Yesterday we didn’t know. Now we do.

Tostan’s Chief Partnerships Officer Carina Ndiaye visited communities across Gambia in 2023 as part of joining the organization and learning from our grassroots partners. Here, in a love letter to the county, Carina shares how she was surprised, awe-struck and heartened by the lessons and stories shared by community leaders along the way.

Santanto Mawdo

The first community we visited was named Santanto Mawdo. We were welcomed by the Community Management Committee (Child protection, Treasury, health, education environment, income generating activity, peace & security). The village Chief introduced himself and told us, with pride, that he was the Assistant of the Health Committee Lead. My brain was trying to comprehend what I was hearing. The utmost symbol of cultural and social authority in the village was proud to say that was the Assistant to a Woman. What…how…why…??

The conversation was tentative at first but soon, the various committee leads and their (sometimes male) assistants told us about their work and their progress. In this community, all of the children had birth certificates, which they showed us. All of the children were enrolled in school.

“The children are no longer roaming, unattended and turbulent. We used to send them to other villages, for errands, to visit family members and we would let them go barefoot and unclothed [which I assume was due to the high heat in the area]. And sometimes bad things would happen to them.

We learned that for sanitary and security reasons, it was best to clothe our children. And the bad things are happening less. Now we know [even more] how to protect our children. No child marriage. No FGC (female genital cutting)”

They brought out their registration certificate as a local association. They showed us the bank account ledger for the CMC which accounted for the income generation they managed as part of their community service. They spoke eloquently about their bio diverse gardens which were meant to feed the community but especially those within the community that were most at risk such as pregnant women and underfed children. The health and child welfare committees worked together to go door to door to let people know where the community health worker was to visit to make sure the visits were not missed.

They spoke of the nutritional value of certain grains which they prioritize in crop management and cultivation. They also spoke of their understanding of their rights and responsibilities as members of their community, of their district of their country. They shared their vision board and what they intended to achieve, in partnerships, in a ten-year span. They spoke proudly of the community’s fundraising plan to address certain issues like access to, and the collecting of water to help the local schools.

“Now we go to the schools, and we talk to the teachers, to the school leaders. We ask about our children, their progress, their challenges”

I asked how they collected money for the various projects they described and they said that it started with them.

“We come up with a plan and a budget. Then we see how much we can raise in the community. We also write our families and friends who are not here [overseas or in the big cities]. We tell them how much we’ve raised and how much we need to complete our project”

Sanekuleh Kunda

In the second community we (myself and my colleague Danielle Manning Halsey, Head of Philanthropy) visited, Sanekuleh Kunda, an older gentleman (Head of the Health Subcommittee) spoke to us at length about why he thought Tostan was unique.

“It’s difficult to change an old dog [I am assuming he was speaking about himself! ] Tostan showed us that you can learn at any age. And as they say, if you give a man a fish, he will be hungry in an hour. Teach a man how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime…The progress of which we speak today is due to this young lady right there..” he said signalling to a young woman nearby.

I was stunned. So I asked how…how did she do that?

“She knows how to talk to us, even to me {an older person}. She knows us enough to match the skills she is teaching and the knowledge she is sharing, to us. As people. As individuals. As a community. Not the other way around. She has motivated us to do for ourselves first, before looking to others for help. We are growing. We are learning. And it’s thanks to her. We need more Tostan.”

He was referring to the facilitator, who will spend three years in this community, listening, sharing, supporting, and inspiring through the Community Empowerment program. I looked at the seemingly shy woman standing in the corner, focused and quiet, organizing community reports. I looked at her again. How old is she, I wondered? Twenty… twenty-three…

These genuine moments of appreciation and pride in collective growth through inclusive dialogue and sharing are mind-blowing to me.

Why? I grew up in Dakar. The “big city”. I come from a pretty nontraditional family. My father had 4 girls before having the son I know my parents (not so secretly) hoped for. I went to school abroad. So did my parents. Nonetheless, certain implicit social agreements were very obvious to me growing up, even if challenged by day-to day life at home.

