This week’s Throwback Thursday highlights an incredibly moving piece written by Nick Cornwall, a former Tostan volunteer, after he visited Tostan partner communities in Mauritania for the first time. It is longer than our usual blog posts, but every word is worth the read. Enjoy!

I changed in the four weeks that I spent in Senegal and Mauritania as a volunteer for Tostan. Khadidia Ba, a woman I talked to in a village just outside of Aleg, Mauritania summed it up well. “Mes yeux ont été ouverts,” or “My eyes have been opened.”

Tostan offers people the chance to see things differently. I am a natural sceptic, a hard man to convince if the facts do not stand up to scrutiny or to my own prejudices.  But I know that what I have been privileged to witness in West Africa—the Tostan spark—is quite literally life changing.

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Crossing from Senegal to Mauritania the landscape changes. The further you leave the River Senegal behind, the more the sand begins to overwhelm the landscape and the sparser the vegetation becomes. The Sahara Desert is only a few hundred kilometers away. Tented villages and scattered settlements appear occasionally. People have lived in these arid lands for centuries. Tradition has taught them how to survive.

I visited the small village of Carrefour in the south of Mauritania. It sits beside a junction of two important roads—one leads to the capital Nouakchott and the other to the border crossing with Senegal at Rosso. But Carrefour is isolated, seemingly unconnected with this major artery which runs right beside it. The land is parched. A scattering of scrubby vegetation dots the landscape around the villagers’ tents, but there are no fields with crops to tend. There is a well, but it only provides enough water for cooking and washing. There is no electricity. It’s a village predominantly of women, children, the disabled and the elderly as the men have to travel far away to find work.

Fatou, who was sitting on her bed in her tent sheltering from the worst of the day’s heat, told me that until recently there were only two ways a woman would leave the village of Carrefour. “She would leave if she was ill, or she would leave if she was dead,” she said.  “Otherwise, she never left.” 

I sat and talked with a group of twelve women of all ages. I told them I was going to write an article about Carrefour, that it would be available on the internet for anyone to read, and I asked them what they would like to tell the world about their village. 

Mariam, seated on my left, spoke steadily. “Democracy is important,” she said. The other women then joined in. Their eyes lit up. Gestures became animated and answers came quickly. 

“It’s important to discuss things together, and work together,” said Cheika. “We have lived separate lives for too long.”

“Everyone has human rights,” said Hawa Sall. “Women, men and children have rights. Even trees and goats have rights!”

The conversation bounced from woman to woman.

“[Female genital] cutting must end, as it is so bad for a woman’s health,” one woman said. 

“Child marriage should never happen again,” another woman added. “It’s dangerous for teenagers to have babies.”

“Children must stay at school and finish their education,” said one woman.

“It is unacceptable for a man to beat a woman,” another said.

“If a man leaves a woman with six children to raise by herself, the law should ensure the man helps out financially,” another woman added.

I was astonished listening to them, and humbled. This was the Tostan spark. These women were speaking from their hearts. They were proud and confident of the message they wanted to tell the world. 

They were part of a much larger group of women from the same village who were only five months into Tostan’s three-year Community Empowerment Program (CEP). This program shares information on human rights in a non-judgmental way so that everyone in a participating village can be included in the ensuing open dialogue. Further discussions—during community meetings with the village chief and the imam present, in individual homes over meals with families, or in the markets where the women go to buy and sell their wares—are actively encouraged.

The women told me what life had been like as they grew up in the village. No one had ever questioned why tradition dictated the way life was lived. Their fathers, mothers or husbands gave them instructions, and their duty was to obey. None of the village women had ever questioned why they were beaten, or why they were not allowed to speak out, or why they were being married against their will at 13 or 14 years old, or why they were cut. But now, because of Tostan’s program, they saw the world differently.

The issue Westerners probably find the hardest to come to terms with is the practice of female genital cutting (FGC). Considered a human rights violation, FGC comprises of all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. 

For those of us fortunate to have grown up in a society where our mothers, sisters and daughters have not been cut, our simple reaction is that this is a barbaric act and it must cease immediately. But how do you stop cutting? How do you empower people to change? How do you get people to give up not only this tradition, but also other harmful traditions? Outsiders will simply not be listened to if they confront those that practice what are considered “out-dated” traditions and order them to stop. Some of these practices are centuries old; they are part of culture, history, and ancestry. 

Change will only come when communities decide for themselves that the time is right to change. This is the beauty of the Tostan approach: understanding and respecting the traditions of people.

The women of Carrefour were without anger about their past. They acknowledged to me that they had all been cut, that some of their own daughters had been cut. But now they were of one voice that no girl in their village would ever be cut again; nor would an underage girl ever be married off again; nor would a man ever beat any of them ever again. The whole village had reached consensus on this and there would be no going back. They had been given information by Tostan about human rights and health and how to respect each other. They decided that the way they would live their lives in the future was to be different from the way their lives had been in the past.

In one guesthouse where I stayed, there were two children ages 9 and 10. Their mother was proud that her children were going to school, as she believed that education was key for the next generation to succeed. I chatted with the children when they were doing their homework one night, asking them what they were learning. The children were very engaging, with lively minds. Their nightly homework consisted of rote learning of passages, and on this particular night it was the constituent parts of an electric motor. 

They were both almost word perfect in their recall, but could not explain to me in their own words what they had just recited. When some children travel nine kilometers to school every morning and nine kilometers home in the evening, it seems unfair that this is the education they are receiving. I remembered the women in Carrefour, sitting in a circle, talking and laughing with me. They could put into their own words why human rights were important. They could articulate why certain traditions were unsafe and why certain traditions would now stop. They had been lit by the Tostan spark, and I saw this replicated time after time in community after community.

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Tostan works in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and The Gambia. The organization employs local people who have a fundamental understanding of the communities with whom they work: their values, beliefs and traditions. If you are lucky enough to visit the communities that have worked with Tostan you can feel and see this change happening in front of your very eyes. It is palpable, and it is irrevocable.

The work that Tostan is doing now is contributing gradually, but irrepressibly, to people changing the way they live their lives. Tostan can only continue to grow if the organization is helped by those of us who believe in what they accomplish. 

We talk of the one spark needed to light a huge fire. Tostan is that spark. This fire cannot be doused, but gets passed from person to person, village to village, town to town. Eyes are being opened. There is no going back. Come feed the fire.

Written by Nick Cornwall, Tostan Volunteer