In the below letter from the 2015 Annual Report, Tostan’s Board Chair Dr. Cheikh Mbacke describes what it was about Tostan that stood out to him, after  over a decade in the field, and why he joined Tostan’s efforts to “nourish the most valuable resources we have on the African continent: the minds and spirits of the people who live here.”


To the Tostan global family,

Like most of you, I would imagine, I find myself these days in frequent discussions with colleagues, family, and friends about the significant challenges we are facing as a global community. While the questions are many, I tend to return to a common theme when it comes to what I think is an answer: the day we see more women leaders is the day we will find the solutions we seek.

Often, people think I mean only in global politics. But actually I mean it at all levels, and in particular I am often thinking of the local level, the community level. This is in large part because of what I have seen at Tostan.

I first met Molly Melching and Tostan 10 years ago when I returned back home to Senegal after retiring from the Rockefeller Foundation where I was Vice President for administration and regional programs. I had just completed a 14-year career at the foundation, 11 of which were spent in the field, at the Nairobi office. Those 11 years in grantmaking with regular contact with grantees taught me lessons about grantee impact.

When I met Molly I was a consultant to the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation’s population program and my assignment was to help them think through their reproductive health programming in Africa. My exploration led me to Tostan which, I was told, had a groundbreaking approach with impact where no program seemed to work. My meetings with Tostan confirmed what I heard and it was with pleasure that I accepted the invitation to join the Tostan board in 2008. After two visits to a village near Thies, and another to a village near my home town Nioro, I saw something I had not seen before: confident women taking the lead in community meetings and making great presentations on issues that were usually discussed and handled exclusively by men.

It was not just the agency demonstrated by women but also its acceptance by men that impressed me. This is when I realized what Tostan’s approach to community empowerment really meant, how effective it was, and how much potential this approach had for Senegal and far beyond.

It is for this reason that for seven years I have served on the Board of Directors, supporting Tostan’s journey to refine a model that works to nourish the most valuable resources we have on the African continent: the minds and spirits of the people who live here. It was my pleasure to be elected as Board Chair in 2015 and an honor to be able to play a part in shaping the Strategy Tostan follows, both programmatically and organizationally, while continuing to contribute my specific expertise in monitoring and evaluation.

[In 2015], 381 more communities declared their abandonment of FGC and forced/early child marriage, making the total 7,630 by year end. Hundreds of women who previously did not speak in public ran for local office – and were elected. Tostan’s Reinforcement of Parental Practices engaged and developed the minds of hundreds of baby girls and boys in West Africa and received international recognition for its validated results. Religious leaders were trained on human rights methodology and went back to their communities to joyfully take action to make positive change. New collective businesses were started using local resources. Community leaders made sure that both girls and boys went to school — and that young children got vaccinated. And, in keeping with the subtle, fundamental change I first encountered at Tostan, the very way that families made decisions in the home shifted.

As you encounter these results, and all of the other accomplishments of 2015, I ask you to consider the role that women’s empowerment–and the broader community empowerment that complements it–have played. As Tostan turns 25, I hope you will join all of us at Tostan in celebrating decades of hard work by looking ahead to the next 25 years, as we discover how Tostan can make its greatest contributions moving forward.

Like a prism, when we direct the energy of our efforts through the agency of women and communities, a rich spectrum of colors immediately begins to dance. Even with all of the challenges our world faces, I’m convinced that if we focus on women’s empowerment and the social change to which it is inextricably linked, the coming decades can be filled with a myriad of bright solutions.

Sincerest Regards,

Dr. Cheikh Mbacke