America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

African Youth Day at a Boys’ Prison in Dakar, Senegal

This post is a guest blog from Unofficial Ambassador Alisa Hamilton, who is currently volunteering with Tostan in Senegal. If are interested in finding out more, you can read her previous AUA blog.  Please also help Alisa reach her fund raising goal by visiting her blog site.

My first two weeks in Senegal have far exceeded my expectations. After a weeklong orientation in the city of Thiès, I am finally settling in to life in Dakar and my role in the Tostan office (which is air-conditioned – yes!). On my third day at work, I had the good fortune of attending the inauguration of a well that Tostan helped facilitate at a detention and correction center for minors in Dakar. The day-long celebration coincided with la Journée mondiale de l’enfant africain (African Youth Day), a day to commemorate children killed in Soweto, South Africa on June 16, 1976 during a march in which they protested for equal education and the right to be taught in their own language. I attended the inauguration with Tostan’s Communications Team and took photos and video of the day’s proceedings.

The detention center is a temporary home for 60 boys between the ages of 13 and 18, most of whom have committed minor offences, such as pick-pocketing and petty theft. Prior to the construction of the well, the boys had to walk several kilometers each day to the nearest water source and carry buckets of water back to the prison. They were expected to eat, wash, and go to the bathroom with this small amount of water and often ran out before the end of the day. The Tostan volunteer and Fulbright scholar most involved in the project explained that the boys did not want to partake in sports because they did not have the means to wash themselves afterward. Hygiene and health are two focal points in Tostan’s program of human rights education so it was fitting that the organization partner with the prison to improve the quality of life in the center with clean water.


A portion of the garden where the boys grow onions, cabbage, and mint among other vegetables and herbs. Photograph taken by Alisa Hamilton.

Now with the well located in the garden, the morale in the detention center has increased immensely. Not only do the boys have the means to eat, wash, and play sports, they are learning how to garden. Currently, less than 300 CFA (aproximately $0.60) is spent on each detainee per day. The produce from the garden supplements their diet and the selling of surplus serves as an income generating activity, another corner stone in Tostan’s Prison Project along with family mediation and human rights education. According to the garden supervisor, the sentences of several boys have been shortened thanks to Tostan’s program, and the number of boys who return because of repeat offenses has decreased. Tostan’s next project is training the boys to raise chickens. With profit-making skills, they are less likely to conduct criminal activity after their release. These vocational skills also help detainees return to their families, many of which own farms.

Pulling Water from the Well

Pulling up the inaugural bucket of water. (From left to right: Prison Director, U.S. Ambassador, Tostan Project Supervisor). Photo taken by Tostan volunteer.

The day began with speeches by the Director of the prison, a Tostan representative, and the U.S. Ambassador to Senegal, Marcia S. Bernicat. At the well inauguration, the Ambassador lifted a bucket sloshing with water and poured it into the reservoir. Everyone joined together in prayer as the Imam blessed the well. A local news station filmed the event and interviewed the Ambassador. I saw the footage in a store that evening, which was really neat. After the inauguration, we ate ceebuyapp (seasoned rice with beef and vegetables) before returning to the main venue for the afternoon activities.

The celebration began with a wrestling competition (Senegal’s national sport) complete with the sprinkling of sacred water and dancing. Five rounds of fighting took place with commentary by a charismatic prison employee. After each victory, the other boys would rush into the arena to cheer and dance for the winner. The director of the prison joined in the dancing after the final match. A sketch, a rap, and a song performed by the boys followed the competition. Finally, after a closing speech by the Director, everyone, including the boys, prison guards, and audience members, broke into dance as people exited the performance area. The atmosphere was jovial and full of hope. The Director assured the boys in her final words that their time at the detention center was only a phase in their lives and that with confidence and perseverance they would go on to live prosperously. My favorite part of the day was watching the amicable interactions between detainees and prison personnel. There seemed to be a real understanding that yes, the boys committed wrongs, but this did not exclude them from being contributing members of society.

Hip Hop Education

Audience members sing and dance in front of graffiti art reading “HipHop Education” during the afternoon festivities. Photograph taken by Alisa Hamilton.

At present, Tostan’s Prison Project runs the Community Empowerment Program (CEP) in five of Senegal’s prisons, and seven other prisons have officially requested the implementation of Tostan’s program. Prisoners are some of the most neglected and vulnerable members of a society, and human rights education is crucial for these individuals who have been stripped of their dignity and are often rejected by their families after serving their sentences. A large part of my position in the Programs Department is to support the Prison Project. I am very excited about the opportunity (however unexpected!) to become involved.

Watch the interview with Garden Supervisor, Ibrahim Cissé: 

Read more about Tostan and find other amazing opportunities like this one in the AUA Directory today!


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This entry was posted on June 23, 2011 by in Volunteer Related.
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