Holding Dignity Paramount

by Mark Wheeler

Mark Wheeler traveled to Senegal in 2009 with his wife Lisa and daughter Isabelle, to visit with Tostan founder Molly Melching. What followed was an unforgettable trip through Tostan communities.

We got hooked on Tostan on a trek through southern Senegal in 2009. The guidebooks had all said go north, but we followed the advice of Tostan founder Molly Melching and headed south into a sparsely populated and seldom visited region. As Molly had lived in Senegal for years we put our trust in her, and she slyly never mentioned that the villages we’d be visiting had participated in the Tostan program.

A few days after meeting Molly we found ourselves in a van rumbling southward with an extremely engaging driver named Gaele at the wheel. He was an older Senegalese man, dressed traditionally and often porting a fez, and a non-stop talker. His main obsession was the strides women had made during his lifetime and he recounted conspiratorially (and repeatedly) how women in Mali actually rode bicycles! Gaele was excellent company and his numerous asides made the long stretches of dry, dusty driving easy to bear.

One minor detail Molly had (intentionally?) omitted to communicate was that we would be seen as envoys of Tostan by some of the villages we were to visit. The Tostan educational program had been completed in Velingara, but because of the distance from Dakar, very little post-program monitoring had been possible and our family was to be the follow-up crew. Trouble was, we had absolutely no idea of it.

So when we finally pulled into Velingara we were, to put it mildly, stunned by the welcome. At least fifty villagers in ceremonial dress greeted us with open arms as we stepped out of the van, dancing and shouting welcome, accompanied by several men pounding away on drums. We slowly formed into a sort of parade towards the center of the village, where a large group awaited us under a baobab tree. If it had all ended there, we’d have been duly impressed about how they felt about Tostan and would as well have had a great story to tell, but it turned out to be just the beginning.

The local Imam and village Chief welcomed us and asked each of us to give a short speech. And as much as we were unprepared and as hesitant as I was in French at the time (my wife Lisa and daughter Isabelle are both fluent), there was something inspiring about the gathering and I rose and addressed everyone for a couple of minutes. To this day I have no memory of what I said, but it seemed to go down OK and Lisa and Isabelle (who was 15 years old at the time) followed, both with results better than my own. We all sat down, heart rates returning towards normal, to see what was to follow.

A young woman slowly entered the center of the circle of our gathering. She stood quite still and spoke quietly and methodically, and a hush gradually descended on us. She recounted in a matter of fact way and in some detail the abuse she had suffered under her husband — how she was beaten daily, her input into family matters nonexistent, and having eventually become so afraid that when she awoke in the morning she would grab her children and hide in the fields as far away from the village as possible. The contrast between her quiet, reserved manner and the horrors she described couldn’t have been more acute. You could have heard a pin drop.

She then turned the subject to Tostan — how she had gradually been introduced to the concept of human rights and how she had learned she had a basic right to live without fear of harm. It was a game changer for her, and you could sense how this revelation had completely altered the dynamic with her husband. She continued to explain how she had had a sort of renaissance in her thinking, realizing she had a right to her own opinions, a right to be heard, and a right to share in the responsibility of raising her family.

During her speech I became curious about how the men in the village, particularly her husband, would react. Did they really buy into all this or were they just being polite? I looked around as discreetly as I could and saw only expressions of respect. There was no hint of mockery or heckling from anyone. I wasn’t sure who among them was her husband, but made a mental note to seek him out afterwards and hear his side of the story.

A bit after her speech had ended and after the Chief came over and presented me a trussed up live rooster as a gift — a real honor that I felt flattered but conflicted about — I thanked him and went off to look for the husband. I managed to locate him easily as he was as eager to speak to me as I was to him. It was, admittedly, a bit awkward to converse while holding a struggling rooster in my arms, but somehow we managed.

Her husband told me in front of several of his friends how the Tostan program had not only saved his marriage, but had changed him fundamentally. “Before Tostan I had four children to care for and a wife who was no more use to me than a dog. She trembled constantly and depended totally on me for everything. I had to make every decision by myself. But after Tostan, my wife changed, I changed, my family changed, and I discovered I had a partner to share my life with. We make decisions together now and I couldn’t imagine hitting her any more.” His friends all nodded in agreement and several added stories of their own, similar experiences.

The Chief arrived after a bit and invited my family back to his home for a conversation. Sitting on simple wooden benches out front, we listened to him relate his own ‘before and after’ Tostan stories. A very small, elderly man who spoke barely above a whisper told us, “Before Tostan, I would wake each day to a line of people outside my hut all waiting for me to resolve their problems. In those days there seemed to be nothing but problems and more problems and it was up to me to fix them. It was an impossible job. But after the Tostan program the entire village changed and these days all I hear when I get up is the scratching of my chickens in the yard. There is no more line by my door.”

We rode back to the hotel that evening in silence, save for the continuing struggles of the rooster in the back of the van. Each of us seemed to want to be left alone with our thoughts. It was obvious we had experienced something profound and beautiful, and that ‘something’ was changing each of us. In essence we all were realizing that if Tostan through a simple program of human rights education could change so profoundly the lives of individuals in one village and of their highest administrator, the implications were profound. There is a moment when you really ‘get’ what Tostan is all about, and this was our moment.

Back at the hotel my daughter and I looked at each other and without saying a word went and got the exhausted rooster from the back of the truck and struck off together. After walking around a bit we found a quiet spot where no one could see us and snipped the bonds that had pinned the roosters legs and wings down. We slowly placed him on the ground where he immediately scurried off into the bushes without looking back. It could not have been a more fitting bookend to the day.

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