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.

While interviewing Alassane Diédhiou, the National Coordinator of Tostan in Guinea-Bissau, the conversation is interrupted by a beep from his cellphone. “You see? They’re always texting me now!” he exclaimed. “This one is from Niana Cissé, she’s from the Community Management Committee (CMC) in Caió. Three years ago she couldn’t read, just like many others. Now she just texted, in Mandinka, to wish me a happy end of Ramadan.”

Alassane has been coordinating Tostan projects in Guinea-Bissau since he joined the organization in 2008. He supported the first 39 communities in the country as they completed the Community Empowerment Program (CEP) from 2009 to 2012, and is preparing to work with new communities later this year.

Literacy, especially in people’s first languages, has always been important to Alassane – from 1981 until he joined Tostan, he worked with the Senegalese Ministry of Education’s Department of Literacy and National Languages as a specialist in the Diola language. He trained teachers in Diola writing, advised grassroots organizations, and even presented the news in the language on the national television station. For Alassane, literacy is the key to a project’s sustainability. As he put it, “I’ve worked on many projects, and I have seen the importance of literacy in helping to create lasting change. In Senegal, I was part of the team that translated the law against female genital cutting (FGC) into Diola so that people could have access to it. When people can read, they can learn the laws for themselves and see what it really says.”

In early 2013, after the first project in Guinea-Bissau had concluded, Alassane stayed in the country to follow up with the communities. He worked with the CMCs and encouraged them to hold writing contests to see who could produce the best written story. “At first,” he explained “people were timid. They were worried about making mistakes. But, the CMC members encouraged community members. They would correct the stories as a group to provide everyone with a chance to improve their grammar, and people quickly grew more confident in their writing. Some of these stories were folk tales from the communities which had never been written down before!”

The ability to write in their own language also helped the CMC members manage community funds after the program. “Every single village that participated in the program has been able to raise money.” Alassane elaborated, “a few months after the program finished, we noticed that some villages were saving a lot of money, while others were only saving a little. We were able to help them organize workshops, where many communities would come together and share what they were doing – what was working for them, and what wasn’t. They are sharing knowledge and resources to work together.” Many CMCs now cooperate with each other in Guinea-Bissau to run income-generating activities, such as a running a warehouse in one small town, renting it out as a storage facility, and processing cashew nuts in rural areas.

Each community has opened a bank account with the national bank along with many neighboring villages. Guinea-Bissau is a small country, so these 157 account openings attracted a lot of attention. “The director of the bank approached me and said that he had never seen this before – so many communities were opening accounts. I explained to him how it was an extension of our project and he agreed to reduce the costs for them.” The communities have also now started collaborating to request credit from the bank. A group of communities will take out a single loan and divide it among themselves. “Women are the ones leading this. They come to get the loans and they keep track of who owes what,” Alassane explained.

Now, all 39 of the partner communities and many “adopted” villages are successfully saving money to invest in their futures. Alassane believes that they are the ones who need to make these decisions, saying “The most important thing about this program is listening to people. I know for a fact that people from these villages know what they need much better than I do! With literacy, everything they have learned will not be forgotten. People have learned critical thinking skills. They want to find out the truth for themselves, and reading gives them this ability.”

Interview by Matthew Boslego, Tostan. Photographs by Julia Obbereiter © Tostan.

Read about Project Officer Penda Mbaye’s 19-year journey at Tostan.