She arrived in Senegal 43 years ago – and is still there working on social issues

Molly Melching founded the nonprofit Tostan, which operates in a number of African countries. It’s known globally for alleviating poverty, as well as for helping to reduce child marriage and female genital cutting in Senegal.

Amy Yee
Molly Melching has grown Tostan into an organization that focuses on literacy, health, hygiene, community governance, and more.

Two dozen men and women sit in a circle at a training center an hour’s drive from Dakar, the capital of Senegal. They are Muslim teachers, religious leaders, and community heads from Ghana and Nigeria who are participating in a workshop offered by Tostan, a Senegalese nonprofit.

Molly Melching, a warm American in her 60s who is Tostan’s founder and chief executive officer, listens attentively as participants share what they’ve learned. A Nigerian woman wearing a niqab exclaims, “Women have the right to acquire property. Women have the right to work.”

With support from the Atlanta-based Carter Center, these individuals are learning about human rights at Tostan. The training workshop, held in Thiès, Senegal, is one of many activities the 26-year-old organization has undertaken to address a range of social issues in Africa.

“Religion is such a powerful force in our lives and the world,” says Ms. Melching in her down-to-earth manner in a later conversation. “If you don’t take into account that aspect of people’s lives, you can’t work toward positive change.”

Melching, standing tall in a flowing dress called a boubou, recalls how she came to Senegal in 1974 as a 24-year-old graduate student from Illinois. She thought she’d stay for six months to study Francophone African literature. Now, 43 years later, she’s still in Senegal after unexpectedly growing an organization that focuses on literacy, health, hygiene, community governance, and more.

Tostan’s core is a broad nonformal education program offered to villagers in a number of African countries. The classes use local African languages, reflecting Tostan’s collaborative approach. At least when Melching started out, this was in contrast to the attitude that most other development projects had – “we’re going to go in and show people they need this and they need that,” she says.

By Tostan’s tally, since the organization’s founding in 1991 more than 200,000 individuals have participated in its Community Empowerment Program, benefiting 3 million people. Tostan is known globally for alleviating poverty, as well as for helping to reduce child marriage and female genital cutting in Senegal. Other countries where the organization has operated include Somalia, Guinea, Mali, and Mauritania.

After Melching finished her graduate studies, she stayed to work with street children in Dakar. She created a youth center and developed children’s books and radio programs in local African languages as part of a self-designed Peace Corps assignment, and later with a grant from the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation. Eventually that evolved into working with impoverished people in rural areas.

As poor villagers in Senegal learned about health, sanitation, and conflict resolution, among other things, vaccination rates, use of mosquito nets, and school enrollment rose. Incidence of diseases such as malaria and AIDS dropped. Families that hadn’t spoken to each other in years started making amends after learning about conflict resolution, Melching says.

And in a village near Thiès, a group of women initiated putting an end to cutting after learning about its harms. “I was completely surprised,” Melching admits. According to Tostan, over the course of two decades some 8,000 communities in eight countries have publicly declared abandonment of female genital cutting, child marriage, and forced marriage. Tostan had been directly or indirectly involved in these communities through awareness efforts.

According to Melching, the Senegalese government adopted Tostan’s approach to stop cutting for its five-year national action plans in 2005 and 2010. In 2003, the World Health Organization cited Tostan’s method as a best practice.

Learning Wolof

When Melching arrived as a graduate student in Senegal, it was her first time in Africa, but she “felt comfortable in this society that’s people-centric,” she says. She embraced Senegal’s “values of people, sharing, unity, and generosity.”

Melching found herself in social gatherings with notable figures, and she was introduced to Cheikh Anta Diop, one of Senegal’s foremost thinkers and activists, who became her mentor.

Mr. Diop encouraged Melching to learn Wolof, Senegal’s main local language, spoken by about 80 percent of its population. He also taught her the Wolof word tostan, which means “breakthrough.”

Teaching people in Wolof and other local languages was key to gaining villagers’ trust and understanding their needs. “We started where people were. It’s important to listen,” Melching notes.

Over time and with funding from UNICEF, Melching created and grew Tostan’s nonformal education program. As part of that, groups of 25 adults and 25 youths meet three times a week for three years in classes led by Tostan facilitators.

“People need to understand why they should want to change their behavior. I don’t go in telling them what to do,” Melching says. “I never went in and told them to change. I just gave them the information.”

‘A reciprocal relationship’

Back in Illinois, Melching’s family was at first mystified that she remained in Africa and had chosen a life so different from a comfortable one in the United States. But without qualms, she settled in Senegal. She married an African-American man working at a nonprofit in Senegal, gave birth to a daughter in 1985, and has a home in Dakar.

“I don’t reject my country,” Melching says. “I was just very happy here and felt peaceful. I was learning a lot. It was a reciprocal relationship.”

Demba Diawara is a village elder living near Thiès who worked closely with Melching beginning in 1986. “She learned from us, but we learned from her,” says Mr. Diawara while seated in a low chair amid the sandy soil of his village. “Molly found the way to work with us through our language and coming to our level. She didn’t come with a superiority complex. She worked with us and listened.”

But Melching was nervous about starting Tostan in 1991. She did so for practical reasons: It was easier to get funding for organizations than for individuals. “I never dreamed of being director of an NGO. I had never even been part of an organization, much less run one,” she confesses.

Melching admits to making plenty of mistakes over the years. For example, in 1995, Tostan introduced the topic of violence against women in its classes. “Men were suspicious. They said, ‘Is this against us? Close these centers,’ ” she recounts. Tostan subsequently shifted its focus to universal human rights. “As soon as we did that, men got behind us,” she says.

Samir Sobhy, a former area director for UNICEF based in Dakar, worked with Melching for years starting in the late 1980s. In an email interview, Mr. Sobhy says he was impressed with her understanding of Senegalese culture, her fluency in Wolof, and how she, even as a foreigner, was “accepted, respected, and loved by local communities.” He also notes “her total dedication to serve the country and the people.”

He concludes, “In the world, there are very few individuals whose life and work directly touch and mark the life and future of so many other humans. Molly is one of them.”

More work to be done

With poverty still pervasive in West Africa, there’s much more work to be done. Yet she says she no longer wants to be Tostan’s CEO: “I don’t want to do daily management anymore. I want to go back to programming and training.”

Melching wants to prepare people in the next generation to lead Tostan.

But their motives are important. Melching recounts a conversation with a young US woman in Senegal who told her she wanted to be a director of a nongovernmental organization one day. Melching asked her if she wanted to help people or be the director of an NGO.

“It’s not about the change you want,” Melching says, “but the change they want.”

For more, visit Reporting for this piece was facilitated by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

How to take action

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