The first time I met Molly Melching, the founder of an organization called Tostan, we were driving through the countryside in Senegal on our way to Kolma Peulh, one of more than 1,000 villages in Senegal that no longer practice female genital cutting because of the innovative work Molly and Tostan have been doing with the locals for years.
Molly spent an hour telling me about her life and her approach, which is based on two things: deep, deep engagement with local communities, and the concept of basic human rights as the starting point for any intervention. Her personal story was inspiring. Her ideas were thoughtful. When we arrived in Koma Peulh, I saw everything she'd been telling me about with my own eyes, and it was incredible. With Molly's help, the community had created a new vocabulary for talking about the most important issues they face, and they were using it to make all sorts of improvements to their lives. I have not thought the same way about the work I do at the Gates Foundation since that day.
In Koma Peulh, I talked to the chief of the village. He said: "When we study, we start to believe. There is no more forcing, no more child marriage -- these things don't go with our true beliefs... We now have clear vision, whereas before we were nearsighted. Nearsightedness of the eyes is bad but not nearly as bad as nearsightedness of the heart... This program was like the rainy season to us; we were in the dry season and when knowledge comes it is like rain, everything grows and it's beautiful."
Empowered, mobilized communities don't just address one single issue, such as female genital cutting; they work steadily to recognize and then meet all their needs. In fact, in the book, there's a great quote from a Tostan board member saying "It may sound strange to say, but if Tostan is remembered in the history books only for the end of FGC, it will be a tragedy. If we were to get the support needed to take this model to thousands more communities, this is a model that can transform Africa."
You may not be able to travel to Senegal, but you can read the new book However Long the Night, by Aimee Molloy, which tells Molly's story and the story of the Senegalese communities where she works. Too often, the way we communicate about global health and development makes it seem as dry as the Senegalese desert. However, the Tostan story is about courage and ingenuity and power. Molloy captures all those human elements, which is fitting because the success of Tostan is due to the fact that Molly is sensitive to the human elements at work within communities like Koma Peulh.
However Long the Night reinforced my own belief that the best solution to disease and poverty is already present in developing communities around the world. The solution is the people who live in these communities, and their drive to make the future better than the past. Molly's story is also the story of so many brave and innovative people who are changing the world for themselves.
This post first appeared on the Impatient Optimists blog.