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Tostan’s origins date back to 1974 when our founder Molly Melching first arrived in Senegal as an exchange student from the United States. She had come as a graduate student looking to study African literature written in French, only to quickly realize that her true passion was in the field of development and the study of national languages.

After completing her studies, Molly founded a children’s center in Dakar — where she worked for six years — that adapted children’s stories into Wolof, eventually developing an extensive library of children’s books in national languages. She also created the first radio program for children in national languages.

Her work took her to rural villages, where she found that this lack of access to contextually relevant material did not just apply to literature; she saw how many development efforts were not addressing the true needs and realities of communities in ways that were relevant to their lives.

Relying heavily on community feedback, Molly and a team of Senegalese cultural specialists developed a new type of development program, the Community Empowerment Program (CEP). This program respectfully engaged communities by working in their own languages and using traditional methods of learning. It facilitated community ownership over the development process, allowing communities to fulfill their own potential.

Their efforts grew throughout the 1980s, leading Molly to found Tostan — which means breakthrough in the Wolof language — in 1991. For over 30 years, Molly’s original concepts have developed into a leading model for community-led change; a model that has now been implemented in 22 languages across eight African countries, is shared internationally with activists and practitioners through our training seminars, and is supported at the international, national, and grassroots levels.