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Honour those who show up


Labyrinth by Francois Korver

 

A few weeks ago, a colleague and I were supposed to facilitate a one day workshop for some clients in Johannesburg.  It was the last session of a 7 month leadership programme and I had been asked to lead this final day using Story as a tool for reflection and planning.  I was excited.   Then things started to go wrong.  With all the previous leadership cohorts we worked away from the organisations premises, in a guesthouse with a lovely quiet garden, but because of the current financial context they were saving on costs and so they used their own premises – a distribution hub with lorries passing outside of the windows of the facilitation room regularly.  It was not the most conducive venue.  The dates had been changed in January, but somehow not all the participants received the new dates until a week before the course!  5 days before we were to facilitate the day was almost cancelled because of poor attendance.  Then, for some reason, they decided that we would go ahead.  So we were flown to Johannesburg and on arrival at the airport, both my colleague and I had two different shuttle services come to pick us up at the airport.  One organised by our administrator in Cape Town, and the other by the company!  We got to the B and B, and they were not expecting us because the client had not confirmed the booking.  Luckily they had rooms for us and this was sorted. Things were not looking good at all.

On the morning we were to work we got an email from the client to say that the numbers had dropped …  We were now expecting 6 or so people – from a possible 14.  We looked at each other and wondered what to do – cancel or facilitate? We had designed a very interactive process – time for reflection in small groups – to practice leadership skills of listening, asking incisive questions, sharing insights.  This required time but with only 5 people, it would be a short day – and would the design work with 6 people?

As we ate our breakfast and planned our day the thought came to mind about honouring those who came.  People had cleared their diaries, some had travelled as far as we had to be at the programme.  If we cancelled because ‘there weren’t enough participants’ what were we saying to them? And how many is enough? The saying, ‘whoever is there are the right people’ (from open space technology) came to mind, and I said to my colleague, “Whoever comes, lets facilitate what we have prepared.  We can tweak the exercises to suit the numbers, and we will most probably finish earlier than expected, but we would have honoured those who came.”  And that is what we did.

We ended up with 5, not 6 people – all men.  As we gathered to start people spoke about how angry they were with the way the course had been organised internally – and how upset they were with their own colleagues for not making the time to be there.  It was not a good place to begin the course.  So my colleague asked us to sit still, close our eyes, and she lead us through a visualisation which centered us and helped us to focus on the purpose of the day.  We worked with the Hero’s Journey, using it to reflect on the 7 months leadership journey they had been on.  And then, instead of the sharing in small groups, all 7 of us sat in a circle, and each participant shared their journey with such honesty and integrity.  And then – in a very unexpected turn – each of the listeners gave the speaker feedback.  I was struck by how aware they were of each person’s journey.  For everyone in the room there was someone who had seen their struggles and successes within the organisation, and was able to reflect this back to their colleague.  They gave statements like, “You took a job no one wanted to take.  In fact we thought you were crazy, and you have worked wonders.  Now everyone in the organisation is looking at you.”  Or “You made a decision that made sense to your family, but could have been a career limiting move.  And you have made it work for you and for the company.  You are a real inspiration.”  As we sat there, my colleague and I knew we had made the right decision.  Here were people in leadership, in an organisation, that understood each others challenges and were supportive of each other, who were able to speak openly with each other.  It was clear that these 5 people had the potential to make real differences in the organisation.

It was such a fulfilling day – all the challenges leading up to it faded away, and I realised three things:

  • Whoever comes – these are the right people and one should honour the effort they made to be there.
  • You have no guarantee what impact your work will have, but in being present, and giving your best to those who came – something will change.
  • Story is a very powerful tool to work with.  Each person told a personal story – in fact one person made it into a myth, but it was based on the organisation, and everyone recognised parts of it.  Through the storytelling they were able to articulate the movement and growth of each individual, and the challenges that lay ahead in a way that they would all remember.

