau

Guinea-Bissau has one of the poorest electrical power infrastructures in the world. Even in the capital city, Bissau, where state electricity is available, residents regularly experience 10-hour power outages. Five local women from the remote Oio, Bafata and Gabù regions, however, take the matter into their own hands and light up their communities with solar power.

Solar engineers hard at work
As part of Tostan’s SolarPower! Project, these courageous women attended a six-month training program to become solar engineers at Barefoot College in India. Upon returning home, these newly-trained women were eager to harness their new knowledge and skills but encountered a linguistic complication—they had learned the terms for parts and tools in Hindi and English but not their local languages. Consequently, finding replacement materials at home was a challenge.

Tostan Regional Volunteer Matthew Boslego developed an innovative solution. Matt created a solar panel catalog to provide the solar engineers with “total linguistic access” to everything that they needed. Matt collaborated with local supervisors and Tostan facilitators to build a catalog identifying key items in a variety of local languages. In this interview with Dakar Communications Assistant, Alisa Hamilton, Matt explains his process.

Alisa: How did you get the idea to make a catalog?

Matt: One time I was visiting a village where the panels are installed and I met with one of the solar engineers. One of her screwdrivers had broken. It was a really simple part, a Phillips head screwdriver. The ones they had been buying locally were of a much inferior quality to the ones they had originally been given by Barefoot College. Finding any kind of tools in the rural communities is really difficult because there is close to zero availability for such things. So I had the idea to make a catalog to give them a way to have access to high quality tools, which can be found in the capital but not in the rural regions.

Alisa: What does the catalog look like?

Matt: There are two different copies of the catalog. One of them is written in Portuguese, Creole and Fula. The second one is in Portuguese, Creole and Mandinka in order to give them total linguistic access. The first section explains step-by-step how to use the catalog. If you need a piece, find it in the catalog, call Tostan, send the money for the item to Bissau and a Tostan team member will find the piece for you. They have to pay for it, but Tostan will find it for them. Then someone will bring it out to them during a trip to their communities.
Fatima Seidi finishing solar lanterns in Mambonko

The second part of the catalog has pictures and names of pieces as well as information as to where they can be found. I wanted the engineers to be able to find the pieces themselves just in case, for example, Tostan leaves. I took a picture of every single piece they were given in India  had as well as some other pieces that I thought might be useful—basic things like screwdrivers and wrenches as well as more specific things like soldering irons, additional solar panels, solar batteries, charge regulators, wires. I included anything that they might need that can be found in Bissau.

Next to the picture, I put the name of the piece that they know, which is in English/Hindi, as well as the name in the local language, either in Creole, Portuguese, Fula or Mandinka. I also put the price, location and contact information of the store where the piece can be found.

Alisa: Did anyone help you make the catalog?

Matt: I had a lot of help translating. Tostan supervisors helped me with the Portuguese and Creole, and facilitators, who are the experts in the local languages, helped with the Mandinka and Fula.

The catalog will be distributed to all five solar engineers this spring during in-country trainings. The five women will teach apprentices so that the Solar Power! Project can continue to light up remote regions in Guinea-Bissau for many years to come. 
Blog adapted by Salim Drame