From soap-making businesses to functional health centers, Tostan partner communities thrive independently long after the Community Empowerment Program (CEP) is over. The Tostan Training Center (TTC) and Empowered Communities Network (ECN) work with leaders in these communities—and their respective Community Management Committees (CMC)—to help launch and sustain their own community-led projects.

On Wednesday, June 17th, I accompanied ECN Coordinator Dame Guèye and Pathe Kebe, TTC Logistics Manager, as we distributed sinks, tiles and toilets to partner CMCs. These materials were purchased for use by the TTC, but when they were no longer of use at the center, the TTC team coordinated with the ECN to find partner communities in need of such supplies. The real partnership between the CMCs and Tostan was fully evident to me when I saw the interaction between Dame, Pathe, and the community members: Tostan was facilitating needs that the community itself had identified. 

This way of dealing with community challenges stems from Tostan’s initial three-year program, the CEP. All the villages we visited had completed this program and established active CMCs. They are now part of the ECN. The goal of the ECN is to support member communities by implementing various small development projects in order to improve their socio-economic wellbeing. They do this by promoting networking between the CMCs, active federations and development partners, supporting income-generating activities, and facilitating partnerships to help them achieve community priorities.

Tostan partner communities are key to the TTC’s future plans. In its pilot year, the TTC is preparing to invite a wide range of local and international clients to learn about Tostan’s methodology and approach. Visits to partner communities will allow training participants to see and experience the program in the field. The TTC collaborates closely with the ECN to make sure the participants are prepared for these visits and that the host communities benefit from the visits as well. During the pilot training held in March, the ECN organized a CMC Marketplace, inviting partners to sell their goods to training participants. As the TTC plans its official launch in 2016, I am convinced that they will not only positively impact the people they train, but also bring positive change to surrounding communities. 

The donated equipment is a concrete example of this. The first village, Keur Thième Sawaré, needed 800 tiles for the roof of their school, as the building is currently covered by rusted iron. While there, I met the school children who will benefit from the new roof and the teacher, who is a member of the CMC that had asked for the tiles. There was a sense of pride at the school; the teacher was delighted to show off the building and the roof which would soon be replaced.

Gratitude emanated from the members of the receiving community. The 80-year-old village imam, Mbacké Sylla, was given a sink and toilet to make daily tasks easier in his old age. While talking to Imam Sylla, he expressed his appreciation for the work Tostan has done and continues to do for his community. He elaborated: “It is not what is being given, but the way in which it is given that truly matters.” He looked to Mamy Laye (a young member of the CMC) as he said this; since the CMC has been put in place, both young and old are working together to help provide for each other and everyone else in the community.

This mix of members was also true in the next community I visited, Keur Mbaye Seyni. We sat with members of the local CMC and discussed Tostan’s relationship with the community, as well as how they were planning on organizing the new materials. The women had several ideas, such as calling a community meeting to designate who gets to use the toilets and sinks, or putting the provisions in a communal location then designating two elderly members of the community to make the best use of them.

Delivering toilets might  sound banal, but they are actually of great importance. Many of the women start carrying heavy loads on their heads on a daily basis from a very early age. As they get older, this can lead to arthritis. Since most villages are equipped with squat toilets, it is painful and challenging for the elderly to use these facilities. For me, it was encouraging to see how the community identified a problem, and then managed the solution independently and through discussion.

In the final recipient community, Nguerigne Bambara, residents were proud of their current projects. Since Tostan’s arrival, they have started a soap-making business, a micro-credit system, and a farming project, among other things. An elderly lady in the community told me that all of these ventures may not have been possible without Tostan’s initial and continued support. One toilet and one sink were sent to her house, and another to the village’s health center. 

The entrepreneurial spirit and positive, problem-solving attitude that I found in all of these communities is not something that Tostan created. Rather, Tostan uncovered these qualities and helped them grow through skills learned during the CEP and the ECN’s continued support for communities’ projects. I was witness to the fact that with the right tools, support and opportunity, community members can curate their own change. 

Written by Daniel Ford, intern