From left to right, Molly Melching, Demba Diawara and Isatou Baldeh (author)

I first heard about Tostan in a class I took in college called “Women Culture and Development” where we watched a documentary film called The Different Shapes of Water in which Tostan participants were featured.

Often when Africa is talked about, especially in academic settings, it usually is about disease, war and hunger. However, for the first time, I saw people who looked like me, spoke my language and had the same cultural beliefs I grew up with being portrayed in a positive light. The participants of the Tostan program were having rich, intellectual conversations about moving their communities forward, and envisioning a better future for their children.

I remember feeling a sense of pride for the first time in a classroom setting where Africa was the topic of the day, and I was not embarrassed. This is the Africa and African people that I knew and grew up with—people who value family, unity, respect, peace, and acceptance of others. I always had faith that when given the right tools, Africans can and will realize their full potential. I saw that happening with the Tostan program. Long story short—my love affair with Tostan was born, and the more I read about Tostan, the more I love and respect the work they are doing.

I happened to be among the lucky 20 participants who attended the first pilot training session with the Tostan team in Senegal. We had participants from all over the world and we learned from the best of the best, including Molly Melching herself – the founder and CEO of Tostan. We learned about the methodologies, strategies, and approaches that made Tostan a success story. Growing up in The Gambia, I have seen and probably benefited in some way or another from nongovernmental organizations; however, I had yet to see one that is as effective as Tostan. I believe what sets Tostan apart from other aid programs in Africa is their community-led development approach (their Community Empowerment Program). Tostan does not approach communities with an agenda to fix people’s problems or point out what is wrong with people’s ways of thinking. Tostan provides communities with tools such as education, training, and information to help them think for themselves and reach their highest capabilities.

During the training I met some Tostan participants that I had only read about. Growing up in communities similar to the one these participants came from, I knew something was different. The women especially surprised me. They are informed, confident, eloquent, and actively participate in the wellbeing of their communities. They communicate what they have learned to others in their families, their communities and their intermarrying communities, sharing their new ideas far and wide.

My favorite part of the training was the village visits. I only had an idea of what a community-led approach to development looked like on paper, but the village visits made that concept indelible in my mind. I saw hope in the children’s eyes. I saw pride in the women’s eyes. I saw appreciation in the men’s eyes. Knowing the trials and tribulations these communities have been through and seeing them being able to overcome them in the best possible ways, speaks volumes about the Tostan program. Emotional stories from Tostan participants, such as Marieme Bamba, a woman who had never been to formal school, endured female genital cutting as a young girl, married at the tender age of 14, and became a mother at 15, were incredibly touching. As a participant of Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program, Marieme defied the odds and became the first female solar engineer in her community. And then I met my personal hero, Demba Diawara, an Imam and village chief, featured in the book However Long the Night by Aimee Molloy.  Demba showed Tostan the way to create a movement to abandon female genital cutting and early child marriage.  He continues to be so courageous. Such success stories made Tostan a model for community-led development, one that is increasingly being referenced in college classes, taken up in research projects and explored by other development organizations across the world.

As one of the founding members of the Seattle Friends of Tostan, and as a participant in the training, I am now co-facilitating meetings and training with a vibrant group of people in Seattle interested in learning more about supporting Tostan. Like those individuals I witnessed from Tostan communities during the training, we are working here in Seattle toward a more just and peaceful world.

Post by Isatou Baldeh