SEATTLE, Washington — Dr. Viola Vaughn, an educator and former consultant with a multidecade career in community development and aid across Africa, has said that the best way to accomplish real change in a community is by remembering that “It’s about change from the inside. What they can do locally instead of bringing in things from the outside. What they can do locally to change their situations themselves.” One organization that has taken this message to heart is the Dakar-based organization, Tostan. The organization is empowering communities in which it operates such as Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania and the Gambia.
Tostan is a word in Wolof, a language spoken across much of Senegal, Mauritania and the Gambia, which means “breakthrough”. The organization was founded by American human rights activist Molly Melching. It grew out of a children’s center in Dakar founded by Melching, which sought to translate traditional children’s stories into Wolof. After traveling through rural communities, Melching realized that many aid programs did not help these communities in the ways that they actually needed. As a result, Melching began developing the Community Empowerment Program (CEP) which seeks to “respectfully engage communities by working in their own languages and using traditional methods of learning.” The CEP is the centerpiece of the efforts of Tostan, which Melching went on to found in 1991. Tostan is involved in diverse activities such as child protection, peace and security and international aid training, however, the focus of the organization and the CEP is education.
Education in Senegal
Although improving the quality of education and access to education is a vital part of the Senegalese government’s long term “Emerging Senegal” plan for economic development, there is still much work to be done in this area. Progress has been made, with total net enrollment in primary education at 75.38% in 2017, up from 71.57% in 2010. However, this rate falls drastically the further a student progresses through the system. In 2017, total net enrollment in secondary education was only 37.67%. Once in tertiary education that rate fell even further, to 12.76%. Furthermore, it is estimated that only 51.9% of the over-15 population of Senegal is literate. It is important to remember that Senegal is the most developed country of the six in which Tostan operates, so while these numbers illustrate the need for more work to be done in education in Senegal, that need only grows more dire in the rest of West Africa.
Community Empowerment Program (CEP)
While boosting enrollment rates fundamentally requires the construction of more schools, Tostan is empowering communities by doing incredible work with its CEPs to boost the baseline of education in the countries in which it works. A CEP begins with a request from a village to start the program. A trained facilitator from the same ethnic group who is fluent in the local language is then assigned to that village. The facilitator is paid by Tostan and housed by the community and resides there for the duration of the three-year program. The CEP itself consists of two parts: classes and the establishment of a Community Management Committee (CMC).
The CEPs occur in rural villages and the vast majority of the participants have minimal to no education. The classes are split into a group for the youth and a group for adults and make use of a wide variety of conventional and unconventional education methods. The classes themselves are split into two phases: Kobi, which in Mandinka means ‘to prepare the field for planting’, and Aawde, which is a Fulani word meaning ‘to plant the seed.’
The Kobi classes focus on “discussions on the fundamentals of democracy, human rights and problem-solving as well as hygiene and health.” The goal of these classes is to empower and educate participants on their human rights and responsibilities, with the hope of changing some harmful social norms such as the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) or child marriage. The main goal of these classes, however, is to create and foster an open space for discussion of the community and its needs.
Once in Aawde, the classes shift to a more practical focus. Participants are taught to read and write in their native language as well as learn basic math, project-management and income-generation skills. The goal of these classes is to empower the participants to identify and correct problems in their communities on their own, without needing outside help.
Community Management Committee
The next phase of the CEP is the creation of the Community Management Committee (CMC). The CMC is a democratically elected group of 17 community members, nine of whom must be women, which “takes forward the community’s vision for sustainable development and as community-based organizations, works with partners and others to meet community needs.” So far, Tostan has helped establish over 2,400 CMCs in the countries in which it operates and they engage in diverse activities such as birth registration, local advocacy, community construction and micro-financing. Tostan is empowering communities by also further supporting the CMCs by helping connect them with other CMCs in the area as well as partner NGOs as a part of their Empowered Community Network (ECN), which is currently operational only in Senegal.
Tostan has seen incredible success. In 2015, the organization founded a training center in Thies, Senegal, in order to train people in “its human rights-based approach to community-led development.” Tostan has received numerous awards and recognition for its innovative methods and continues to start new CEPs in villages across Senegal, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania and the Gambia. Tostan is also working to expand the ECN to all countries in which it works. Organizations such as Tostan embody exactly what it means to make the world a better place for all.
– Franklin Nossiter