Tostan is more than just the name of our organization.

The word ‘tostan’ embodies what we strive to do: to share knowledge, skills and resources that empower communities to set their own goals and create change on their own terms towards a vision of ‘human dignity for all.’

So, what does ‘tostan’ mean?

Today, our 22nd anniversary, we share what is behind the name! In Wolof, the most widely spoken language in Senegal, Tostan means ‘breakthrough’ (as in the hatching of an egg), as well as ‘spreading and sharing.

This is evidenced in ‘the breakthrough’ experienced by communities when they decide to abandon child marriage after learning about human rights and health, and the spreading and sharing that occurs when they reach out to neighboring communities at inter-village meetings to spread their knew knowledge.’

The word ‘tostan’ was suggested to Molly Melching, Tostan’s Founder and Executive Director, by a friend and renowned African scholar, Cheikh Anta Diop. He believed that to foster democracy, development must be educational for all involved, always rooted in and growing out of existing cultural practices and local knowledge.

Molly Melching with Cheikh Anna Diop in 1974

Influenced by his philosophy, Tostan, the word and the organization, works within the local context of our participants. Our program begins in African communities with individuals coming together to form a collective vision for their future in which democracy, health, economy, and education thrive. It is through their dedication to learning and sharing knowledge, and putting that into knowledge into practice in order to  achieve their shared vision.

Our human rights-based education program, the Community Empowerment Program (CEP) is offered in 22 languages across eight African countries. Classes are taught in a participatory and respectful manner and include dialogue and consensus building, highly valued skills in African societies. Learners create songs, dances, plays, and poetry inspired from traditional culture to reinforce new knowledge.

We believe that when participants start with what they already know, they can expand and ‘break through’ to new understandings and practices just as our name says.