Molly Melching haggles with traders at Kermel market in Dakar
When Molly Melching was young in Danville, Illinois, the Midwestern town where she grew up, most girls did not know they could harbour ambitions much beyond nursing and teaching. Today, she is chief executive of Tostan in Dakar, Senegal, an innovative NGO that empowers communities to lead their own development through human rights education, in matters of health, environment, governance and women’s participation.
Melching started the organisation in Thiès, a city near Dakar, in 1991 and since then it has touched nearly 4,000 communities in Africa. Funded by Unicef, governments, foundations and many individual donors, it has been making a historic contribution towards stopping female genital cutting (FGC) in eight African countries so far. It is also responsible, among other things, for a significant reduction in domestic violence and the marriage of young girls, often to older men. Melching, who has been at the forefront of its success, has lived in Senegal for 36 years and says she feels blessed.
Her original dream was to be a translator at the United Nations. As a student at the University of Illinois, she travelled to France and, later, teaching at the university, she created a course to help students to understand the importance of learning about other cultures. The module she introduced on colonisation – what happens when people try to impose one culture on another – taught her about Africa and had a huge impact on her. Aged 24, she went on a six-month exchange programme with the University of Dakar. She never returned.
When she stepped off the plane, the person who was meant to meet her failed to turn up and she was stranded at the airport for eight hours. But she felt so at ease in her surroundings that she didn’t mind. As she waited she watched people greeting, hugging, kissing in the street. The red sand, the wind blowing, the women’s colourful flowing robes, or boubous, so elegant, delighted her. As did street scenes: a child dancing, men playing games, people making food and mending shoes.
“It was an indescribable feeling deep inside,” she says. “It said, ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.’ I hesitate to say it felt like home as I am leery of that: what does that mean? I am comfortable in the US, it’s just never entered my mind to go back.”
Melching’s mother, a teacher, and her father, who sold agricultural equipment, were saddened but Melching loved the humour, warmth, kindness and generosity of the Senegalese people. She was amazed how much happier and full of life they were compared with Americans. She felt she came alive too and living among them helped her become a better person. So she completed her masters in African studies and learnt Wolof, the main language of Senegal. This made a huge difference when she started her centres for children in Dakar and a small village.
“We used theatre and songs and poetry,” she says, “to give value to African traditions for learning. I realised few went to school in the village and that represented 60 per cent of the country. There was a basic lack of information on hygiene, health, governance, the environment. A friend’s baby died of dehydration because of this. I saw failed projects all around – millet machines broken down, donkeys and chickens inhabiting health posts, vegetable plots full of weeds. Why? Because outsiders had never taken the time to listen to what the villagers wanted, what would work for them and make development projects sustainable. We needed a different approach.”
In 1995 Melching started an education programme for women and introduced a women’s health module with human rights education. It has changed their lives in ways she could never have imagined. “In 1997 one of the communities declared they were ending FGC, and soon 12 more villages in their intra-marrying social network followed suit. I was shocked. That hadn’t been our aim. Our place was to give information and trust them to make decisions based on their new understanding of human rights. The programme gave them space to think through issues and decide FGC was contrary to well-being and health.”
Melching is amazed at what Tostan has achieved and now travels to share it with other NGOs and governments. She often takes some of the “incredible” villagers from Senegal and interprets their stories so their voices can be heard and they can “guide us to do development in the right way”. It is this of which she is most proud.
She always returns to Senegal, where she has lived in many places: from her university dorm, to a bedsit in Dakar, Gorée Island, Thiès, a room above her office and, currently, a modest three-bedroom house with a small garden. It is in the mainly Senegalese neighbourhood of Mermoz, midway between the airport, her office and the centre of Dakar. She also has a beach house, two hours from Dakar, without which she would “go nuts”. It is her retreat.
“I am with people constantly. My day is amazing. I might be in a village in the morning, then in the office with the Senegalese staff, have a conference in the afternoon with Unicef, and go to a reception with the US ambassador in the evening. I could never have had that range of experience in America.”
In 1991 she and her husband, an American working in development, divorced. Their daughter, now 25, is living with her. Melching used to visit her parents in the US once every two years but they have both died. Now she goes less often.
“My mother came to Senegal four times. The bad part of being an expat is when your relatives are ill. I only managed to go once a year to see her even when she was ill. She spent her whole life trying to get me to go back. Only when the then First Lady Hillary Clinton visited a village [touched by Tostan], did Mom say to me, ‘Maybe what you do is important.’”