We left the bustling city of Kolda on a warm Saturday afternoon, the road disappearing behind us as we headed toward the remote village of Sare Sounkkarou: one of the 110 communities participating in Tostan’s Reinforcement of Parental Practices (RPP) program this year. After being greeted warmly by women, men and a host of grinning children, we were ushered over to a shady patch under a big tree, where we could discuss how the program is going.

Research has shown that an important factor in children’s ability to succeed in school is determined by their early experiences and that the most crucial period for brain development is between 0-3 years.  During this time, parents should play with and talk to children as much as possible, using a rich and complex vocabulary. In Senegal, there exist some social norms and taboos which lead primary caregivers to avoid speaking to and making eye contact with young children, in order to protect them from evil spirits. This is likely an important factor in why schoolchildren across Senegal performed so poorly in a key reading and comprehension assessment in 2009. 

The RPP program—implemented in communities that have already taken part in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP)—equips parents with the knowledge and tools to improve the quality of their interactions with children, stimulating brain development and preparing them for school. Since the pilot phase in 2012, the program has been implemented in 342 communities, and has reached many more as a result of communities spreading their new knowledge within their social networks. The program includes class sessions tailored to the local context and delivered in three national languages—Wolof, Pulaar and Mandinka—by a trained facilitator who lives in the community throughout the one-year program. Parents are also given a set of illustrated storybooks written in national languages to encourage reading with children. 

The program is constantly evolving and adapting to local challenges. For example, home visits, where participants learn practical techniques in their own homes, were added to the program this year to reinforce the knowledge that participants gain through classes. Social mobilization activities to actively spread the message of the RPP, led by religious leaders, school staff and local authorities have also become key parts of the program.

As I sat surrounded by the women of Sare Sounkkarou, dressed in their brightly colored boubous and striking Senegalese prints, the first question I asked was which of the program’s 43 class sessions was their favorite. Classes had ended three months previously in preparation for the rainy season, so I was anticipating a few moments of silence as the women tried to recall sessions. But the group erupted with lively chatter; all of a sudden everyone had something to say! “Children’s Rights!” one woman shouted. “Brain Development!” said another. “No, no,” another exclaimed, “the best part is the Five Intelligences!” (This is where parents learn about the different forms of intelligence we can stimulate during early childhood development: lingual, social, emotional, psycho-motor, and logico-mathematic).

I asked the women about the changes they’d seen in their community since beginning the program in January. One mother explained, “Before, there was no interaction with children, now everyone speaks to the children.” She remarked that the community is already beginning to see changes in the children too, as they start to speak more and from an earlier age. 

Another woman explained that the community’s notions of gender are starting to change. There used to be discrimination between boys and girls in the community, and “before, it was only boys who went to school, but now girls go too.” “At least 20 girls from our community have been enrolled in school this year,” added another RPP participant. The community as a whole has also been actively engaged in obtaining birth certificates for their children, which are vitally important for their access to a number of services, including national exams. The program has also contributed to changing the relationship between the community and its schools, as community members came together to buy and install furniture in classrooms.

While early childhood interactions and child rearing have long been considered the domain of women in Senegalese society, several of the women told me that they are noticing men playing an increasingly active role in their children’s early learning. Now men in their community are walking children to school and making an effort to meet with teachers to keep track of their children’s progress. One Expert Primary Caregiver (EPC)—selected to carry out home visits with parents—told me that the husbands of some participants had even joined the home visits. 

One of the women proudly announced that since starting the RPP, “People don’t hit their children anymore…now we talk to them and explain things to them, especially in schools, where this used to be a big problem.” This transformation in attitudes towards violence reflects the RPP program’s partnership with religious leaders in the community. These ambassadors for social change are using every opportunity, from their Friday sermons to local marriages and baptisms, to spread the teachings of the RPP, highlighting how the Prophet Mohammed placed great value on education and didn’t condone violence. This type of awareness-raising ensures the sustainability and flourishing of the program long after classes end.

Perhaps the most interesting takeaway from meeting the women of Sare Sounkkarou was learning how they are overcoming obstacles and adapting the program to suit their needs. While everyone is busy working in the fields throughout the rainy season from August-October, it can be difficult for EPCs to find the time to carry out home visits. However, the three EPCs from Sare Sounkkarou explained how they always take advantage of Friday mornings to make the visits because this is the day community members don’t go to the fields. They also decided to do home visits as a group, to support one another and remind each other of the sequence of sessions.

Just before climbing into the car to leave, I had some time to talk and play with the children. One of the EPC’s hurried over to the crowd and began prompting them in Pulaar to tell me their names, ages and what they like to do.  The EPC then looked at me with a proud grin as they all began confidently chatting away and vying for my attention.

As we prepare to bring the RPP program to the next set of communities in Senegal, the energy and dynamism of this community served as a powerful reminder of the real potential for a brighter future ahead for children across this country–and perhaps even region.

Vicki Loader

Assistant to Reinforcement of Parental Practices program