Written by Kelly Baxter

Kelly Baxter with Tostan CMC Coordinator Salimatou Sowe

Kelly Baxter with CMC Coordinator Salimatou Sowe

Greetings to all our Canadian donors and friends!

I have just returned from my annual trip to West Africa for Tostan’s annual Board Meeting. This year we visited The Gambia, where, in addition to holding our board meeting, I had the privilege of visiting a few villages that had recently completed Tostan’s three-year Community Empowerment Program.

One of the villages we visited was Santando Mawdo, a Fulani village of about 500 people, situated in the Upper River Region of The Gambia, about 8 hours drive from Banjul. Santando Mawdo has just completed Tostan’s program this fall, and the village was eager to share their learning and progress with us. Here are a few highlights from my visit.

Santando Mawdo:
A new vision, new hope

A village in the Gambia gathers to describe their acheivements since the community development program with TostanSeated in a circle with members of Santando Mawdo, beneath the shade of a huge baobab tree, our visiting group is welcomed by the Village Chief, and the Village Imam, who leads us in prayer.

For the next two hours we hear presentations from community leaders. The Village Chief, Mr. Makang Jaiteh, is very excited to share with us what has changed in the village since the Tostan program. He tells us that one of the most important changes in his village is democracy. Mr. Jaiteh explains that the entire community elected the 19 members of the Community Management Committee (CMC), the majority of which are women. The CMC represents men and women working together for the first time in the history of the village.

“It has made my job easier,” he tells us, because responsibility for the village is now shared, and with the women involved, more progress is being made. The CMC takes charge of village responsibilities such as Education, Environment, Health, Income Generation, Finance, Child Protection and Peace and Security.

With a big smile, Mr. Jaiteh also proudly tells us that he has attended all the Tostan classes and can now read and write in his own language. “Once you give knowledge, you cannot take it away,” he says.

Community Vision Board showing the village's own development goals

CMC Member Binta Keita shares Santando’s vision board.

Ms. Binta Keita, another member of the Community Management Committee, shares with us the community’s vision board. The vision board is a key part of the Tostan program and it is often the first time a whole village aspires to a common vision, and works together to achieve shared goals. Santando’s first priority is to bring clean drinking water to the village, and a network of taps have already been installed.

The next priority is electricity, and after negotiations with government officials, full electrification has been promised within the year. Ms. Keita tells us that the village also plans to build a health hut because the nearest health facility is too far away and there is no support for pregnancies.

Santando also wants to invest in skills training for youth so that they can learn vocations and stay in the region. Other priorities include a vegetable garden so that they can have a good diet and sell the surplus for additional income, and an antenna to enable cell phone connectivity.

“We won’t be sitting down,” Ms. Keita tells us. “We will be working until we succeed in achieving our vision.” Before the Tostan program, women like Binta Keita would not be invited to speak to visitors, let alone speak in front of the whole village. But now with new knowledge and Tostan training, she knows she has the right to speak, has found her confidence through class participation, and is comfortable advocating for the village with local government officials. What’s more, she is supported by the whole village.

“We won’t be sitting down. We will be working until we succeed in achieving our vision.”

— Binta Keita, CMC member, Santando Mawdo

The CMC Coordinator, Ms. Salimatou Sowe, tells us about more of Santando’s achievements. She tells us that they used to pull girls out of school at a young age to marry them off, but girls now stay in school and are no longer married as children. And, she stresses, both parents support every child to stay in school.

She also tells us that they have learned about sexual and reproductive health and understand the dangers of girls becoming pregnant at a young age.

CMC members share their community fund ledger with us.

Ms. Sowe also tells us about their community bank account with 34,000 dalasi (local currency) that can be loaned out to community members with a six-month repayment plan. They show us their handwritten ledger with all the loans made and the repayment terms. The community fund is a key part of the village’s development progress. It would otherwise be impossible for women and families to access microcredit, and the fund also provides a facility for the community to accrue shared resources for community priorities.

Ms. Sowe also proudly shows us their collection of birth certificates now that all children are registered at birth, making them eligible for school, health services and voting when they are older. The village understands that this simple step is a prerequisite to children’s rights being upheld and protected.

Ms. Sireng Baadeh, an elected member of the National Women’s Council for Upper Fulladu, tells us how Tostan’s program has benefitted thousands of women in the region. Before the Tostan program Ms. Baadeh tells us, she was not comfortable speaking in public, but Tostan’s education gave her the tools and self confidence to campaign for women’s rights, and to run for national office. There are now thousands and thousands of women like Ms. Baadeh in The Gambia, who have been elected to public office locally, regionally and nationally.

“Hope makes life more beautiful. And Tostan is giving us hope.”
–Ousman Bah, Governor of CRR

I wish I could fully capture in words the feeling of visiting a Tostan village. To see the entire village – women and men, adults and youth – all working together to achieve a shared vision, feeling empowered with the knowledge and skills to lead their own development, to make informed decisions, and to feel like change is indeed possible – is extremely moving and inspiring.

This is grassroots leadership. I have seen it time and time again in Tostan villages. The change is transformational. And it lasts.

As you consider your year-end giving, please join me and invest in transformational change. Make a lasting difference in the lives of women and girls, who, just like us, dream of prosperity and wellbeing for themselves and their families.


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