However Long the Night:
Molly Melching’s (Senegal 1976-79) Journey to Help Millions of African Women and Girls Triumph
by Aimee Molloy
HarperCollins/Skoll Foundation, $25.99
Reviewed by Leita Kaldi Davis (Senegal 1993-95)
Molly Melching sat by the bedside of her dear old friend and mentor, Alaaji Mustaafa Njaay, who lay dying in his small hut in a Senegalese village. He breathed with difficulty as he whispered to her., “You are trying to accomplish great things, but nothing is going to come easy for you. … Your work will be like electricity: it has a beginning, but no end. Continue to listen and learn from the people, and you will move forward together.” After a long pause, he spoke again, calling her by her Senegalese name. “Sukkeyna Njaay, things will become even more difficult for you. But always remember my words and never lose hope. Lu guddi gi yagg yagg, jent bi dina fenk. However long the night, the sun will rise.”
Molly was born in Houston in 1949 and lived in several different places with her parents and her sister, Diane, as she was growing up. She was a curious, exuberant child whom her mother did her best to keep under control, while imbuing her with a desire for education, above all. She was not pleased when Molly moved to Senegal, feeling that her daughter was “wasting her life.” Molly, on the other hand,felt that her mother’s desire to mold her was like handling wet soap: ” …eventually it slips and falls away.”
Molly’s forty-year journey to help Senegalese people began when she arrived in 1974. She felt a “…deep sense of belonging that made her weak with happiness– the feeling of being at home.” She studied French at the University of Dakar, and quickly learned Wolof. She met fascinating intellectuals, such as the great film maker, Ousmane Sembène, and Wole Soyinka. Molly studied under Cheikh Anta Diop, an influential African thinker who believed that Africans always have had the inherent power to build empires, and to overthrow colonial rule, as a result, in part, of their ancient Egyptian roots.
After Molly received her master’s certificate from the University of Dakar, then her master’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she realized she wanted to share her education with people who had none. She went to the Peace Corps office in Dakar to see Jack Schafer, then director. She wished to collaborate with Peace Corps to set up a children’s learning center using national languages and creating books that would interest them. Schafer replied, “I’m not saying any of this is a bad idea, but maybe you don’t understand how the Peace Corps works.” To which Molly replied, “I know exactly how it works. But can’t we make it work a little differently this time?” And he did. He created a three-year individual placement for Molly sponsored through Senegal’s Ministry of Culture. Like any PCV, Molly received a stipend of $200 a month and a tiny apartment in the middle of the Sandaga market. There she founded Démb ak Te (Yesterday and Today) where she spent six years, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer, then with funding from the Spencer Foundation, teaching street children, as well as adults, in their native Wolof language.
Molly visited villages all over Senegal. She observed development programs that “taught down” instead of encouraging people to define their own needs and “develop up.” She saw many projects fail,because the supposed benefactors did not engage the villagers. She learned that “True social change -_ true development – seems possible only when you work with the people …” It was Cheikh Anta Diop who taught her the word Tostan, which literally means ” … the hatching of an egg, the breakthrough moment when the chick emerges from the shell.” Molly had her “tostan moment” when she visited a small village called Saam Njaay and thirty-six surrounding villages where everyone was illiterate. She imagined creating “… a holistic program that encompassed not just reading and writing but discussions on problem solving, skills to build confidence, and an understanding of health and hygiene.” She moved to Saam Njaay at the age of 32 and stayed there for three years in the village chief’s compound. Molly fit right into village life, living in a hut with no running water or electricity, eating around the bowl with others, participating in births, weddings and funerals among the people she loved.
In 1991, at the age of 41, Molly finally started her own organization, Tostan. Though she was filled with trepidation, she dared to implement her own ideas of teaching literacy that included dance, theater, song and storytelling. She received funding from UNICEF and hired twenty African staff members, believing that an African program could only be successful if it was run by Africans. She was the only American on the staff for the next fifteen years. Tostan was quartered in a house in Thiès where her daughter, Zoé (therein lies a story), Molly and several pets also lived.
I met Molly in 1993. I had joined Peace Corps in Senegal when I was 55 and was training for three months in Thies. Sitting in a cafe one evening, I noticed a tall woman with copper hair wearing a flowing caftan and scarf at a table with a lovely, young girl. I heard her speak English, then fluent Wolof to the waitress. There was a powerful presence about Molly that awed me. I felt compelled to approach her. “Who are you?” I asked. She laughed, we introduced ourselves, sat together, and I began to learn about her fascinating work and life. She quickly taught me, a new PCV, the importance of listening and learning to local people whose culture I could not possibly understand, instead of judging and alienating them. Thus began our friendship, a gift I treasure more with every passing year, seeing Tostan become a world leader in development and the pursuit of human rights.
By 1994, Tostan was operating in 350 villages, reaching 15,000 participants in five national languages. Its three-year curriculum, with classes three times a week, centered around its Community Empowerment Program (CEP) that included six learning modules: problem-solving skills, health and hygiene, preventing child mortality caused by diarrhea or lack of vaccination, financial management of village projects, leadership and group dynamics, and feasibility studies for possible income-generating projects. Literacy, numeracy, and math were incorporated into all the modules.
