Children ranging from tiny to pint-sized romp on a plastic mat in the shade of a mango tree. It is a hot, late-September day in this West African village, and the toddlers' mothers are also enjoying the shade as they chat and pick stones out of calabash bowls filled with rice.
They need little prompting to start singing the praises of Tostan, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that recently won a major humanitarian award for its innovative development strategy here and in five other African countries.
"Tostan did everything for us," says Ami Diop, one of the mothers. "Before, I couldn't read or write, now I can." The other women chime in: Tostan helped our health center; they built a community center; because of Tostan, we don't circumcise our daughters any more.
Tostan has also given microcredit loans to women and donated chickens to breed and sell. Most recently, it gave two cows to the youths in the village. The mothers hope the young people will learn how to profit from the cattle and not leave for the city to find work.
Tostan (which means "breakthrough" in Wolof, the language widely spoken here) was founded in Senegal in 1991. The aid organization also works in Mauritania, Guinea, Somalia, Djibouti, and The Gambia. The group aims to promote human rights, public health, and literacy through programs stressing local languages and traditional culture.
But Tostan's leaders would be the first to say that they didn't create the changes the women in Ker Simbara cite – the villagers themselves did.
"We don't make initiatives for them," says Issa Saka, Tostan's grass-roots communications officer. "We wait for them to make decisions themselves, and we help them in terms of implementation."
It is a simple concept, but one at which few other NGOs have succeeded. Billions of dollars have been invested to address Africa's poverty and the related problems of low literacy, poor nutrition, and the spread of AIDS and other diseases. Yet Africa consistently ranks at the bottom in terms of development and economics.
An emphasis on human rights
Tostan's success, it seems, comes from its novel approach: "When people learn their rights," says Khalidou Sy, Tostan's program director in Senegal, "they begin to demand that those rights be respected." They look for ways to change their lives and community to make that possible.
This approach – to start with human rights, and the rest will follow – has gained the aid group international recognition. In August, it won the $1.5-million Conrad N. Hilton prize, the world's largest humanitarian award. Past winners have included Doctors Without Borders and the International Rescue Committee. Tostan was chosen from among 250 nominees.
"What made Tostan stand out as unique is its incredible ability to help people make decisions for themselves," says Judy Miller, vice president of the Hilton Foundation, which created the prize, "to prepare them with all the information, the skills, and the knowledge, and then train them so that they can actually set their goals and work together and move forward to help everybody in village life."
Ker Simbara villagers Dousso Konaté and Demba Diawara are examples of where that success can lead. The two have been to more than 170 villages across Senegal to spread the vision of human rights they learned from Tostan. Ms. Konaté says she never intended to be a human rights activist. Like many, she was drawn in by the promise of education.
"They taught me to write my name and to read it," she says. From then on, she says, she was eager to continue to participate in Tostan's program to see what else she might gain.
Konaté, a childless woman who has nevertheless raised many village children, was exactly the sort of powerful community figure Tostan knew could have an impact. The NGO trained her and Mr. Diawara and supports them with a small stipend to cover expenses. They work in villages beyond those where Tostan has full programs.
"We can't be in every village," says Cheikh Diouf, Tostan's director of community-led development. "People like Konaté and Diawara help us spread our message to villages where we don't have programs." And because Konaté and Diawara have lived through many of the same experiences as the people in the villages, he says, the people are willing to listen.
Battle against female circumcision
One of Tostan's most well-known successes has been in the fight against female circumcision. The World Health Organization estimates that some 3 million girls undergo the procedure each year, although it is outlawed in many nations. Even talking about the subject in public is taboo, Diawara notes. He and Konaté recently ran a workshop in a village near Senegal's border with Gambia. "When we pronounced the word 'circumcision,' " he says, "the women started yelling and insulting us. It was only thanks to the village chief there that things calmed down and we were able to continue."
Tostan's program has led 2,600 villages to publicly declare they have abandoned the practice.
Today Tostan is active in hundreds of villages and expanding rapidly. Its staff of 370 is almost exclusively African and mostly Senegalese. In other countries, it looks for locals to work in the field.
The nonprofit was founded by Molly Melching, an American who moved to Senegal more than 30 years ago, first as a student and later as a Peace Corps volunteer. The idea for Tostan grew out of her experience with education programs using traditional songs and theater. "It was something people responded to on a very deep level," she says by phone from Tostan's US office in Washington, D.C. "It was so different from what people thought education was."
She began adapting the program to the problems of adult education, and in the 1980s, she and her Senegalese colleagues partnered with UNICEF to expand and formalize the approach. As word spread and demand grew, she and her colleagues officially founded Tostan as an NGO in 1991. The program really took off in 1995, Ms. Melching says, when they incorporated human rights into the discussions.
Helping women to speak out
"Woman could learn all the information about their health, but they could never use it," she says, "because they didn't know they had the right to use it. They didn't know they had the right to speak out."
Today Tostan is working to expand in other countries and to meet requests from organizations who want to adopt their approach. They continue to work with UNICEF, their longest-running source of funding, but have partnered with myriad other organizations that include USAID, American Jewish World Service, Swedish International Development Agency, and the Wallace Global Fund.
Cheikh Tidiane Farr, urban development program director for ENDA, another Senegalese NGO, says Tostan's intense integration into the community sets it apart. "I often see Tostan's employees in the villages, living there, and getting used to the way of life," he says. "And that's a really good approach."
For an organization with a $4 million annual budget, the Hilton prize is a significant windfall. The group says it will use the money to fund existing programs and to expand into more villages and possibly more countries. Says Mr. Sy, the Senegal program director, "When we won the prize, we thought of our communities right away. After all, it's the people who did the work who earned it."