 

Werewere Liking – Cameroon /Ivory Coast


I am fighting for African youth. … I want the youth to be more intelligent, more sensitive, more conscious, more responsible for themselves individually. I want them to be aware that each and every one of them is capable of changing the world, changing themselves to begin with. Each time one of us improves, s/he improves the world. And only through the improvement of humanity, inside of us, can the world be improved. – Werewere Liking

Werewere Liking was born in Cameroon in 1950 and has been living in Abidjan, Ivory Coast since 1978.  She is a poet, novelist, painter, choreographer, performer, educator and social activist.  I have not met her or gone to her cultural arts centre in Abidjan, Ivory Coast – Ki-Yi Mbock Village (which means ultimate universal knowledge in Bassa, her mother tongue)  but over the past few years I have read about her, and seen a documentary about her work and I am inspired.

She is deeply committed to African tradition, to the Arts, to community, to developing the youth – and has been successful in her work, despite having left home at a very early age.  She says when she wants to do something she tries it, even if there is no funding, she tries to make it happen – and she has had amazing success (and many failures, I am sure).  She has a very clear vision and has worked hard to put it into practice.  The cultural centre is intentionally called a village because it is about community.  At her centre she works with people of all ages and they explore all the arts – writing, poetry, music, art, dance, puppetry… and the those things that support the arts – sound engineering, costume design, stagecraft…  And if any of the ‘artists’ living, learning and working there can’t read, they get literacy lessons too, in French.

I recently found an interview presented in an article published by the Barnard Centre for Research on Women. For those of you who speak French, it has video clips of the interview (with English translations in the text of the article) of her speaking about her work.  I have pulled out some quotes of her views on Pan-Africanism, the Youth and Women.  For the full article click on this link: Werewere Liking | S&F Online | Rewriting Dispersal: Africana Gender Studies.

Werewere Liking on Pan-Africanism

For me, the label “Pan-African” implies that we take into account not only Africa, but also its diasporas. Because the term, “Pan-African” itself was conceived by Africans from the diaspora. So, it means including all the worlds born out of Africa. So, we claim them, but also offer them all we have.   …. it’s a view that’s a conviction for me, that Africa is rich in its entirety as a continent only in its diversity. Africa’s primary riches are its different cultures, its peoples. … Well, because, as you can see, these very borders render spaces extremely small. They reduce Africa. They weaken it. They prevent the circulation of vital energies. Consequently, they are a handicap for the development of this continent.

I love and believe what she says – that Africa is rich because of its diversity.  It is true and yet for the last few centuries – and more importantly the last 50+ years since we started the post-colonial period we made that diversity the reason for war, coups and everything that goes with it.  We forget that a tapestry, a beautiful piece of cloth, is beautiful because of all the different threads that are woven together to make it one.

She has a passion for young people whom she takes in to live and learn at her center, and she has this to say about  her work with young people:

I am fighting for African youth. I am fighting for children’s brains to work better. When I take charge of them, I try to help them use their brain. I force them to use their left hand because we have an entire part of our brain that does not work properly because we use only one part of the body, so there is a side of the brain that is less effective. There are many exercises that I have them do. I want the youth to be more intelligent, more sensitive, more conscious, more responsible for themselves individually.

… My battle is for little things and I see myself as a little ant, you know? The tiniest of ants can lift up crumbs ten times its own weight. However, because it [the ant] is so tiny, these are still small achievements. So be it! From my position, what I try to do is to try to lift ten times my own weight. That’s it.

On feminism and being a woman:

Because feminism, as it appeared at a time (in the 60s and 70s) —but I think it must have improved since—but the way it appeared at a time, it consisted mainly of lots of demands, lots of demonstrations, and I think this is a trap. Truly, when you look at it, we don’t need to demonstrate our womanhood. It’s like music for the heart. We know that we have things to do. We must do them, attain our goals, but without losing our nature. Our nature, our charm, our beauty, our gentleness. This is a totally different thing. This is not contradictory. To be a woman means to have it all. It’s to be all. Because for me God is a woman. So, it’s to be a creator, to be the source of life and consequently to privilege life above all. (my italics)

I first heard about her in 2008 when a someone in a workshop that I was facilitating spoke to me about her.  And then I saw the documentary about her – she spoke about her life dreams, her challenges, how she built up her cultural arts centre.  Her passion, drive, creativity, vision and resilience inspire me!!  She has through following her passion with conviction made an impact, not only in Ivory Coast, but internationally.  I would love to meet her.

