Ousmane Ndiaye is an imam from Tankon, Senegal, where he has committed to serving his community and teaching the lessons of the Quran. As a prominent religious figure, his opinions and judgements hold much weight among his followers. Despite mild apprehension—some still see NGOs like Tostan as an outside interference to their communities and traditional practices—Imam Ndiaye recently agreed to attend a training for religious leaders on the Tostan Community Empowerment Program (CEP). “I was pleasantly surprised by what Tostan does. In fact, I had heard a lot about Tostan, but now, I realize that I was given false information. Tostan’s work has nothing against Islam.”
For 20 days beginning in mid-April, 55 religious leaders just like Imam Ndiaye participated in this training. These imams traveled from The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, and across Senegal to meet in Kolda, a region in southeast Senegal. They were split into three groups based on their primary language—Mandinka, Djola, or Pulaar—allowing leaders from each country to be represented in each group. This transnational mix was intentional, as the focus of the training was not only to inform religious leaders of Tostan’s holistic work, but also to encourage them to promote shared values such as peace, security, and good parental practices in their respective communities.
Imam Mouhamed Chérif Diop, Tostan’s Child Protection Specialist and a well-known religious scholar, facilitated the training with a strong emphasis on the many links between the Tostan program and Islamic teachings. After each session, the religious leaders discussed their views on what conformed to or opposed their existing thought framework. For example, Imam Diop cited a hadith—a teaching of the Prophet Mohammed—that relates to the importance of peace and security: “There is one thing that is far more important than extra prayers and many alms: that is to spread peace and reconcile people.”
Besides information sharing and awareness-raising, the goal of this training was also to address sensitive issues that arise when inciting change to traditional practices associated with religious belief. As a first step, they agreed upon a common vision for an ideal future society and the values of said society. They also debated the type of religious guide that would be required in such a society, and what their roles and responsibilities would be to accomplish this collective vision. An important point of discussion was the similarities between religious values and universal human rights, which are at the foundation of Tostan’s program.
Simply attending this training was a testament to these leaders’ openness to not only accept, but also to be at the forefront of positive change. As Imam Oumar Diémé reflected, “One must never judge a person before getting to know them well.” This training was an opportunity for Tostan to learn from these powerful potential allies and for the group of imams to become familiar with Tostan’s core values—and to see that they are not dissimilar from their own. This values analysis and discussion helped the religious leaders begin thinking concretely about how they can maximize positive social change in their communities.
Themes such as human rights, visioning for a better future, social norms, and mediation were key concepts over the course of the training. After each topic, the participants discussed how that theme fit within an Islamic framework, including justifications directly from the Quran and the Prophet’s hadiths. Following a lively conversation, Imam Youssouph Diallo remarked “Tostan is an extraordinary organization because it shares information, making it accessible to all, and it aligns with the teachings of the Prophet.”
In working groups, the participants reflected upon how best to protect human rights in their communities. Mamadu Baldé, an imam from Fajonquito in Guinea-Bissau, had already encountered a challenge to the right to practice one’s religion. “In my village, I was once confronted with a problem between Muslims and Christians. The young Muslims in the village wanted to stop the Christians in the village from building a church. When the young people came to me to ask me to stop the construction of this church, I told them that instead, I would offer the Christians a plot of land for their project because God said that everyone is free to choose their own religion.” Reinforcing mediation techniques throughout this Tostan training made these religious leaders even better equipped at resolving such conflicts in their communities.
The majority of those present left the training ready for action: “This is the first time an organization has thought to train us. We learned so much. This meeting allowed us to know what Tostan does and what we can contribute. So, the ball is in our court. It’s on us to be more engaged in our communities. Let us collaborate together to be more effective with our actions. If a conflict arises in our villages, let’s mobilize ourselves. Let’s not be static,” proclaimed Imam Diémé.
Imam Diop invited all the religious leaders present to return to their communities with a newfound diligence towards renouncing any discriminatory practices or acts of violence. Imam Oumar Sané was prepared to take on this task. He said, “Today’s session really inspired me. Many ideas have come to mind. I will initiate many things once I’m home and in my sermons, I will tackle many themes related to what we saw here.”
Prepared and inspired, these religious leaders readily took on the challenge of being the new wave of changemakers in their communities.
Contributions from Mamoudou Ndiaye, Peace & Security Project Assistant, and Mouhamed Chérif Diop, Child Protection Specialist