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Molly Melching: Founder of Tostan

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Molly Melching, founder of Tostan, a nonprofit based in Senegal, with participants from a workshop for religious and community leaders from Ghana and Nigeria. Image by Amy Yee. Senegal, 2017.

Molly Melching, founder of Tostan, a nonprofit based in Senegal, with participants from a workshop for religious and community leaders from Ghana and Nigeria. Image by Amy Yee. Senegal, 2017.

When Molly Melching arrived as a graduate student in Senegal in 1974, it was her first time in Africa, but she “felt comfortable in this society that’s people-centric,” she says. She embraced Senegal’s “values of people, sharing, unity, and generosity.”

Melching found herself in social gatherings with notable figures, and she was introduced to Cheikh Anta Diop, one of Senegal’s foremost thinkers and activists, who became her mentor.

Diop encouraged Melching to learn Wolof, Senegal’s main local language, spoken by about 80 percent of its population. He also taught her the Wolof word tostan, which means “breakthrough.”

Teaching people in Wolof and other local languages was key to gaining villagers’ trust and understanding their needs. “We started where people were. It’s important to listen,” Melching notes.