Pioneers Post

Lunch with... Molly Melching

21 May 2010
Molly Melching of Tostan




Molly Melching




Bissap (a Senegalese fruit drink)


Ceebu jen (fish and rice)


Illinois-born Melching has worked in Senegal since 1974, where she attended the University of Dakar before joining the Peace Corps in 1976. She founded Tostan in 1991 and since then more than 4,500 communities in Africa have made public commitments to abandon harmful traditional practices. She received the Humanitarian Alumni Award from the University of Illinois in 1999, the Sargent Shriver Distinguished Award for Humanitarian Service in 2002, and Sweden’s Anna Lindh Award in 2005 for her work in human rights. In 2007 Tostan won the Conrad N Hilton Humanitarian Prize.

The executive director of community development NGO Tostan was a star turn at this year’s Skoll World Forum. Here, she tells Chrisanthi Giotis about her mission to improve life in African villages

No one could accuse Molly Melching of being a shrinking violet. At the 2010 Skoll World Forum awards ceremony Melching was recognised as one of seven social entrepreneurs to be supported by the Skoll Foundation this year. Melching thanked the notoriously shy eBay billionaire Jeff Skoll, not with a handshake but with a show-stopping traditional Senegalese dance.

My lunch date with Melching took place a few hours before she took to the stage. It’s the second day of the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship and the Saïd Business School is in full swing. To avoid the inevitable interruptions at an event which prizes networking we head for Café Coco at the Royal Oxford Hotel, where the yellow walls and pink cushions imply a Moroccan theme, although the food is mostly pizzas and salads.

We’re ensconced at a corner table not too close to anyone else but still I wonder what the other diners will think of our talk. Female genital cutting (FGC) isn’t exactly your average lunchtime topic.

Tostan, the NGO Melching founded and which now employs 1,100 staff, fosters village-wide development, but one of the outstanding achievements of the three-year programmes it runs is the fact that many villages have abandoned the tradition of FGC.

Explaining how and why the Tostan (‘breakthrough’ in Wolof, the most widely spoken language in Senegal) programme works isn’t easy – especially as Melching is an enthusiastic talker who sprinkles her conversation with amazing anecdotes.

We begin lunch with a shared plate of marinated olives, which we both dive into with our fingers, and are still talking about the structure of the programme as our main courses of chorizo and mushroom salad arrive.

‘I was living in a cemetery of failed projects,’ says Melching, explaining why she started Tostan. It was 1982, her eighth year in Senegal, and Melching had moved to a small village whose standout features were a broken-down car, a dilapidated mill and a health centre that housed donkeys and chickens.

She was in the village for three years to look at how culture could be used in development. By this she means valuing the existing culture of the village and using it as a base to set goals for what the people want to achieve.

‘Back then there wasn’t Tostan, just me, a cultural expert and an artist. We didn’t assume – we asked the villagers: “What do you want to learn to read and write?” As a result we worked with them in writing down the traditional oral poetry they love so much, and worked with the kids to make toys using traditional materials.

‘We asked “What are your daily activities and the things you love most – and what is important in terms of your values and religion?” Then we asked them what they wanted their community to be.’

This valuing of culture and the community formed the foundation of Tostan’s programme, which Molly set up in 1991. It takes up the first 12 months of each three-year project. It has led to important innovations such as teaching literacy through text messaging.

‘Women come home from the fields and are so tired that they don’t feel like reading a book,’ says Melching. ‘But if you show them they can easily communicate with their mother or brother in the next village it takes on a whole new significance.

‘Five years ago hardly anyone had a cellphone but now at least one person in every family has one. There will be so many applications for them so it’s important that girls and women know how to use them to access information.’ 

Getting back to structure of the programme, the second year is devoted to bringing the villagers together to set development goals like better health – and in these meetings practices such as FGC come to be questioned.

But, says Melching, a change in attitude isn’t always enough to influence behaviour. An evaluation paid for by UNICEF found that ten years after villages had been through the Tostan programme and declared they would end FGC, 77 per cent had complied.

‘If the result had been 40 per cent I would have been thrilled,’ says Melching. ‘But finding 77 per cent for me was so critical in informing us as to what action to take.

‘This was about real results, not just a short-lived campaign. In certain countries there were well-intentioned NGOs that campaigned on the issue and the incidence of FGC stayed the same or went up.’

As a foundation run by a businessman, Melching believes Skoll was attracted to Tostan’s proven results. At the same time the evaluation had an effect on her, making Melching more impatient with traditional grant-makers.

‘We’ve had at least three evaluations that all say the same thing, but people are still asking for evaluations. We’re saying we know this works – let’s move on.’

Plans are now in development to ensure Tostan’s greater sustainability. Enterprise is already an important feature of its mission. Business skills are taught in the second and third year of the programme (by the way, all the staff except for Molly, and two Americans in Washington, are local).

Villagers start businesses, an important process for meeting development goals and also crucial for replacing the lost income of women who previously conducted the female circumcision ceremonies.

Initially, businesses are started with villagers’ own money but then they are introduced to microfinance institutions.

Melching is looking for more partners, particularly in the forestry and water industries. Her argument is that Tostan does the three years of preparatory capacity building so the partners can focus on developing new projects.

And it doesn’t take much. As her espresso arrives and she berates me for spending too much time scribbling and not enough eating, Melching tells me how Tostan came to invest in a composting plant for a village. Eighty per cent of waste from households in Senegal is organic, and because of the fish-based diet it makes excellent compost and can be a valuable source of income. But they only discovered this thanks to a waste separating project started by Molly and two Peace Corps volunteers and initially funded by Molly cashing in a first class airline ticket she had won.

‘Now it’s a wonderful example of waste management grown out of a combination of education and finding solutions that also generate income. Ten years ago we didn’t believe it was possible to almost totally eliminate FGC – so if we can do that than there’s hope.’