Do we miscast rural communities as places to leave behind?

Rural communities are often portrayed in the media as unfortunate starting places—restrictive, provincial hometowns that promising individuals must escape in order to reach their full potential.

But possibility and wealth of different kinds can be found outside big, prosperous cities. Read how one Guyanese woman saw great potential in a tiny community in eastern Ethiopia.

This post written by Grace Aneiza Ali originally appeared on OF NOTE, an online magazine focused on global artists who use the arts as catalysts for social change. 

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School girl from Harrare, Ethiopia.
(photo courtesy Grace Aneiza Ali)

There are no paved roads directly to Chaffe Jenetta—a small Muslim coffee farming community nestled in the remote terrains of Harrar in eastern Ethiopia. Telephone lines and electric wires are rare in these parts. Women are immersed in their day—fetching water, gathering wood and sticks to stoke fires, and cooking for their families.

Among their company, lush mountains and endless blue sky, I felt at home.

It was 2010 and my first time in Ethiopia, in fact my first trip to Africa. I had learned from growing up in Guyana and from a year traveling throughout India that there was no preparing for the rural countryside. You simply show up and let the land lead. So, I embraced Ethiopia with the same deference.

The journey to Harrar had started in New York City where I live. I was invited to travel with the staff and board members of The Abyssinian Fund, an NGO with a home-base in Harlem, New York, that works with coffee planters in Ethiopia’s rural villages like Chaffe Jenetta, helping them to grow better coffee, earn higher incomes, and improve social services with clinics, schools, and access to clean water.

While members of our group toured the village, I spent most of my time with the school children. One little girl in particular, about nine or ten years old, caught my attention—simply because of the way she clutched her notebooks. I asked for her name, but either she was too shy to tell me or didn’t understand my question. I pointed to her books and asked if I could look at them.

Her notes, written in Oromo, the local language of Chaffe Jenetta, filled up every usable blank space. Her handwriting was in the margins, on the inside and outside of the covers, written horizontally and vertically.

I recalled my own primary school days in Guyana when notebooks and paper were a luxury. Instead, we had hand-held chalkboards and little bits of chalk. It was cheaper, but it meant everything that was written had to be erased. So I would gather sheets of paper wherever I could find them and glue or sew them together to make books.

It was within those pages that I could invent the life I wanted. I wanted to be a writer.

Like that little girl at my side in Chaffe Jenetta, I left no free space unmarked in my hand-made books. I too wrote in the margins, within the covers, and sideways. As I turned the pages of her book, I wondered if this was where the stories of Chaffe Jenetta were being kept. Were they scribbled within the margins? Were they tucked in between the covers?

One of the Ethiopian guides that accompanied our group had remarked, “These are the forgotten people.” He had never been this deep into the mountains of Harrar and was visibly moved by the agrarian way of life in Chaffe Jenetta.

Perhaps what he was witnessing made him feel as a foreigner in his own land.

But as I stood there looking through this little girl’s notebooks, nothing about her seemed forgotten to me. There was a boldness about her. There was a joyfulness about her. What I saw was a young girl thriving amidst her circumstances.

I’ve found this to be universal from Harrar to Harlem—people thriving amidst contradictions, thriving in the messiness of life, thriving in the tragedies, thriving in the challenges, the hurts and the disappointments.

Notebooks may seem trivial when compared to the serious needs in Chaffe Jenetta like clean water, clinics, and paved roads. But they represent the freedom to dream, to create, and to imagine a future for oneself.

For that little girl, her future begins within the pages of her notebook—just like my dreams began for me. It was clear by the way she clung to her books, their pale blue covers tattered and torn, that what was written in them was of value. They were sacred to her.

Far too often the narratives about women and girls in rural communities whether they be in Asia, or Africa, or South America, are centered on an urgent call for them to look past the proverbial courtyard, to aim for a life beyond the confines of the village, to shed the veil. And we tell them that not doing so would render them invisible, marginalized, or trapped.

We’re wrong.

Chaffe Jenetta is not another nameless village in another ubiquitous story of poverty in Africa. It is a challenging but wealthy place—albeit not material wealth. It is not a place to flee from, but one to be nurtured and supported.

