In August, two Tostan training alumni, Asmau Ayub and Mohammed Andani Hussein, returned to the Tostan Training Center (TTC) for an 11-day workshop on Tostan’s human rights-based approach to community-led development, held in collaboration with the Carter Center. They brought with them young development professionals from their respective organizations, the Rayuwa Foundation and Haske Ghana. The Rayuwa Foundation works to improve community wellbeing through psychosocial support services, mentorship, and children’s rights trainings, while Haske Ghana aims to reduce conflict, empower women and remove the socio-economic barriers to girls’ education.

At the conclusion of the Tostan training, I asked participants to reflect on what they had learned during the seminar, and how their new knowledge will impact the challenges they face in their work.

Acccording to Inusah Mohammed from the Rayuwa Foundation, one of their difficulties was:

…friction with the leaders of the community, who said that they did not know why we were there and that they didn’t feel like part of the whole thing and that it seemed as though we were looking down on whatever they had been doing in the past years.

A key takeaway for him was the need to foster in the community a “sense of belonging” by “working with the intellect of the people rather than going there to look down on the intellect of the people.” As Asmau Ayub put it, this critical dynamic between communities and development workers is about:

 …not necessarily just pouring out ideas onto the community but really listening to the community, engaging them from their own perspective, understanding what their needs are and then giving it back to them as a community. That way, you get to work with a community and there is cooperation.

This type of interaction was best demonstrated through the training’s participatory, learner-centered approach. In practice, participants discussed the lessons learned by Tostan staff over 25 years of program implementation and even experienced sessions directly from the Community Empowerment Program (CEP). Mohammed Andani Hussein noted:

This time around I learned a lot about how to get community members to talk, how to get community members into a dialogue…one important thing that we’ve learned here…is the icebreakers, because when you bring students together, it is always difficult for them to open up and start talking. But we’ve learned how to get them to start talking through games…and I’m sure that this will be very, very useful for us.

All of the August training participants were religious and work in contexts where religion is an important part of daily life. Considerable time was therefore devoted to exploring Tostan’s work with religious leaders and the intersection between Islam and human rights. On this point, Zakaria Mohammed Mutawakilu reflected:

Indeed, it surprised me in a way. I did not know that the Tostan Training Center would tackle human rights from the Islamic perspective. Most of the human rights we have learned, particularly to equality and to a fair trial, the human right to life, to education, to health – all these human rights are found in Islam.

Throughout these discussions, participants expressed the particularities of the contexts in which they work and analyzed them through various theories examined during the training. An especially striking example with regard to social norm theory came from Alhassan Ibn Abdallah, who, in addition to his work with Haske Ghana, leads an NGO working to empower women and girls living in slums through education and entertainment:

…it doesn’t look like any other community, because in slums you find people coming from so many different communities and they come together to make the slum. And each person comes in with his norm, and then when all these norms come together, it creates another norm that is different – completely different. And here [at the TTC] I have learned the idea of social norms and the processes or steps that you can use to harness the positives of a society to actually change social norms in a very positive direction.

Participants also worked together with the guidance of trainers to get feedback on their project proposals and program designs, and practice how to set useful and obtainable objectives. Alhassan Ibn Abdallah summarized the true impact of the practical skills they developed over the course of the training:

…in urban areas, you have very vibrant young people living in the slums and they don’t know how much they can actually aspire to. With the knowledge I have acquired here, when I go back I will be able to motivate and inspire people and bring them together…to identify our potentials and aspire to reach them.

This inspiration to effect positive change in unique contexts is one of the principle goals of the TTC. Just as community members who follow our three-year CEP define what they would like to glean from the program, so too can training participants personalize our methodology and approach according to their own communities’ needs.

Interviews by Daniel Newton, Programs Officer