Here are some links about her:

William Kamkwamba – Celebrating the Bold, Audacious, Inspiring, Creative, Passionate, Amazing Africans


Today I salute William Kamkwamba of Malawi – and reflect on some of the beliefs we carry about development, education and poverty. There is often a belief that the people to be ‘developed’ (usually poor, lacking formal education, and in rural areas, or slums or townships) do not know what they want, and because of lack of education and poverty are unable to make a difference.  There is often a belief that if we do not ‘bring development’ to them, they will not be able to make a difference in their own lives.  And a belief that because they do not speak English very well they are not very bright.  William Kamkwamba tells a different story.

   kamkwamba_0001     kamkwamba

In 2010 I was going through the Schiphol airport in the Netherlands when my eye landed on this book.  The title is what attracted me first because it sounded like a myth or legend – and when I read the back of the book I knew I had to buy it – and what an inspiring read (I must also say it is a slow start – but picks up as you go along).

William Kamkwamba was  born in 1987 and grew up in rural Malawi.  When he was about 13, he started taking apart old radios, and putting them back together again, with a friend.  They later began to fix people’s radios for them, and because there was no electricity they would collect old discarded batteries to power the radios.  William was fascinated by how things worked and this led him to discover that the dynamo on a bicycle made electricity to power the light, and he could use it to power a radio (although the pedalling was tiring).   This triggered his desire to create electricity for his home and family – a dream he forgot and then re-discovered later.  In 2000, the year he finished primary school there were floods and a drought, and crops failed.  The villages further away were hit first by the famine and later  spread across the country.  Food became scarce, and very expensive. His father was a farmer, and like many other farmers in that period he lost all his crops.  And his family barely survived the famine.

The following year William learnt that he had passed his primary school exams well enough to go to secondary school.  He started school but had to drop out because his parents did not have the money to pay fees.  They were trying to recover from the damage of the famine.  William was upset about this, but his desire to learn was so strong, he continued to go to the library of a local primary school to read.  There he found a book, ‘Using Energy’, which had pictures of windmills on the cover.  This reawakened his dream to make electricity, and although he could not read very well, he understood the pictures in the book, and used this to guide his project.  In 2002, in spite of all the village thinking he had gone mad, William finished his windmill (using scrap material, and getting favours from people), and it created electricity for his home.

His story, by some strange fate ended up in the national newspapers, and on someone’s blog, and this led to exposure on the TED Africa, and TED Global front.  He was later sponsored, and went back to school – in Malawi, then in Johannesburg.

William is now 24 years old, and studying environmental studies with a minor in engineering at Dartmouth College in the USA. He has, through the help of others, made a water pump for his family (and village), so his father can harvest twice a year, regardless of whether the rains come or not.  He has started an NGO to support primary school he went to in Wimbe, Malawi, has built two more windmills and has dreams of returning to Malawi to continue his work.

Maybe, when we are engaging in the practice of development we need to LOOK more carefully and LISTEN more closely in order to understand what is really going on, and then SUPPORT those people who, in spite of everything around them, are already making a difference!!!

SOME LINKS FOR INFORMATION ON WILLIAM KAMKWAMBA

50 years on – can we build on our diversity?


