When I was invited by one of the Tostan supervisors to visit a garden in a nearby Tostan partner community, I was not expecting what awaited me in Saré Wallom. I knew I would be visiting one of the 50 Pulaar villages in the Kolda region of Senegal that has been participating in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Program (CEP) since January 2013. But when I arrived to a gathering of singing and dancing people, I realized that my visit to this garden was much more significant than I had thought.

Saré Wallom’s Tostan facilitator, Nafisatou Sabaly, who I had met several times, invited me to come and witness the dynamism of the community in which she teaches. The CEP participants, along with the members of the Community Management Committee (CMC), are the ones responsible for the creation and maintenance of the garden they planted in January, three months ago.

I was given a tour of the 40 by 30 meter garden by members of the CMC. It is a labor-intensive project, but all CEP participants help weed and water the plants by hand twice a day. Their gumbo and sorrel plants are already yielding a harvest that the CMC is selling both within their village and at the larger weekly market nearby. I asked Dieynaba Mballo, the head of Saré Wallom’s Commission for Income-Generating Activity, what the community intends to do with the money they earn. She replied that they hope to contribute to their community fund and expand the microcredit system they have in place..

I asked community members what they thought about the CEP program. As soon as Thierno Kandé, the supervisor who invited me, had translated what I’d said into Pulaar, nearly every person in the circle started waving their arms and snapping their fingers to answer. Thierno told me to pick someone; I had never received such an energetic response with so many people wanting to tell me how the Tostan program has changed their lives.

Bandié Kandé was the first woman to share. She talked about the new level of solidarity that exists following the CEP classes that had talked about democracy, human rights, and conflict resolution. The community is able to freely exchange views and ideas, and it was in this spirit of teamwork that the garden idea was developed. She said that before they began the CEP, this collaboration would never have been possible. Mamady Diamanka, the head of the CMC’s education commission, stated, “We have become agents of development in our community.” He added that the entire community is now involved in income-generating activities whereas before they were conducted primarily on an individual level.

I was so moved by the community’s hard work and the pride in what they achieved that despite my shyness and embarrassment, I joined the dancing circle at the end of the meeting to express my gratitude for everything they had shared with me. I hope that the garden continues to thrive because Saré Wallom is a shining example of what a community can accomplish when its members have the opportunity to receive a human rights-based education.

Story by Allyson Fritz, Regional Volunteer, Tostan