The path to Soudiane (SOO-jan) is like any other, winding through plains scattered with trees each a century old. If you’re coming upon Soudiane at night, the first thing you’ll see is the lights, shining like stars through windows and courtyards. These lights are nothing more than camping lanterns, each house armed with three or four. As you get closer, the horse pulling your cart slows, knowing you’ve reached your destination. Radios are playing Malian music and Wolof news. The smell of chere, Senegalese couscous, wafts through the air, an earthy smell.
This is a village where, when I was five years old, the community decided to end the traditional practice of female genital cutting. The first latrine arrived when I was in first grade, and the health post was built the same year I graduated middle school. Women who had never been to school were learning how to write their names and the name of their village, at the same time I had my first cursive class.
And now here I am. My life so far has led me to this village, this straw-walled classroom, trying to explain to thirty women why iodized salt is important for the health of their babies. In this village of three hundred, seven kilometers from any paved road, is where I’ve truly learned what “developing” means. It took one NGO (Tostan, tostan.org), ten years, and a group of committed and passionate villagers to “bring them out of the jungle” as one villager explained it to me. Now the women know when a child is becoming malnourished, and act as watchdogs for their immediate villages. They can pick up birth control pills, Cycle beads (a natural form of birth control that tells you which days you are fertile and must abstain or use another method of birth control), and male condoms at the health post instead of going on horse cart and wasting a day better spent farming.
Most importantly, the women of the village are more respected and appreciated. One of the women who works at the health post told me a story of a woman who needed to go the the next town over for a prenatal check up. Her husband refused to take her. “It would be bad for the horse,” he told her. So the woman walked seven kilometers for her appointment, and then seven back. She was six months pregnant with a child, a boy, that is now the same age as me.
Today that would never happen, thanks to Tostan’s community education programs focused on human rights. The women in the village are now taking it upon themselves to teach the surrounding villages, to return some of the good Tostan has done for them.
In this tiny village in Senegal, away from television, offices or newspapers, a woman’s life is now more important than a horse. And that is what development means to me.