Last Thursday, March 20th, in the third event of its kind organized by Tostan, a group of Islamic religious leaders gathered in Kolda, Senegal to participate in a discussion on childhood brain development and parental practices. The 39 Pulaar imams and marabouts in attendance came from the Kolda and Kaolack regions of Senegal and spent two days in the seminar organized through Tostan’s Reinforcement of Parental Practices (RPP) team. Similar seminars have already been held by Tostan in Ziguinchor and Kaolack, two of the five regions where the RPP module is being implemented in Senegal.

Using Tostan’s model of organized diffusion, the RPP module coordinators strive to mobilize influential community leaders to amplify the spread of information. Their support dramatically increases awareness because it helps mobilize the community members who rely on their opinions.

The seminar in Kolda included various speakers, presentations, and small group activities. The deputy mayor was one of the speakers. He shared, “We, the leaders, must work together to improve the education of our children. This is why they invited leaders whose opinions influence a significant portion of the population; those who are listened to by their communities and who are frequently present in group gatherings.” Later, a presentation was given in Arabic that delved into various passages from the Koran linking the importance of education and the way in which the prophet Mohammed (PBUH) educated his children. An additional presentation was made on the science behind brain development and how critical the first years of life are in building the foundation for learning later on.

This seminar also served to lay the groundwork for the religious leaders’ participation in a social mobilization caravan that began the following day. This 14-day caravan is bringing “Baby-ology Night” to 14 villages, with a total of 40 communities participating in the activities. All 40 of these communities are currently participating in the RPP module.

The “Baby-ology Nights” are a fun and effective activity designed to continue educating communities on ways parents can to promote childhood brain development. They are also an opportunity for the religious leaders to share their views on child protection and education.  The caravan kicked off on Saturday in the village of Bignarabé, with three nearby communities that are also participating in the RPP module in attendance as well. The event began at 23 pm, but despite the late start, the energetic participants clapped and danced before, during, and after the evening’s program.

During the event the five Primary Caregivers in Bignarabé performed a skit. In every community participating in RPP there are five Primary Caregivers who visit homes to monitor the progress made by mothers in interacting with their babies using techniques they learn in the class. During the skit in Bignarabé, one of the Primary Caregivers performed a live interaction with her baby to demonstrate what kinds of strategies can be used in order to promote her baby’s cognitive abilities.

Following the skit was a video on brain development. At various intervals the video was paused to permit Birom Diallo, the Kolda RPP module coordinator, to explain the images. The audience was fascinated by Birom’s explanations of how quickly babies absorb information and how key it is to increase their opportunities for learning even before they leave the womb.

The 35 participants in Bignarabé’s RPP class have already learned the science behind childhood brain development and are actively using this to improve how they interact with their babies. The “Baby-ology Night” provided a powerful visual explanation to the audience about the importance of what those participating in the class are currently accomplishing. As the caravan continues, community members and the religious leaders who participated in the RPP seminar will be able to encourage those parents not already taking advantage of the techniques to use them with their own children as well.