We’re back in Senegal now, catching up with a lot of familiar faces and meeting the new recruits in the ever-growing Team Jokko. Did I mention? Our project has a name now: The Jokko Initiative. It means ‘communication’ in Wolof. Quick refresher: it’s a joint effort between Tostan, UNICEF, Dimagi, and hundreds of African communities, to provide a tool which will allow communities to broadcast information over SMS.

The last time we came here, it was about brainstorming ideas, prototyping the most promising ones, and learning directly from the success and failures in our three pilot villages. This team was on the front lines, preparing materials, thinking up role-playing games, and running the demonstrations. Last time, we worked with the literacy classes directly, and we taught mostly in French, with translators in Dyuola and Pulaar to assist.

It begins with one small group of supervisors. They spread the word to the large group of facilitators, who in turn reach out to hundreds of villagers.

It begins with a conversation with one small group of supervisors. They spread the word to the large group of facilitators, who in turn reach out to hundreds of villagers, who spread the word to thousands more.

A lot has changed in 5 months. For one, the SMS platform is stable, and the program is ready to grow. Instead of leapfrogging directly into the literacy classes, we now follow the Tostan model, which has a much better track record in engendering social change. First, we train 5 supervisors. Then those 5 supervisors train 30 facilitators and other key Tostan representatives. Then they go out and train 300 catalysts and 600 class participants from 15 different villages. Finally, those 900 people take the information that they receive through SMS and spread the word to thousands in their own communities. That’s right; our little SMS application is going to reach over 900 Senegalese directly and impact thousands more indirectly.

This training model may seem like it gives up a lot of control to the local facilitators and catalysts (it does). This is necessary in order for it to be effective, given that we are working across such high literacy, culture, language, and social barriers. Plus, when integrated within the Tostan social empowerment model, it becomes clear that this is a tool with a purpose, not just a toy. Half the training has nothing to do with the technology at all; it’s what they call ‘sensibilization’, and it is an awakening to the possibilities, responsibility, and repercussions of using this tool.

Supervisor preparing furiously the night before for a facilitator training

Supervisor preparing furiously the night before for a facilitator training

What changes have we seen on the tech side? Well, for one, the whole one-user, one-phone model that we sometimes rely on won’t work at all in this case. The average phone is shared between 5 or 10 different people, who live in the same hut together in a compound consisting of all their extended families. It means that there really is no such thing as a ‘closed’ discussion group, because even those groups with only a few phones registered will find that those phones are shared among a much larger section of the community. It means that all communications and all moderations happen at the community level. For instance, when we first arrived, the team believed it would be useful to be able to message individual users in case they started abusing the system for personal promotion or profit. Through our workshops and discussions, though, it became clear that a single text message to the offending party would not solve this kind of problem. Our participants emphasized emphatically that this was something that the whole community needed to be aware of, since it was a community resource, and only they had the local capacity to stage a direct intervention should the offending behaviour continue. So our ‘messaging’ app needs to be completely reworked into a kind of ‘broadcast’ app.

Facilitators have long since learned that people tend to fall asleep in the morning. So every class begins with a 'wake-up' dance.

Facilitators have long since learned that people tend to fall asleep in the morning. So every class begins with a 'wake-up' dance. Everyone has to participate.

Next time, it gets even better. Next time, this module stops being a one-time three-day workshop and becomes tightly integrated into the existing literacy curriculum that runs over the course of months and years. The theory is that SMS may be the modern-day equivalent of pencil and paper: that digital literacy has become such an important skill that even here, among some of the most illiterate communities in the world, it has as much to offer as written literacy. If this theory is correct, Tostan may be on to something which will have much bigger repercussions to how we think of and promote literacy, not just in Senegal, but around the world.