The little girl I met could one day turn out to be a powerful voice for Ethiopia. She might become a writer herself, sharing with the world its multiple stories. And to do so, perhaps she will find herself returning to those very notebooks.

GRACEGrace Aneiza Ali is the founder and editorial director of OF NOTE. She’s also an Adjunct Professor of Literature for the City University of New York, a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, and a Fulbright Scholar. She currently hosts the Visually Speaking series at the Schomburg Center, which examines the state of photojournalism through the lens of contemporary photographers and image-makers. Grace was born in Guyana and immigrated to the United States when she was fourteen years old. Guyana continues to inform and influence her worldview.

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Roundup: LGBT community around the world

Each June, millions gather worldwide in parades, rallies, festivals, and more to celebrate LGBT pride. We end our weeklong spotlight by zooming out of the U.S. and onto firsts in the international sphere.

As LGBT rights become more prominent in the U.S., other countries are quickly catching on. Here’s a quick roundup of the latest happenings:

South Africa—

In April, South Africa (the first—and only—African country that’s legalized gay marriage) saw its first traditional gay marriage between Thoba Sithole and Cameron Modisane. From Zulu and Setswana outfits to a cow slaughter, the couple and their families spared nothing to stick to their ancestral roots.

“People are still ashamed because the vast majority of the black community is not accepting of being a homosexual. They see it as largely being a ‘Western trend’ that is in fashion lately,” Cameron told reporters at the ceremony. “[We want people to see that] being gay is as African as being black.”


Singapore—

Meanwhile, in Singapore, where sexual contact between men is still punishable with up to two years’ in jail, a less traditional movement has taken flight—in the form of an online magazine directed toward the country’s gay male community. Launched in February, Element has managed to bypass the government’s strict media laws with it’s solely online presence while still capturing the attention of readers across Asia, if not the world. Publisher Noel Ng told the Atlantic that he sees the magazine as a way ”to restore the dignity and worth of every gay man.”

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Ukraine—

Shortly after Amnesty International published an article urging the Ukrainian government to introduce anti-distcriminatory legislation (following a slew of anti-gay attacks in the country), the capital of Ukraine, Kiev, held its first gay pride parade on May 25. Told to dress in comfortable shoes (for running) and non-offensive clothing, the peaceful, un-dsirupted crowd was flanked by police support and public encouragement as they marched through downtown. “This can be considered a historic day,” said Elena Semyonova, one of the event’s organizers.

Photo credit: Associated Press

Photo credit: Associated Press

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Want to get involved in the LGBT cause? Search almost 6,000 nonprofit jobs, internships, volunteer opportunities, events, and like-minded people from around the world on Idealist

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How one Idealist is bringing affordable e-learning to Malawi

Gail and teacher Boyce Mhone at the Ching'oma school

Gail and teacher Boyce Mhone at the Ching’oma school

When Gail Swithenbank made a trip to Malawi this January, e-learning wasn’t on her mind. She was visiting the Ching’oma school to check in on a scholarship program she’d helped create for children to attend secondary school and study permaculture—low-tech, sustainable agriculture methods.

But when she visited one of the high schools the scholarship recipients would attend, she saw that they needed more support than just tuition.

“It was two rooms, no windows or doors, few desks. No books or paper. Just two blackboards. The teacher had one book that they all copied from. Kids are walking seven kilometers each way to get there,” she says.

Gail realized that for the scholarship to make much of a difference, the students would need textbooks and materials. A library full of books could really help, but it would be better if they could ‘leapfrog’ directly to e-learning using low-cost laptops.

Bridging the digital divide

But an e-learning program would be challenging to implement; only about 5% of Malawians have internet access, according the World Fact Book. Even if provided with low-cost computers, the students wouldn’t be able to reliably access the trove of knowledge and learning platforms online.

Some new technology offers a way around this problem. Developer Jamie Alexandre and a team of volunteers recently released a free, portable version of the content and software produced by Khan Academy, a free online educational platform. This new version, called KA-Lite, is designed to work offline. In addition to video lessons and interactive exercises, it allows teachers to track the progress of each student while they learn at their own pace.