                        

                               

                               

Today, in 1962, Uganda celebrate her first Independence day.  At midnight the flag of the Protectorate was lowered, and the new national flag of Uganda was raised.  And these were the emblems put on the gates of Parliament (not sure when exactly).  It was a hopeful time.  I had always believed that the road to Independence was an easy one, and we started that journey in 1962 as one nation.  As I have grown older I have began doing research on Uganda, and reading the history of Uganda as told by Ugandans about Ugandans.  In school it was often told from the perspective of the colonialists.  We learnt about Speke and Stanley and Lugard.  We did not learn about I.K. Musaazi, and Apollo Kironde and Abubaker Mayanja and a many of other Ugandans and how they lobbied for independence.  The fact that the political parties were split on ethnic AND religious grounds even as the new flag was raised was underplayed.  Maybe it was hoped that somehow we would transcend the divisions…
The fact is that these divisions have played such a central role in our lives.  People have received cars, jobs, education, opportunities because of their ethnicity or religious allegiance or the political party which they supported.  People have lost lives, lost hope, resources have been depleted because if truth be told, while we are ‘Proudly Ugandan’ on one level, when push comes to shove we remember that ‘he or she is not a Muganda /Itesot/ Acholi/Mukiga/Muhororo … or whatever.  Or that ‘these Catholics/Muslims/born-agains… .  And our politics sometimes stoop to the level of the colour of the clothes we wear!!  Do you remember a time when during elections people consciously chose to wear or not to wear particular colours?  I am not sure if it is still happening now.  Green meant you were for DP, Red for UPC, Yellow for NRM and who knows what else.

My dream for the next 50 years and more is we remember that a healthy ecosystem thrives on diversity!  We remember that life is healthy, challenging, beautiful, stimulating because of diversity.  We live in the belief and understanding that the mind works better when there are questions asked, when ideas do not sit quite well together, when people see things differently and are willing to listen to each other, to meet each other.  That is how it was meant to be.  My dream is that for the next 50 years we use our differences to our advantage.  That we weave such a beautiful tapestry of national identity that is bold and strong and we hold that before us, so that when we start to get petty about our differences we can look at it and remember it is because we are different that we are so beautiful, so strong, so able to do what we do.  

Going full-circle


7 years ago, I was invited by Dorian Haarhoff to facilitate a workshop on using storytelling for development for a People to People Ambassadors group from the United States.  It was at the Centre for the Book next to the Company Gardens in Cape Town.  This led to a collaboration (between Dorian, Elma Pollard, Toto Gxabela and I) a few years later on a project for UNICEF that we called Storywell.  In this project we developed a programme for Caregivers of orphans and vulnerable children in the Northern Cape and Mpumalanga provinces on the use of stories and creative process to provide psycho-social support to each other and to the children in their care.  The Storywell concept grew out of a belief that

  • everyone has a well of stories inside them that they can draw from
  • we can all story well – i.e.  tell stories in a way that engages the listeners
  • telling and listening to stories helps us to heal and be well

We continue to do Storywell work, individually, in various ways, although we do not always call it Storywell.   I continue to work with the concepts and understanding in coaching, in my leadership development work, and working with change in organisations.  It also underpins the Bodaciously me…! networking events that I organise for women in some ways.

Well, today Dorian and I worked together again, after 3 years (during which I focused more on birthing and looking after the unexpected gift of a child, just as I was getting ready for an empty nest – but that is a story for another time).  Again it was at the Centre for the Book, where we met 7 years ago, and this time we were working with delegates to the Global Alliance Summit for Ministries and Departments of Peace.  Dorian was doing a two-day pre-conference training on the use of storytelling for peace building, and I was the guest storyteller.  My role was to give them experience of the power of storytelling and story-listening.  I shared personal stories, in poems, and a few folktales – and this led to an unexpected conversation on ways in which one uses stories.

One of the most interesting insights for me was the conversation we had about endings – not all stories end with ‘they lived happily ever after’ but all powerful and strong stories end with a sense of hope.  This is an important understanding that one needs to carry when using stories for development work.  Hope might mean that the protagonist is remorseful, or maybe the rains have come again, or as in the Nama story about !Urisib, where even though the original verdant land is not restored, once a year the flowers come back to Namaqualand and the people can enjoy them.  Storywell for Peacebuilding – potentially powerful processes!!!

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