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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.

 

The African Women’s Decade – 2010 – 2020


I did not know that the African Union had made 2010 – 2020 the African Women’s decade – but they did!  Was there any media hype about it? Did I miss it, in the noise and media overload of this century?  Or was I just too tied up in taking care of my little 6 month old, who was just coming out of his premature stage and becoming stronger?  I don’t know, and I don’t think that really matters – not really… it’s just that the concept of the  ‘African Women’s Decade’ gives me a sense of excitement and possibility, and a sense of deja-vu.  It takes me back to Nairobi in July 1985 when Kenya hosted the U.N.’s 3rd World Conference on Women to ‘review and appraise the achievement of the UN Decade for Women’ (1975 – 85).   I was 21 years old and through some luck my friend Irene was able to get us to work as volunteers at the NGO Forum – see my badge!!! 😉 (P.A. Barlow)  It felt like such a privilege.

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To be honest I do not remember much about that time – except that it was very exciting, and the Forum was based around the National Theatre.  There were so many women in Nairobi – and the men, who had been excited about the prospect of being surrounded by many women ended up frustrated because all the women were interested in was Women’s issues!!!   Another thing  I remember that a group of us, young black women went to the Hilton Hotel (unaccompanied by any man) and they did not treat us like we were hookers, AND we had quick service!!! And all the street children disappeared from the streets of Nairobi for a time.

A lot was achieved, I am sure, – and a lot of decisions and strategies developed in the UN, Development agencies, Governments etc – but I want to know what impact it had on the ordinary woman.  Conferences often frustrate me because you spend most of you time listening to people talking AT you, and the most interesting encounters, for me, are the conversations you have over tea, or lunch, or when you are looking at the displays, and accidentally bump into someone.  I wish there were more spaces for people to engage – not just to ask questions of the speakers, but to sit and really engage, dream, plan, listen to each others stories, understand the different contexts….

You see I am more interested in the impact on people, rather than policy, and so on.  Policy creates an enabling environment, but if no one acts then its just words on paper.  I fight for women, but sometimes hard-nosed feminists turn me off.  I get frustrated when they paint all men with one brush (evil, pulling women down) and I reflect and realise that my mother would not have gone to University in the 1950s if it had not been for the foresight of her father.  Or when I can identify a number of women who pulled me back, and men who encouraged me.  I get frustrated when they speak of the patriarchical society, and then go on to behave in exactly the same way that they say men do – and thus silence all the women they are claiming to empower! Women, like men, are just human beings with strengths and weaknesses.

So while the idea of a women’s decade excites me, I want to approach it differently from the way it seems to come up in the mainstream.  I would like to be more awake than I was at 21, and, in some small way make this decade count in more than just words – or policies or projects  looking for funders (all of which are absolutely important – I know that).  The question I am asking myself, and you, is ‘What are you going to do to make  this decade of the African Women more than just words on paper – or people shouting in the political arena about what is not happening?  What mark will we leave – beyond the rhetoric and the hype – even if it touches just one person?

  • How will we define (or re-define) power, and powerful women?   Will it be all about money and business, or being senior in government?  Or will we recognise all the ways in which women support the continent?
  • What, in your deepest heart of hearts, do you want to be the legacy of this decade?  How can you contribute, in a new and innovative way – beyond the tried and tested ‘recipes’ that often do not touch the ordinary woman?
  • Who are we going to celebrate?  Whose stories will we share?  Will we celebrate that woman who makes sure (on her meagre earnings) her children have a safe place to sleep, a roof over their heads, and get an education as well as that woman who goes out and fights for policies and infrastructure, or who makes an impact in the field of Education, or in the Economy?  Or we going to focus on the ‘celebrities’?
  • Will we be able to go beyond the traditions that trap women, and recognise, also the ways in which women make those traditions work for them (check out this video – http://www.ted.com/talks/kavita_ramdas_radical_women_embracing_tradition.html)

How about starting by recognising your 10 most inspiring /powerful/amazing African women?  Lets talk about them! Send me a short email, and a photo, if you have one, and I will add them all to my blog.

As a starting point (and before I put my 10 most inspiring African women down) let me share this with you :

http://www.forbes.com/sites/mfonobongnsehe/2012/12/06/the-20-youngest-power-women-in-africa-2012/

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

Celebrating the Bold, Audacious, Inspiring, Creative, Passionate, Amazing Africans – Building our Nations


This year I am telling the ‘other’ stories – loudly and without apology! I am talking those things  that dont make the mainstream news often, except when people die.  I want to write about them. 

Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, at a TED event  (http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html) speaks of ‘the danger of a single story’ – that story that presents a person, place or thing as one-dimensional.  We all have them – we speak about people of a certain tribe/race/gender/profession in a particular way, respond to them in a particular way because ‘they are like that’.  We have very particular expectations of certain people or certain roles – and are surprised or suspicious if they turn out to be different.  We have a single story that we tell of ourselves as Africans even when we know that it is not the only story we can tell.     Well I am tired of the single story about Africa and Africans (often told by Africans)  that focuses on that which does not work; that  spotlights only those who fail, or steal, or destroy.  I am fed up of those conversations that cut people’s dreams into little pieces, that seem to say ‘the status quo cannot change;  those conversations that perpetuate the negative, make us believe, at a very subliminal level, that as Africans are unable to run un-corrupt governments, have great economies,  create anything new or do anything good!  These stories are too simple, they are an easy cop-out – and they are silent on the rest of the picture – the many other stories of people who enable, create new realities, make a difference everyday.   I want to tell the other stories.

This year I will recognise and celebrate those Africans, who make or have made a difference.  For some the contribution is small, and very personal or local; and for others, the impact is felt, immediately, by many, and sometimes over a very long period of time.  I want to focus on HOPE,  BELIEF, LOVE, POSSIBILITY, CREATIVITY, LOYALTY AND RESILIENCE – because that is what brings about change.  We can only build on what is there, on what is working, on what is not broken.  But if we do not recognise what is working, if we do not see or tap into our potential, how then can we change?  I want to focus on that which is working, that has potential, that we can build on – and on those who have, in some way supported, or enabled.

MY INSPIRATION?   My mother and father, who were great nation builders.  Throughout my life, and even after their passing, I have seen or heard about how they supported people, challenged people and stepped into difficult situations boldly because it was the right thing to do.  They did their best for the family (immediate and extended) and Uganda at large. Here is one small story:

We were 5 children, and the two who came before me had cerebral palsy.  My parents believed in education and when they realised that Fay and Chris would not be able to go to normal schools they got together with 6 other parents, and a few other people they started the Kampala School for the Mentally and Physically Handicapped.  They started out in a store-room at Mengo Primary School (Mrs. Wambuzi was the headmistress) and later the school moved to its current premises, land which was given them by the Kabaka.  Many children who would otherwise not have gone to school, or who would have remained hidden, as a curse, got an opportunity to have an education, and parents got support.  I remember taking Fay and Chris to school there, and just loving the way the other children loved them.  The children had access to physical therapy and occupational therapy at Mengo Hospital – and then, as Amin’s regime progressed this fizzled out.  Soon, it became obvious that the school did not have the staff trained to support Fay and Chris, and they stopped going to school.  The name of the school dropped the ‘mentally handicapped’ because there were not enough staff to support them.  But my parents remained involved in the school for a very long time!  They helped develop a vocational education wing, which the current headmistress has developed into an amazing centre.

When my father passed away in 2006, the first people to put an orbituary in the papers, even before we as a family did, were the Old boys and Girls Association of the Kampala School for the Physically Handicapped.  And at my mother’s funeral last year, one of the old boys came and spoke.  On the side he told us that his disability was a result of an accident as a child, and his family disowned him, and left him at the school.  He said my mother supported him, encouraged him to go to secondary school after he passed his P7, encouraged him to do his tertiary education, and he is now an accountant, drives a car, and supports the family that rejected him.

The school lives on, over 40 years later, and many who go there do not know my parents, or the other people involved in the starting of the school.  For me, though, this school teaches me something – that in addressing a personal challenge it is possible to help others beyond your life time!

For a long time I have wanted to find a way to honour them and I think that collecting stories of people who make a difference is one way of doing this.

I am inspired everyday by ordinary people who quietly get on with life, not complaining, but actively making a difference in one life, or 100 lives, inspiring others, believing in others, standing up for others, inventing, creating and actively making a difference.  Like the woman in Khayelitsha (a township in Cape Town) whose daughter had cerebral palsy, and died young, but she went on, with nothing, to create a school to support other children and parents with the same challenges.

I am also inspired by the book the  Vision Group in Uganda published to celebrate 50 years of independence – reminding us of the people who stood up and made a difference.  Stories of 148 people (a small number) of people who made a difference.  And while the vision book focused on those who had contributed positively and negatively, I would like to focus on those that inspire.

I commit to write about someone at least once a fortnight;  to share a story about an African making a difference.   Some will be people who are well-known, and some will be little known – and doing what seems like something very small and insignificant, but they will, in my opinion, be making a difference.

JUST SO THAT YOU KNOW:   I will, without apology, write about people who I know, who may even be related to me as well as those who I do not personally know, because bold, inspiring, courageous acts  happen everyday, in big and small ways, and often the contributions of those closest to us go unnoticed.  I want to acknowledge all those who I think are making a difference in one way or another.

My INVITATION to you:  If you have a story you want to share, please send me an email at namutebi@mweb.co.za

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