Molly Melching : “I never went in and told them to change. I just gave them the information”

Molly Melching, a warm American in her 60s is the founder and chief executive officer of Tostan, a Senegalese nonprofit. 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. 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.

“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.”

[Christian Science Monitor]

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