DAKAR, SENEGAL: Tracking down Molly Melching is not an easy task. The Texas-born, Illinois-raised, Senegal-based 66-year-old is constantly on the move. She’s the founder and executive director of Tostan, a Dakar-based NGO that helps bring education programs, including human rights and reproductive health, to local communities. Tostan celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

After recently speaking at a women’s conference in Copenhagen, she moved on to Brussels and Paris before heading back to Senegal. Next, she headed for Atlanta and meetings at the Carter Center, a non-profit founded by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn.

Back in Dakar, Ms. Melching, who first moved to the country 41 years ago as a graduate student working on literacy issues, is busy meeting with visiting dignitaries (Bill and Hillary Clinton have met with her), NGOs (the morning I visited she was meeting with organizations working on ending child marriage), or visiting the villages where Tostan has been working.

Ms. Melching and her Tostan colleagues gained international recognition for working on ending both female genital cutting and child marriage in a number of countries across West and East Africa. She sat down with me at the Tostan offices in Dakar to discuss whether, after four decades, she still feels like an expat, and advice she has for expats interested in working in the world of development. Edited remarks follow.

When you first came here to Senegal did you find it easy to assimilate?

I came here in 1974 and so I was lucky that I was able, in the very beginning, to see that I would never understand this country or how to really interact with people or show the respect that I wished to show the people if I did not learn the language. Learning Wolof [Senegal’s lingua franca] was huge in terms of integration into the culture. What it helped me to do was better understand why people did what they did, and how different it was from what we do in the U.S. It allowed me not to be judgmental, like “Oh, they should be doing this because this is what we do in the U.S.” Learning the culture and the proverbs, the key words that express the deeper values here, it suddenly opened a new world for me.

After all these years do you have Senegalese citizenship?

Actually I don’t, but it’s mainly because of lack of time. I could easily get a Senegalese passport, and I should and I maybe will soon. It is just that it takes a long time and you have go through quite a bit [of paperwork] to get that.
Do you still feel like an expat?

I have spent two-thirds of my life in Senegal so I feel very Senegalese in many ways. If you ask a [local] about me they will say: “Oh, yes, she is Senegalese.” I live here and locals know I live here not because I have a business and I am trying to make money off them but rather to work side by side with Senegalese. I stayed because I was learning so much about things that were important to me. I felt comfortable because there was this wonderful openness and kindness with people welcoming me into their homes.

melchingHow has Senegal changed since you moved here—were there a lot of expats back then as well?

When I came here in 1974, it was 14 years after independence [from France] and there were lots of expats because they would come over for two or three years on projects. People are good intentioned but [often] they came here with their ideas of what development should look like, saying: “This is the kind of project that would work in Africa.” So they would bring millet machines, dig wells and again the problem is if you do not take the time for really deep listening. For me, education is the most critical aspect of this whole thing. It is through an empowering education program where people really understand that they can aspire to other goals that they never thought about before.

What advice would you give to expats who are interested to set up a local NGO in a country where they are living?

Before I set up Tostan, I had already been here for 16 years. I talk to people and they will say: “I want to have my own NGO and help people—how would I do that?” It always surprises me because if you want to help people, the first thing you should do is discover how you best can contribute, and understanding that it is not about saving people. It is recognizing that people have this great potential and you have potential and you are learning too. It is a reciprocal process. My advice would be if you are interested in supporting the development process or community-led development, volunteer first or work for different organizations to see how they are doing things. Then you can see if a new organization is necessary.

In your biography “However Long the Night: Molly Melching’s Journey to Help Millions of African Women and Girls Triumph” you state that you are not sure what it was that drove you to want to seek out other cultures and experiences. Any better handle on why?

I have always liked diversity. Different points of view help me grow and become a much deeper person and much more reflective in terms of understanding why others do what they do. I was lucky because I had great French teachers in junior high and high school [and] when I was 15 I went to France. Maybe it was because my mother was always reading my sister and me stories about people like Albert Schweitzer who were going off and doing all these things, trying to make a real difference. Why would a girl from Danville, Illinois go to Africa? Can I say, maybe it was supposed to be?