Every Friday, we will share the story of a member of the Tostan team. The wide range of people who contribute to Tostan each bring with them a unique perspective on community development, and use their talents and knowledge in important ways to make our programs possible.

Marie Sall has been with Tostan since its creation, volunteering as a facilitator in Senegal, and now, years later, still unafraid to take on new challenges. “If someone tells me it is impossible to go somewhere, then that is where I have to go!” she emphasized.

During her 22 years with the organization, she has left her mark on many projects and has played a role in some of the key innovations in the development of Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP). Marie now works in the Senegal country office as the Assistant to the National Coordinator for all programs in Senegal. “I have worked in nearly every role… I like giving my advice and sharing my experience with people working on all of the projects we have now” she indicated.

Though Marie was born in Dakar, the capital, she grew up in Diourbel, a region in Senegal’s interior. “Both of my parents worked at the regional hospital there. My father was the Director and my mother a nurse. When I was young I wanted to be a nurse too, I’ve always been driven to help others.” Instead of nursing, Marie was drawn to development, and in 1991 she volunteered to teach the forerunner to the CEP, which then consisted of lessons in literacy, project management, and leadership in the villages of Saam Ndiaye and Ker Abdou Njaay.

From 1991 to 1995, Marie worked as a facilitator in several communities and in a hospital for disabled people in the city of Thiès. She was then promoted to supervisor and undertook research for a new project financed by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). After talking to hundreds of people in different communities, the research found that more information about health was sorely needed. According to Marie, “these lessons about health came from the communities’ requests. Sure, people wanted to learn how to read, but they had so many difficulties with their health. They were topics people wanted to learn more about, things like reproductive health, pregnancy, diseases, female genital cutting… so many people told us what they wanted was more information about their bodies. Once you have information, you know what to do; you know how to take care of yourself.”​

In 1996, Marie participated in workshops for what was at the time an additional module to the program, focusing on health. Many of the health issues were very sensitive – often people would rather hide potentially serious problems than go to see a doctor. Taboos existed in many communities around discussing issues such as female genital cutting (FGC) publicly. “We saw that many of these issues were too difficult for people to talk about at first. It was out of that research that human rights became the fundamental building block of Tostan’s programs. When we wanted to talk about women’s health, we needed first to talk about human rights. People need to understand that they have a right to be healthy, and a responsibility to learn about their bodies. ” Using the new human rights strategy, the very first public declaration to abandon harmful practices occurred in 1997 in the village of Malicounda Bambara – a village Marie supervised.

In 2004, Marie took on a new challenge – coordinating a modified version of the CEP in Senegalese prisons at the same time as coordinating another project with the city of Thiès. “I listened to my sisters in prison” she described. “They needed someone to talk to. Many of the crimes were committed because of a lack of information, so we would teach them and explain things to them. Sometimes their families were angry with them for what they had done, and never came to see them. These women didn’t have the chance to apologize or attempt to reconcile with them on their own.”

An important and very challenging component of the prison project was, and still is, family mediations. “I will never forget the mediations” Marie recounted. “We would meet with families, to help them reconcile with their daughters so they could support them once they were released from prison. Sometimes people held so much pain. It was difficult! But deep down, they still loved their children, despite what they had done, and many were able to find the strength to forgive.”

Marie later took on the position of the first coordinator in the region of Mbour and in 2008 she set-up the monitoring and evaluation department in the Senegal country office before moving in 2012 to directly assist the National Coordinator. .

“Tostan is like my family. I have worked with so many great people, and I am proud to see how our programs have grown over the years. When I look at some of the projects I have worked on and see that they are still going today, I think to myself ‘Ah, Marie… you really have done something!’”

Read more about other dedicated staff including Penda Mbaye, Alassane Diédhiou, and Lamin Fatty.

Interview by Matthew Boslego, Tostan.