Such as:

    • Children are (most often) seen not heard.
    • We live in a patriarchal society
    • With age comes wisdom therefore the youth learn from the elders. Not the other way around.
    • In our society, men have a role to play.And women have another role to play (not necessarily inferior but definitely different)

I am generalizing but I hope you get the point. In this community, as well, the education committee diligently coordinated teacher check-ins and school updates.

The community participants of the Tostan Community Empowerment Program also attended our gathering and represented about half of the welcoming committee.They were all women. They left their rice fields (we arrived at the beginning of the afternoon), house chores, and lunch preparations to sit with us. I watched their faces during the Community Management Committee member presentations; mostly done by women.

I saw support, awe, and affirmation in their eyes. In this community, the program still has a year and a half to go and I hope that, like me, they saw themselves in the future. (Even more) Proud. Confident. Eloquent. Accomplished. And encouraged.

“We talk about what we can do to help the school so that our children are also helped. The school only had one bucket to collect water for their toilet facilities. It was not enough. So, we asked the village to help us get more buckets. We were able to raise enough funds to get more buckets and now things are better.”

The CMC members spoke a lot about the value of knowledge. “We had income [before] but no knowledge. No understanding. Now we can plan, and do things for ourselves. Change starts with us.”

I must admit that some of their comments gave me pause. I understood what they were saying. I was not always in agreement. And so I told them. In my opinion, Tostan waters a seed that is already firmly planted and vibrant. I asked them if watering the soil causes things to grow or whether it was the combination of soil ingredients and water and sun that created beautiful plants and crops.

My American colleague Danielle and I both agreed that we could see how the committee leads matched their committees. The introverts were often treasurers and income generating innovators. While the extroverts were social mobilizers and children welfare advocates.

The village chiefs and older men often assisted or led the Health Committees.

What we perceived was the intentional pairing of community leaders with their natural abilities. That to me is the value of Tostan in our communities. Because we listen. Because we live with them. Because our work is inspired by their point of view and priorities. We are able to help enhance the pre existing values, determination, and quasi-professional competency of incredibly resilient communities.

And because we don’t mistake our value added with pre existing insight, the social fabric through which we weave our sharing becomes stronger and our joint efforts sustainable.

What I saw in the communities that we serve, and what I read in the reports we receive from the field, is that through a listening based approach of sharing (human dignity principles), we are helping communities focus on the common goal of dignity for all in a safe, inclusive, and informed way.

In the moments of breath, outside of the classroom, when life is unfolding, subtle changes occur, conversations take place, and the norm is challenged. Not because the old way of doing things is labeled as bad. But because, in order to move forward in a world that is increasingly challenging, everyone’s voice can bring added value.

With project management tools for example, and a clear understanding of what it takes to fully embrace the rights embedded in the socio-political fabric of our societies, one also has to understand his and her corresponding responsibility as a member of the group and of the nation.


Local Officials

Tostan Makes our Jobs Easier.

During our trip we met with the following officials:

    • The representative of the Regional Health Directorate of the Central River Region (CRR)
    • The Regional Health Directorate in Upper River Region (URR)
    • The Honorable Governor of CRR
    • The Honorable Governor of URR
    • The Basse Area Council members

Two key messages came across very clearly. “Tostan makes our jobs easier,” and “we want and need more [Tostan programming] in all of our regions and in our country.”

Mr. Sow welcomed us warmly and spoke so insightfully about Tostan that I wondered, at first, whether he’d worked for us before.

Our work [Ministry of Health and Tostan] complement each other. Your work boosts morale [in the communities] and increases our visibility at the community level.

“You are helpful in so many ways, including in our ability to collect data. You help us meet our deliverables. The health, safety, and care of every Gambian is important [to both of us]. Knowledge is power and what you are helping to create are role models.”

