As a volunteer with the Reinforcement of Parental Practices (RPP) Module, a component of Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP), I recently had the chance to travel to the village of Dya in Kaolack, a region in the south of Senegal. The module reinforces knowledge gained in the CEP that supports parents and other community members to create an environment encouraging children’s early development and learning, preparing them to perform better and stay in school. As we arrived from the bustling city of Kaolack, the CEP supervisor and facilitator for Dya, Ibrahima Ba and Ndiaga Yade, along with other women from the village, gave us a warm welcome. After having gone through the habitual greetings, during which everything from your night’s sleep to your grandmother’s wellbeing is inquired after, we rested for a brief moment under a shady tree before being promptly swept away by Ndiaga and one of the participants, Sokna Diop, to watch a Visite à Domicile, or home visit.

Home visits are a core component of the RPP during which the facilitator is able to pay close attention to the ways in which the main caregiver interacts with his or her child. Through these personalized sessions the caregivers grow aware of how their actions affect their child’s mental and physical wellbeing. Sokna, who is the primary caregiver of her grandchild Fama Diouf, was extremely proud of the beautiful baby girl and of the progress that she was making with each home visit.

These home visits are only one of many facets that make up the RPP Module. Launched in March 2013, the RPP has already reached 232 Wolof, Pulaar, and Mandinka speaking villages in Senegal. With over 200 facilitators and 49 supervisors, this CEP module has responded to huge demands in the education of children and parent-child relationships. Using Tostan’s holistic and nonformal approach to learning, the RPP Module, funded by the Hewlett Foundation, raises awareness about children’s psychological development. Through home visits and a variety of group sessions, parents and families deepen their understanding of how to create a healthy and educational environment in which to raise their children.

That afternoon in the village of Dya, we had the privilege of sitting in on a session. During this session, Ndiaga Yade, the facilitator, spoke in Wolof about developing a baby’s “emotional intelligence”. He began by asking his participants, about 40 women, what they thought empathy meant. An older woman responded by quoting an old Wolof proverb that describes someone with empathy as a person who is “Borom xol bu rafet” —someone with a beautiful heart. Others raised their hands to share opinions and stories about empathy, like being sad when you see a friend get hurt. After a few minutes of discussion the facilitator explained the psychological workings behind empathy and how you can stimulate these in a child through simple gestures such as soft touches or eye contact.

Nodding emphatically, a woman leaned over to my colleague, Emma Giloth, to show her the packet of books she had brought along with her for the session. As the others shared anecdotes about empathy, Khady Ndiaye was sharing her favorite stories and images from the module’s books with Emma. As one of the caregivers in the program she uses the books to teach her children to read. Not only does she enjoy reading stories to her family but she also likes to create her own stories with the help of images from different pages. As part of Tostan’s organized diffusion process, she has chosen to adopt her sister as a person with whom she can share her new knowledge. In this way, the program affects not only the direct participants but also others within the community and beyond.

It was very moving to see women like Khady who were extremely enthusiastic about this module and were deeply passionate about the future of their children. This module’s growing popularity is testament to a very real need for further knowledge and education. It isn’t surprising that the RPP is being requested in more and more villages — in fact, at the end of this particular session, a young woman from another village came to talk to the facilitator about bringing RPP sessions to her community.

Story by Isabelle Wheeler, Tostan.