The journey to Ndiobène Talène is not the most pleasant one. The last 40 km of road before arriving in Kaolack has more potholes than pavement, and the half-hour journey from Kaolack to Ndiobène Talène is largely unpaved. However, it was not my own discomfort that I was thinking about, but rather that of the hundreds of people who would be making similar journeys across Senegal to converge in the village square of Ndiobène Talène. I doubted that their forms of transportation would be nearly as comfortable as mine (with air conditioning and the like), yet they would make the trek in order to attend this important public declaration.

     In fact, that so many people would take a long, gruelling trip in order to collectively announce to the world that violence is no longer an option when it comes to raising a child, and that the rights of the child must be upheld in order for children to develop properly, is what will stay with me the longest.

     This particular public declaration, held on June 13th, came together as a result of the communities having participated in Tostan’s Reinforcement of Parental Practices (RPP) program. The RPP (which receives generous funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation) has an overall goal of helping parents reinforce positive practices so as to further a child’s development, ensuring a child’s success in school and in life. The program starts by raising awareness about the importance of interacting with children under the age of three, and then engaging the communities (who now have the necessary information) to protect and promote the rights of the child and better their educational environment.

     Over the course of the weekend spent in Kaolack, I got the impression that this public declaration was not a Tostan-led event. Rather, in the style of all the work that Tostan does, the declaration was an event that the communities themselves were in charge of. That is not to say that the Tostan staff didn’t put  a great deal of work into making sure everything ran smoothly. As a member of the Kaolack staff said:  “A declaration consists of before, during and after the actual event.” This goes to show that although the event was community-led, Tostan staff were just as invested  as the communities, and did as much “behind the scenes” as they could.

     While visiting Ndiobène Talène, we were invited to attend a cultural evening–which consisted of all the different communities with various cultural backgrounds–gathering to play music, dance and enjoy the festivities. It provided great insight into the positive attitude that came along with the RPP project and the big event.

     The declaration itself, held the next day, involved key members explaining the overall project, the work that had been done and the work that remains to be done, fully outlining the past, present and future of the RPP goals.

     The ceremony began with an opening prayer. This is important because part of the success of the RPP project has been involving religious leaders to help demonstrate  the fact that the Koran speaks of nonviolence in education and the raising of a child. During the event, both the religious leaders, as well as a school principal, outlined the negative effects of violence towards children, and reinforced that the rights of a child are to be upheld at all times.

     The main speeches and skits of the ceremony were punctuated with song and dance. During the declaration, and indeed the whole weekend, I felt the extent to which the participating communities cared for their children. And, in a very powerful moment, I saw how empowered the youth of these communities also felt.

     The pretext to the RPP project is that only 10% of students in Senegal were found to have adequate capability in math and French after three years of elementary school. Tostan had realized that early success in school was likely connected to the early development of a child (especially those under three years). Before the RPP, it was a common practice for parents  not to show infants much affection, or not to look them in the eyes or to speak to them. However, what we now know is that those kinds of interactions are vital for the development of a child’s brain.

     The crux of the public ceremony involved the presentation of a memorandum, summarizing the work that has been, and is yet to be done involving positive parental practices and the rights of children, to the regional governor. The governor then in turn gave a speech outlining his commitment to the work and the mission.

     After the ceremony there was a sense of relief and gratification that everything had gone well. All participants of the declaration–from the children crowding around the central square to see the event, to the parents,  to the governor of the region–seemed proud to support the incredible progress happening  in the participating communities.

    On my way back to Dakar, I was thrilled to have been part of such an important and life-changing event for many youth and young children in Senegal. With Tostan’s strategies in place, I know that this movement will only grow.  In the end, the bumpy and windy road out of Kaolack certainly seemed worth the opportunity to participate in the momentous events of the weekend in Ndiobène Tolène, Senegal.

Written by Daniel Ford, Tostan Intern, Dakar