Snowballs

Madeleine Balchan - Senegal


February 18, 2011

This is my first winter without snow.

I remember the first time I ever made a snowman. I scooped snow into my mittens and tried to form a ball, but the powder just crumbled apart and fell as I separated my hands. I watched in jealous frustration as my older brothers rolled their rapidly expanding snowballs around the yard. I knew I could do the pushing part, but I couldn’t get it started! Then my dad came and handed me a ball already half a foot in diameter. Using all the strength of my two-foot-tall-puff-jacketed self I slowly rolled the ball across our yard. Eventually, my snowball was the head of our family snowman, towering high in the front yard with 2 coal eyes and sticks for arms.

My father enabled me. I recognized something I wanted but couldn’t do on my own, and he gave me the help I needed to take things into my own hands and “run with it”. The most effective aid addresses the needs and wants of the receiver, and requires the end-user to push the ball along.

I’ve often talked about “developing countries” in the past. But “developed” countries are still developing.  The cultures within families and organizations and countries are dynamic and always changing, always developing. I now approach the term “underdeveloped” with caution. This land rich in culture and history has developed, though perhaps not in ways apparent to the West.

We had the opportunity to meet with Molly Melching, a woman who left the “developed” US almost thirty years ago to commit herself to service in Senegal. Her response to people who gasp and wonder at her having given up the luxuries of the States? “This is no sacrifice. I’m living here because I love it.”

My favorite thing about TOSTAN, the non-profit Melching founded, is that after 12 years of service they looked back on their approach and totally changed it. They took out literacy as a focus of the program to fit into the culture of oral tradition.  Their current strategy is to train one community member to lead community think-sessions based on Human Rights and the responsibilities that come with them. In these community sessions, they begin by valuing the positives, and then ask where they are not respecting the rights of everyone in the community.

TOSTAN is widely recognized for the number of villages that have ended the process of Female Genital Cutting. That was never a part of their goals. TOSTAN’s culturally sensitive educational approach to development empowers the community, but develops “only” in the direction, and “only” as far as, the community is willing to push their own snow-ball.

This Senegalese snowball has grown bigger, and broader, and farther than Molly Melching could have ever imagined or pushed it on her own.

Madeleine Balchan