In 1995, Tostan decided to do a new learning module specifically on women’s health. One of the subjects the women insisted on knowing more about was that of Female Genital Cutting. When one of the Tostan class facilitators teaching in Malicounda Bambara, presented the session on “the tradition,”the centuries old custom of female genital cutting, the women were shocked – one did not talk of such things. But Ndey encouraged them to speak about it. In their predominantly Muslim culture, where they had always thought it was a religious duty, they were surprised to learn from their imam that there was nothing in the Koran indicating the necessity of this practice. They were to learn other relevant information as Tostan facilitators introduced principles found in several Human Rights Instruments: the concepts that all humans should have rights to things like health, education, shelter, and freedom from violence and discrimination was a revelation to them.
In 1997, after long palavers about the disastrous health and emotional effects of FGC, the community members of Malicounda Bambara gathered in the public square and announced to 20 journalists that they had decided to stop the tradition. The men and religious leaders of the community who generally considered it to be “a woman’s thing,” also participated. Once they learned that it was not an Islamic commandment, they were quite amenable to abandoning it. The day of the village declaration Molly was very nervous about the potential impact of breaking with such an ingrained custom, and she especially worried that the women would be accused by other communities of betraying their culture by falling under the influence of westerners. But, as the drums in the village square beat louder, the women pulled Molly up to dance with them, and Molly “… chose at that moment to believe that what she was witnessing was not the end of anything. It was just the beginning.” One struggle at a time would define Tostan’s history.
In June 1998 Gerry Mackie, an Oxford University sociologist, read about Tostan’s program of community declarations to end FGC. He had studied a similar horrific phenomenon in China, that of foot-binding. Mackie sent Molly a copy of his article on the subject, predicting that, like foot-binding, FGC would disappear within a generation. Molly “went nuts.” She and Gerry became friends and collaborators.
In 2002, Molly received the Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service, which honors a Peace Corps Volunteer’s continued work on humanitarian causes. I watched her from the audience during that Peace Corps conference, and could see her exuberant expression, while listening to her humble acceptance speech, giving all credit for Tostan’s achievements to its staff and villagers themselves. Modest Molly insists that, even though she laid the egg, many others hatched it.
Tostan began to receive recognition from many sources. In 1999, it was awarded a University of Illinois Alumni Humanitarian Award, in 2005 from the Anna Lindh Award for Human Rights, in 2007 the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize, and the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 2007. There was no way I could miss that last event in New York, where UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, gave the keynote address. There were many impressive guests of his ilk at the event. Molly’s excitement was audible in her acceptance speech, and she looked regal in her caftan, but I thought the best part was when she introduced Ourèye Sall, the former cutter, who had campaigned in Senegal to end FGC. Ourèye told the illustrious gathering that she had ” … cut many more girls than I can count. It is only when I got into the Tostan classes and started studying women’s health that I began to question this tradition.” Instead of walking off the stage, Molly and Ourèy danced, arms waving, skirts switching. So did I.
By 2002 Tostan began to expand into other African countries, when Molly re-evaluated its goals to make democracy and human rights the foundation of the Community Empower Program. She realized that ” … in order for people to feel confident in their right to make changes, they had to first understand that they had a choice and a voice.”
By 2005 1,486 other villages had made public declarations to abandon FGC. I visited Molly that year and had the privilege of sitting in on a meeting of villagers in Tostan’s Dakar office. They discussed logistics of transporting people, even from the U.S., to attend their declaration. Molly spoke little, except to ask for assurance that all the people supported their plan, including men. I was delighted to hear one of the men comment, “You know, since Tostan has come to our village, our women have become more educated, and much more interesting.”
In 2005 Molly was invited by UNICEF to bring Tostan to Somalia. lmost all women in Somalia undergo pharaonic infibulation, meaning removal of external genitalia, and sewing the vaginal lips shut. If girls do not die, they suffer horribly throughout their lives from complications caused by sexual intercourse and childbirth. Though she had grave doubts about visiting Somalia, where civil war was rife, and she was unfamiliar with the culture, she went. She had harrowing encounters there, and thought it would be very difficult for Tostan to go to Somalia, in view of logistics and the prevailing violence, but Molly could not refuse. Tostan is in operation today in Somalia where 62 communities have publicly declared abandonment of FGC and child/forced marriage, and 42 communities are currently taking part in the CEP.
To date, 6,466 communities have publicly declared abandonment of FGC and child/forced marriage in Senegal, The Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Somalia and Djibouti. (For a detailed analysis of Tostan’s projects, including solar power, mobile phones for literacy, peace and security, governance, environment, and the prison program, please see www.tostan.org.)
The ball is definitely rolling but, never one to rest on her laurels, Molly has a new passion: early childhood development in Africa. Tostan now has a new module to encourage parents who learned literacy through Tostan to help their infants and children to develop their minds.
Aimee Molloy has written Molly’s story just about perfectly. She has captured her personality, her work and her impact on the world through Tostan. But this is not only the story of Molly Melching. It is about many fascinating people whose lives have been changed by Tostan, so many inspiring stories I cannot begin to touch upon in this review. There are also many wonderful photos of Molly, her beautiful daughter, Zoé, dancing village women, even in Somalia, and a stunning portrait of Ourèye Sall.
Molly Melching’s journey is not over. However long the night, she will continue to work to achieve Tostan’s mission: Human dignity for all. But at last the sun is rising to shine on hers and Tostan’s victories, just as Alaaji Mustaafa Njaay promised.
Leita Kaldi Davis worked for the United Nations and UNESCO, for Tufts University Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and Harvard University. She worked with Roma (Gypsies) for fifteen years, became a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal at the age of 55, then went to work for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti for five years. She retired in Florida in 2002. She wrote a memoir of Senegal, Roller Skating in the Desert, and one on Haiti, In the Valley of Atibon (amazon.com).