He spoke at length of Tostan’s work as a boosting agent for the operationalization of and communications of their health initiatives through the radio station programs. The organized diffusion of key information if you will, especially at a time when health agents may not have been able to reach remote communities because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key health messages were transmitted in local languages and life-preserving behavior reinforced by Tostan facilitators in the community.

The members of the Basse Area Council shared the following:

“Tostan’s work complements the effort of the Council and does where the Council cannot do, due to limited resources. It’s more than an education program.”

“Our council has learned [best practices] from other councils through Tostan. And we are now able to share our best practices with other councils. Those who could not speak or who were not heard are now integrated into society because of Tostan. Women who cannot read or speak [English} have been capacitated in more ways than one. They now use mobile phones to write, to plan, and to do business. Families have also been impacted. Domestic violence has decreased because people know how to discuss [issues] peacefully.”

“Our council has learned [best practices] from other councils through Tostan. And we are now able to share our best practices with other councils. School youth councils have been formed and are nurturing the leaders of tomorrow. Civil thinking is now an intergenerational exercise.”

“Our work at the decentralized governance level is enhanced by Tostan’s because it helps us to filter information down to the grassroots level. We feel empowered and so do the communities [that work with Tostan]. Our work is more efficient. Tostan has revitalized the village development committees.”

“The village, ward, and general council initiatives are now mirrored and integrated.”

“We consider children friendly policies and we are truly focused on the communities priorities because they are better able to express them.”

“They also highlighted one shared observation: “In almost all of Tostan’s sites [partner communities] cleanliness is emphasized. Which means children are [even more] protected. I am not sure that on my own I would have made the correlation between a clean village and safe(r) children but it makes sense. Absolutely. They concluded by saying Tostan is a household name in the URR.”

“I am proud to be accused of being the mouthpiece for Tostan.”

Mr. Sow, Senior Administrative Office of the Health Directorate (CRR) tells me, laughingly.

“National development is about collective responsibility. We are all partners. Including the members of the community. There are over sixty (60) institutions [NGOs} in the CRR. Out of the sixty, Tostan is the dearest and closest to me.

Communities [who work with Tostan] see themselves as being part [of the change]. They put a lot of pressure on my office. So, in a way, Tostan has made my work harder and easier (laughter). They [community members] did not know that they could come to my office. They didn’t know  that I am actually here to serve them. That I am here because of them.

Tostan gives them the courage to discuss [with me] things that affect their lives and wellness. It [Tostan] has helped me because I can’t be everywhere. But I can visit the communities that come here, discuss [their issues and needs] and invite me.

“I sit with them. We eat. We discuss [in their communities. They tell me what they expect of me. But most importantly, they tell me what they expect of themselves and for themselves. When we meet in my office, they ask to take pictures, they record my pledge (to visit, to assist, etc…) so they can take it back to their community and report back on our meeting and next steps.”

He then hosted us for lunch in his residence. Me. Danielle. The driver Lamine. His Assistant. We all sat together for a delicious meal of rice and meat. A local delicacy. We talked about our lives. Our work. About the challenges we face in our service. He sent me home with a bottle of nut oil.

We hoisted our car onto the ferry and headed back to Senegal with a little piece of Gambia in our hearts and in our mission. I hope you’ve gained a better understanding of what Tostan means for the communities, and ecosystem we serve.

We have approximately  800 staff members sprinkled throughout our region and continent. We stand proud. In service. In care. In admiration. And most importantly, with love.

After 32 years of learning and listening, we are entering a new phase. Not a new beginning per se, a moment of reflection, appreciation, and adaptation. Over 3,000 communities have welcomed us. Danced with us. And evolved with us.

Thank you for your support. We thank you for your unwavering belief in the power of human-centered service. We admire your own resilience as we face one global crisis after another. Together, let s go even farther as we continue on this journey that leads us to community well-being.

Join us at the African Regional Wellbeing Summit
Dakar – Thiès 2023