An organization is nothing without the passion and dedication of the team of individuals behind it. Tostan is comprised of talented, committed people ranging from village elders to directors, Community Empowerment Program facilitators and participants to volunteers and interns. Each individual contributes his or her unique personality and skills to further the work of Tostan, thus creating a dynamic environment in which positive change can take place.

We highlight the diversity of interests, talents, and backgrounds within the Tostan team here on the blog in a series entitled Voices of Tostan. Specifically, we will explore what brought each unique voice to Tostan and why Tostan’s efforts to bring about positive social change are significant and meaningful to each individual.

Stephen (bottom right in green) with members of the MERL team, supervisors, and a facilitator.

Arriving in Senegal the first week of June to begin one year of volunteering with Tostan, I was eager to begin my work in the Monitoring, Research, Evaluation, and Learning (MERL) Department in the Senegal National Coordination in Thiès. 

As the name indicates, the MERL Department is responsible for designing data collection tools and carrying out monitoring and evaluations in the communities where Tostan projects are implemented. Tostan uses these reports to feed back to donors, to tell the stories of Tostan’s work from the field and for Tostan’s own continuous improvement of its programs. The MERL Department is able to accomplish its mission partly through organizing field missions to communities at key phases of project implementation in order to complete surveys and monitoring reports. 

When, during my second week, I received the news that I would be accompanying one such mission to ten communities, I was delighted to be able to accompany a field mission so early on in my time in Senegal. 

Bag packed, I headed out with the MERL team to the regions of Kaolack and Kaffrine, just north of The Gambia, for a twelve-day, ten-community final evaluation mission. 

The communities that participated in the evaluation were Pulaar, an ethnic group that represents a minority in every country in which they live but which extends from West Africa all the way to Chad and parts of Sudan. Having just completed Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP)—a three-year participatory education program that teaches hygiene, health, literacy, and project management, all with a focus on human rights—the ten communities were eager to share their successes with the MERL team. At Néty Dagga, participants from the adolescent Tostan class could be heard all morning reciting Pulaar songs that their facilitator had taught them to help learn the steps of conflict resolution. While at Galoulé, the women insisted we look at the soaps they had produced themselves for sale as an income-generating activity, using their newly acquired management skills. 

Children and adolescent participants in the village of Médina Torodo perform a song.

Tostan regional supervisors, themselves of Pulaar origin, carried out the surveys and interviews for the evaluations conducted in each village. I had the opportunity to sit in on interviews with each village’s Community Management Committee (CMC). A CMC is a seventeen-member, democratically selected committee that is put in place when a community is implementing Tostan’s CEP. The committee is charged with putting the skills acquired through the Tostan program into practice by encouraging active community involvement through democratic participation and long-term sustainable development

Being able to see in person what the other new volunteers and I had just discussed during our volunteer orientation was extraordinary.  I met so many CMC members who were so committed to the development of their communities.  

Over those twelve days, I was able to learn an incredible amount about the Monitoring and Evaluation Department, Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP), monitoring and evaluation techniques, and the Pulaar people’s wonderful history and traditions. 

My personal observations from the field have been indispensable in helping me to write reports for the evaluation. In all, I had an amazing and educational two weeks—what a way to begin my year with Tostan! 

Story by Stephen Allen, MERL Volunteer, Thiès, Senegal