Tostan’s Chief Operating Officer (COO) Alexander Davey recently visited Mauritania. The purpose was largely to see firsthand how Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP) is being received, or not being received, on the ground—in a country that has its fair share of challenges.
What Davey witnessed on his visit both surprised and moved him.
Our first stop was in the community of Limbagda. Following a warm greeting by community members, individual participants began to share their experiences with the program, reflecting on what has changed. The secretary of the Community Management Committee (CMC), Oumou Alab Mint Wahab recounted, “Before the arrival of Tostan in our village, when our kids turned six years old, we would send them to be farmhands: feeding and herding camels and cattle. However, since studying and learning about human rights—and especially children’s rights—we have changed our attitude and our behavior. We don’t send our children away to work anymore; we send them to school.” Another notable addition to the community was a general goods store. The CMC saw that the 17 kilometer trek to get basic supplies was a problem for the people of Limbagda, so they pooled their funds and opened a “boutique,” which will save time and travel costs, plus bring in new revenue.
In Bourgoudouna, young adolescents proudly presented on each of the human rights they had learned about during the program, using pictures; a group of older women reflected on the visible changes in both mindset and practices of community members as a result of sessions on health and hygiene, as well as problem solving. The latter was specifically reflected in an example provided of the community being able to repair and delegate responsibility for a collective millet mill after completing the problem solving lessons in the CEP.
The community of Niakaka reported the creation of a “pop-up preschool” for young children, ongoing income generating activities like the establishment of a bakery and small market, the planting of fruit trees, and even a middle school director being inspired to build a new health center.
The last stop on the visit was in Thiénel: a community described as being “extremely engaged and dynamic” by Tostan staff. Those present pointed out that a large number of older women from the community were actively participating in the program; for most, this would be their only exposure to any form of education. However, their enthusiasm for the content of the program, the reported changes in perspective and attitude among community members, and their thirst for further information and dialogue was palpable.
One of the female facilitators proudly stated: “I have a law degree, however, I never dared express myself in front of a crowd. Now, after my Tostan training, I speak what and when I want, and I defend my ideas, no matter who I am talking too. Now, I am courageous.”
Another participant said, “I can speak to the importance of the CEP’s influence even in my own family, which has changed completely, especially with regards to my relationship with my wife. Thanks to this human rights education, she and I have much more mutual respect. I support her fully in all her activities as I now know that she too has rights, and she too can work outside the home.”
When asked what was most impactful about his visit to these communities, Davey replied, “I have been on field visits in previous roles where upon arrival you are seen as a deliverer of goods. People ask you for things. But Tostan communities don’t ask for ‘stuff.’ They just want continued accompaniment on this path they have embarked upon—a path chosen by them, directed towards fulfillment of their values, purpose, and human rights.”