In a small village of southern Senegal, Tida walks down a clay road, holding her young son by the hand as he toddles along in tow. Orange dust kicks up underfoot as she passes the cement block homes and sagging wooden fences of her family, friends and neighbors. She’s on her way to greet us and to meet her friend, Soutoucou.
From the outside, the two women look similar to any other woman you might come across in a remote Senegalese village, dressed in brightly colored tops, head ties and ankle-length pagnes wrapped around their legs. But on the inside, they’ve been changed. They are pioneers and innovators for their people.
As the ladies settle into some chairs behind a compound shared by several families, they are unfazed by the sounds of a donkey braying, the chickens clucking and roaming about their feet and the loud chatter from the crowd that has formed nearby. They are at home here, and the whole neighborhood knows about the transformation that has come — transformation these women created with a garden and a plan.
“The market garden,” they call it. Tida, Soutoucou and a handful of other women work together to grow produce like tomatoes, okra, corn, carrots and onions. Then they sell it at the local open-air marketplace. It’s not complicated, but it’s significant. In a culture where men are the primary breadwinners and decision makers, and women rarely hold positions as thought leaders or business owners, the market garden women found a way to empower themselves, help support their families and set examples for their community.
“It’s really a great thing for us, the market garden,” Soutoucou beamed. “There is … a respect between us and our husbands.”
But just a few years ago, these women had a very different story. With no education and no example to follow, Soutoucou, Tida and their friends lacked the skills and confidence to run a business. What made the difference?
Wycliffe funded a literacy program* in their village that provided the chance to read and write their language for the very first time. Tida was well into her thirties before she saw her own language written down or learned to read it.
“The study of Manjak language is very worthwhile,” Tida said. “It’s very important for us who were blind [unaware]. We didn’t see how to learn, but with this language [class], it’s very worthwhile.”
Twenty women attended the class, all hoping to learn more about their language and enjoy it in its written form. But many came away with much more: the ability to write notes about customers, products and payments; and some new skills in organization and teamwork. Women once divided by jealousies and rivalries reconciled while taking the class, and began working together.
Most importantly, they gained the confidence to take a risk and create something that puts their new skills to use and benefits the whole community.
“Studying Manjak is really important,” Soutoucou said. “Before, we were blind; we weren’t instructed. Our ancestors didn’t go to school, but today, with this teaching in Manjak, really that helped us to understand. We were blind … but now we are fully aware. Then we did the market garden, and that — the gardening we did — really helped us with our need.”
The news has even spread to neighboring villages, and now people often ask Soutoucou to come read and write for them or teach them to build similar businesses.
But what the women seem most excited about is the impact literacy is having on their families.
Their school-age kids attend classes taught in Senegal’s official language, French, which can be difficult for them since Manjak is their first language. To help, the women share their Manjak texts with their kids, which helps them improve their literacy and French skills at school. Some of the kids have even taken their mom’s place in the Manjak literacy class.
“I love it when my kids study Manjak,” Soutoucou said. “We are here to help our children and our families.”