Published in OmVarlden – Newspaper of the Swedish International Development Agency
By Gudrun Renberg, translated into English by Carly Stewart and Gudrun Renberg
In the fall of 1974 a young American student arrived in Senegal for a six month exchange program. Thirty-four years later she remains. Molly Melching is the founder of Tostan – the NGO that, without even having made abandonment of FGC an initial objective in its program, has been recognized and praised internationally for just that.
OmVärlden met her in Dakar.
« No, never, never have I regretted this – what an amazing thing to be doing! »
She is all energy, good spirits and seems used to silly questions from the journalists she receives at the Tostan office on the outskirts of Dakar. The house steams with activity. Many want to talk to Molly.
Molly Melching is today such a well known personality in Senegal and so integrated within the country, it is hard to picture that young student who, determined to understand this foreign culture, arrived one October’s day a long time ago. And cried herself to sleep at night in the beginning. Perhaps it is not so easy to explain, either, why this family girl from the American Midwest became so driven to understand and bridge cultural differences – but that’s how it happened. And that is also one of the motivations behind the creation of Tostan, an organization which was many years in the making. (Tostan means « breakthrough » in the African language of Wolof.)
An important turning point was when she started studying at the University of Illinois, in the midst of the most turbulent protests of 1968.
« I had been brought up protected with the notion that the world is a safe and a good place. Then I came to the university where everybody was protesting! There was much happening: the Vietnam war, the women’s movement, the civil rights’ movement, all that…and I was totally surprised. Over the racism that I hadn’t known about, over all the misery in the world. »
Her studies in French had previously brought her to France, where she was struck by the great difference in worldviews, ways of life and in thinking between the French and the Americans. This inspired her to teach French, first at high school level, and later at the university. She created her own course which focused more on culture than grammar, and it quickly became popular. This is where her interest in Africa arose. The class started looking at the ramifications of imposing one culture, in this case the French, on another. So they looked at the French colonization of Africa and invited Africans to speak about it.
« I realized then how different Africa is from the States. The Africans I met were very welcoming, kind, and people-oriented. It was very different from how I was brought up. »
As if by chance – or fate? She briefly utters the word – her university created, for the first time, a student exchange program with francophone West Africa: Dakar, Senegal, was the destination to which two chosen students could go.
Molly Melching went there – and stayed. And even if she loved the country and its people from day one, she admits that it was hard in the beginning. Surprisingly hard.
« I thought that I had studied other cultures enough to be able to adapt easily. And then it was so different! And there were things that upset me. But the fact that it was difficult also made me love it more. »
Before long she was drawn into the ongoing national movement to promote national languages in Senegal, where Wolof is spoken by at least 80% of the population. She started a cultural center for children where they wrote stories and poetry, did theatre and radio programs, all in Wolof. As a result she learned it herself, which changed her worldview completely.
« I really didn’t understand much of what was going on around me before I learned the language. »
After six years she left the children’s centre and started work in a small village to create pedagogical materials in collaboration with the villagers. Their work evolved during the 1980s into a comprehensive basic education program which took shape using African traditions as the starting point. UNICEF started supporting their efforts in 1988, and in 1991 the NGO Tostan was formally registered.
Tostan’s guiding star is: human dignity for all. Its founding pillars are human rights education and a participatory approach. Molly Melching is so cautious and emphatic in underlining that Tostan tells no one what to do, that it has no systematic agenda for FGC abandonment or holds any « this-is-how-to-avoid-AIDS- lectures. » Then one asks oneself: What is it then that Tostan teaches? And why does it succeed in promoting the abandonment of the practice of FGC, when that is hardly the focus of its curriculum?
Because it has had success. Through its education program, which today is implemented not only in Senegal but in seven other African countries – among them the Gambia and Guinea – over 3,000 communities have abandoned the practice through public declarations.
Tostan has been chosen for having a best-practice-model in that field by WHO and UNICEF, and has been recognized among two other organizations in an important evaluation by USAID and the Population Reference Bureau in 2006, for its sustainable and culturally sensitive methods. When the FGC issue comes up, so does Tostan. And the organization is growing. With support from Sida, Tostan has gone through an important in depth organization-wide audit with the explicit motive of identifying areas for reinforcement in order to extend the model to other African countries. Moreover, the employees are almost all African.
Molly Melching herself was taken by surprise when in 1997 a group of community members in the Senegalese village of Malicounda Bambara, where Tostan had worked for two years, decided to abandon the practice of FGC and announce it publicly. « I couldn’t believe my ears, » she says. And the decision was one made exclusively by the villagers themselves.
The Tostan model is a thirty-month long educational program through which villagers learn about human rights, democracy, and hygiene/health. The courses are run by facilitators who are themselves of the same ethnic group as the village participants and teach in the local language. The class participants represent all groups of society – women, men, elders, youth, religious leaders. To many, the concept of human rights was never even heard of previously. When the human right to health comes up for discussion, the group talks about what this means for them. What factors contribute to ill health in the village?
« The women then bring up the practice of FGC themselves. They speak of hemorrhaging, pain, and shock. They speak of daughters who have died. » Molly Melching stresses that many who practice FGC have of course long known that the practice is harmful and have wanted to abandon it. But what makes it impossible for individuals to do that on their own, is that this tradition is tied to marriage; forgoing FGC would make the girls unmarriagable. The threat of social exclusion weighs heavy.
« That is the reason why public declarations – that is, collective decisions to abandon the practice – are the only way, » says Melching. What that community in Senegal decided to do in 1997 has been replicated repeatedly. It is a growing phenomenon whereby people have gone through the Tostan community empowerment program and have since joined in similar declarations – the number now totaling more than 3,000 communities.
But it must be allowed time and everybody must be involved. Including the men, who are quite often easy to convince – many fathers have grieved the death of a daughter from infection or hemorrhage. Many however, until the health education portion of the program, did not see the connection between FGC and its complications. They lacked knowledge on the issue, and before Tostan, public discussions on FGC were taboo.
The key to the Tostan success, according to the evaluators of Tostan, is partly due to the respectful approach, partly due to the holistic model which aims to give the populations knowledge and skills that they need in order to improve their confidence, self-esteem and quality of life. For example, towards the end of the education program, participants receive practical skills training on starting income-generating activities, and many communities are offered micro-credit funds.
The decision to host public declarations to abandon FGC is not a part of the program.
« But most arrive at that decision by themselves. For some it just takes a little more time, » says Molly Melching.
« And the abandonment of FGC, » she continues, « is also just one out of a multitude of results. » Tostan won the Conrad N. Hilton Prize in 2007, and has been praised and nominated for its work with literacy – in 2007 with a UNESCO Literacy Prize and in 2005 was given the Anna Lindh reward for its human rights work. Tostan is mainly financed by UNICEF, but also by several international foundations and individuals. Among the bilateral donors, Sida is an important long-term partner.
Why then does she do this? Molly Melching has no difficulty answering that question. She has had offers, but declined.
« Recently I was out in the field and met a woman who had lost her daughter because of the cutting. She was excited when she told me how she, after her Tostan education, had spent 10 months walking around to forty villages in her region, sharing her experience and her knowledge of human rights. She said that because the people there are her relatives, she knows how to talk to them – and they listen. Before she had never spoken of her loss, it was so taboo. And you should have seen how her face lighted up when she explained this to me! It was as if she had found her voice for the first time. »
« To hear her voice then is enough for me to want to continue. I could never be without that contact with the people in the villages, to follow what’s going on and see that we can indeed contribute to supporting people in this movement. »