However Long the Night by Aimee Molloy

Shifting women's thinking on what is considered the norm. 

Synopsis of However Long the Night:  Molly Melching's Journey to Help Millions of African Women and Girls Triumph by Aimee Molloy*: The story of how one of the "most powerful women in women's rights" (Forbes) is paving the way to a world with human dignity for all. However Long the Night is the extraordinary story of one woman's determination to create a movement toward change, and a better future, for millions of girls and women across Africa.

Molly Melching grew up in the Midwest but was called to explore the world outside her hometown when she arrived in Senegal in 1974. There, she quickly grew invested in the fate of the Senegalese women she met. Based on her experiences living in a remote African village, she founded Tostan, an organization dedicated to empowering African communities by using democracy and human-rights-based education to promote relationships built upon dignity, equality, and respect. She forever changed her life and the lives of those touched by Tostan. Unlike many Western organizations that have tried to transform various African cultures from the outside, Melching, who was named as one of the "150 women who shake the world" by Newsweek and Daily Beast, understands that true change comes only from within. Tostan's groundbreaking strategies have led to better education for the women of rural Africa, improved health care, a decrease in child/forced marriage, and declarations by thousands of African communities to abandon the centuries-old practice of female genital cutting.

However Long the Night brings together Melching's riveting personal journey with the stories of the Senegalese women and men who found the courage to lead this movement. This book is a testament to the fact that the connections between women can lead to a better world.

My two cents

I was ready to dismiss this as yet another Western-centric biography extolling a Western development worker. But instead I learned about the selflessness and dedication of a woman and an organisation that has done the seemingly impossible: change people's attitudes towards an age-old Senegalese tradition which unnecessarily puts women's and girls' health and lives at risk.

Unbeknownst to much of the world, the female population of Senegal and other African countries practice female genital cutting (FGC), an age-old tradition shrouded in secrecy where mere mention of "the tradition" is considered taboo. FGC is considered a necessary practice, a rite of passage into womanhood, a means of ensuring a good marriage, and mistakenly assumed by many as a religious Muslim obligation. But it is a practice responsible for the death of many girls who hemorrhage or die because of infection, and of the surviving women who suffer the life-long health consequences.

Molly Melching started out an exchange student to Senegal. As someone who never really fit in her own world, she found herself at peace in this foreign country surrounded by the simplicity, community and the warmth of the people. Stripped of the distractions of her homeland, she experienced the lack of basic necessities that weren't afforded the Senegalese.

Melching was a catalyst for the forming of the organisation called Tostan. Witnessing the disconnect in schools where children were force fed an education steeped in a foreign language and culture, she discovered where she could make things just a little better. Starting with culturally appropriate literacy lessons, she went on to address other issues such as health information, and eventually other concrete actions that bettered people's everyday lives. After years of working at the grassroots, Melching gradually earned the trust and respect of the people she lived and worked amidst.

When she first learned about "the tradition," she was shocked. But as an outsider, she knew better than to speak out on a practice entrenched in tradition. She left it well alone until years down the road, she was compelled to support the women who had found their voice. Decades later, Tostan has become instrumental for women and communities to speak out and take action against a practice that they have found to be detrimental to their well-being.
"Women were so accustomed to being mistreated and so often the the victims of discrimination that they didn't believe they were worthy of any other type of treatment," she says. "What they needed was not just closer hospitals or better trained medical workers, but a way of envisioning an alternative existence in which they understood their right to be treated with dignity. Only if they believed they were entitled to better treatment could they demand it and bring an end to these harmful customs." 
She knew that these behaviours and beliefs were so deeply entrenched in the culture that  Tostan faciliators could not simply appear in a village and instruct women to demand better. She needed to find a strategy that would take account the basis of the behavior, the social norms that perpetuated it--something that could do no less than shift a woman's thinking [..]

While I find the book title puts unnecessary emphasis on Molly Melching, she didn't turn a blind eye to the people's needs and desires; she took the time to listen and to act. Moreso, it is the story of the courageous men and women of Tostan, who worked tirelessly towards a better understanding of the issues through grassroots education.

There is Ndey, Molly's roommate in college, who has been by Molly's side from the beginnings of Tostan. There is Oureye Sall, a strong advocate for Tostan's work having abandoned her livelihood as a traditional cutting woman, and having witnessed the suffering of women and children at her hands. There is Demba Diawara who walked many miles and talked to many villages to bring a community understanding to the issues surrounding FGC. There are countless people behind the group and as the motto goes, it takes a community to raise a child. 

The reason for Tostan's success is that it is based on human rights based education, which promotes relationships built upon dignity, equality, and respect. What I found especially interesting about Tostan's work with FGC is that it is likened to how the ancient practice of footbinding of women in China was brought to an end by collective decision. The learnings from this study by Gerry Mackie could be the basis for replication and the eradiction of FGC "within a generation":
Applied to footbinding, the essential insight is the interdependence of families' decisions: what one family chooses depends on what other families choose. On other words, a family in an intra-marrying group that practices custom related to marriageability cannot give up that custom unless enough other families in their group coordinate to do the same. Demba Diawara seemed to know instinctively, even if every family in a community belived the custom to be wrong or undesirable, without a collective public pledge, this would not be enough to bring about its end: any family abandoning the custom on its own would ruin the future of its daughters. - p. 181-182
Melching's personal story will likely resonate with many Westerners, development workers, and those working for change at whatever level. Melching spent most of her life in this type of work, to the detriment of her marriage and her young daughter Zoe; this is not uncommon among development workers and what I found sad about her otherwise richly lived life, a point that was slightly touched upon in this book.


The author, Aimee Molloy, was apparently very much affected by her experience of writing this book as she spent time with Melching, and the people of Tostan, and of villages in Senegal (and who wouldn't?). She ends with a bit of unnecessary sentimentality which I felt was a tad forced because  really, this isn't about you, Ms. Molloy.

The work that Tostan is doing will undoubtedly continue within Senegal and beyond, and its experiences and strategies a wonderful resource with potential for replication by other non-government organisations where applicable. FGC is only one issue that as been brought to the general public knowledge; Tostan is only one among those working on the ground to bring change. More stories like these need to be told to inspire people and organisations of the great power through collective efforts, whether or not it becomes as high profile as Tostan's story.

Verdict: An excellent story of an organisation that sets out to make small changes the world but ends up making a difference in the lives of generations of women in Senegal.

Read this if:
  • You want some good non-fiction that will shake you out of your comfort zone
  • You work in the development or aid sector
  • You're interested in women and women's rights

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I received a copy of this book from TLC Book Tours in order to participate in this tour.

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1 comment

  1. I'm so glad you didn't dismiss this book outright - it looks like it was a truly amazing read!

    Thanks for being a part of the tour. I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.


© guiltless readingMaira Gall