I recently had one of those wonderful experiences that made me realize that no matter how great the challenges, I will remain dedicated to seeing our Tostan education program reach millions more in Africa.  I thought I would share this unexpected moment with you.

As some of you may know, Tostan has been piloting a new education module in Senegal to help parents, grandparents and other primary child caregivers to reinforce positive parental practices that can better prepare their young children for learning in school and life in general. Participants in 232 communities have now gone through the first phase of the program and have learned about how the brain develops and how important it is to positively interact with their babies and young children.  

On a beautiful sunny Saturday morning, I went down, as I often do, to the beach to buy fresh fish for dinner. The area is located near a village called The Somone. After I bought some fresh fish, I handed them over to the fish cleaner to scale and clean, then sat down next to some children to wait until she had finished.  As I had some time, I pulled out one of our children’s books from the new module and started reading in Wolof to the young children sitting next to me.  They were surprised and delighted and one boy, who obviously was attending school, tried to read along with me.  Soon, more children as well as three adults had also gathered to see something so rare – a colorfully illustrated book being read in their own language – and by a white woman!  As the young boy was excited and seemed intent on reading, I let him continue alone by showing him first the picture, asking him to identify the animals, describe what was happening, and then try to read the text under the picture.  Soon everyone was clapping after each caption as he was able to read more and more fluently.

Then the fish cleaner came over to hand me the bag of red snappers. When she saw the boy was struggling with one part of the text, she immediately jumped in to help him finish the sentence he was reading.  Everyone looked up in surprise as no one imagined that the fish cleaner could read.  

“Have you been to school?” I asked in Wolof.

“Not to French school,” she answered, “but I have been to Wolof school and I know that book. You know, I have that book at home and read it to my grandchildren.”

I then realized she was attending the Tostan Reinforcement of Parental Practices (RPP) module in the nearby Somone village.  My sister Diane and friend Anne Charlotte who were with me came over to see what was happening.  

Without prompting, the fish cleaner looked at us intently and said “Did you know that the best time to teach children is from the age 0-3? Yes, 0-3 when they are babies!  I didn’t know that myself, but that is why it is very good to read to them, to sing all kinds of songs and just talk to them all the time. I talk to my grandchildren while I am doing chores around the house and just explain what I am doing.”  

I translated what she said into English and answered that    we thought what she said was really interesting and important. 

“Well,” she answered, “it’s all about the brain.  The brain is developing and neurons are connecting especially from 0-3. You need to stimulate the brain – talk to babies all the time—even before they can walk, before they can talk.  By talking to your baby, you help to develop the child’s brain and prepare her or him for learning later on.  Your child will be more successful if you do that, you know. We are all talking to babies now in my house because of what I learned.”  She checked to make sure I had understood the word “neuron” in Wolof and actually started explaining what a neuron is to me, but luckily I had participated in the development of the module so knew it already!  It was so exciting to realize what an accurate understanding she had of the class information.

I asked if her daughter had also participated in the program.  “No, she went to French school but she never learned about things like this.  I was the one who taught her and now she realizes how important it is,” she said proudly. Then she turned to the woman sitting with us and said, “You could learn about these things too if you would come to the Tostan classes!”

I never told her that I was with Tostan and I asked her if I could interview her some time and she said – “Yes, sure.  My name is Marième Diakhate and I am here cleaning fish every day.  I would be happy to teach you what I know.” 

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Anne Charlotte, Diane and I talked all the way home about how this interaction embodied the best of Tostan—a fish cleaner (in her 50s) who had never been to formal school but spoke articulately and with confidence about her new knowledge and practice for early childhood learning.  We were witnesses to her new knowledge, as was her French-educated daughter and other men and women sitting in the group at the beach.  “I didn’t know this for my own children,” she had said with pride.  “But I have two grandchildren, and I now know how to help them.”

By Molly Melching, Tostan Executive Director and Founder, Tostan