When Gail heard about this, she saw the potential. She found more educational content provided by the RACHEL Initiative—free courseware, libraries, and an offline version of Wikipedia. By putting all of this on a Raspberry Pi, a $35 computer the size of a Smartphone that plugs into a T.V., she could provide a complete platform that’s nearly free and requires very little infrastructure. She’s spent the last few months learning about the technology and reaching out to her contacts in Malawi, who are excited about the idea.

The tools are new. The lessons are timeless.

As amazing as these new tools are, some of the most important takeaways from Gail’s story have very little to do with technology, and could apply to almost any project. Here are a few:

1. Expertise not required.
Gail admits she didn’t know much about e-learning or computer science before she started working on this project. So she reached out to people with related experience, like Janice Lathen of Powering Potential, who has been setting up computer labs in Tanzania since 2007. Gail has also spent hours on Skype with a nephew who studied computer science to get help with the technology. Sometimes, tenacity trumps knowledge.

2. Build on existing relationships and create new ones.
Great ideas can sometimes die on the vine without the right support. After working with school headmaster Gilbert Kaunda on the permaculture scholarship, Gail now has a local partner. He’s in a good position to make changes at the school and work with the local government.

She’s likewise reached out to potential partners, like Nathaniel Thayer Wight, who teaches science and sustainability at Bronx Design and Construction Academy in New York, about a possible collaboration between the two schools. Ultimately, Gail hopes to work with them and others to build a new e-learning facility.

3. Use what’s already out there.
Gail could have started a new nonprofit to support this project, done lots of fundraising, hired a staff to curate the e-learning materials and build the building. Instead, she’s leveraging existing institutions and tools: the school in Malawi, content from Khan Academy, and the community that’s sprouting up around Raspberry Pi.

By focusing first on the problem in front of her and connecting the dots, she avoided getting bogged down in details and spending extra cash. Sometimes being innovative just means assembling the pieces in front of you.

Gail’s story is just one example of people using new tech to solve stubborn problems. Do you know of another? Share it in the comments below.

 

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Try this! Bring TEDx to under-resourced communities

The idea

Over the past few years, TED talks have become a popular way of sharing knowledge on pretty much anything. From robot technology to guerrilla gardening, the topics tackled by TED speakers have a limitless breadth, and the events are known to pack auditoriums and concert halls across the world.

But what about smaller, isolated communities who don’t have access to this bottomless pit of information, whether it be in person or via TED’s online video archive?

They create their own version.

TEDx Kliptown participants outside of the local venue.

TEDx Kliptown participants outside of the event’s first venue.

Both Kelo Kubu and Kevin Otieno have championed these new kinds of TEDx talks in two African villages. Kubu used a “TEDx in a Box”—an all-in-one kit of equipment needed to put on a talk—to hold Kliptown, South Africa’s first talk in 2011 and Otieno used the aid of other veteran TEDx organizers to get TEDx Kibera (one of Kenya’s largest slums) off the ground in 2009.

“It’s important to share [TED talks] with other impoverished communities, since the majority of the people in these communities have lost hope in life,” says Otieno. “We’ve already seen the small impact made in Kibera. People can learn, be encouraged, be motivated and be inspired to think big and differently. And they didn’t have that before.”

While their events both followed a similar structure of a regular TEDx talk, both Kubu and Otieno worked hard to mold the events into something the locals would want to attend, if not continue on their own. From promoting a simplistic, bare-bones image—as to not intimidate the largely impoverished attendees—to knowing what snacks to bring, the two successfully piqued the interest and imaginations of their specific communities by finding common ground.

Why you might like to try this

  • Sparks local and global idea-sharing.  In Kliptown, Thulani Madondo, the leader of South Africa’s One Laptop Per Child branch spoke about the program’s efforts to bring new technology to remote communities and classrooms. In response, local children in the audience who had received laptops through this program recorded their own TEDx discussion on how they use it. “What was interesting to me was the ease at which the community caught on to the idea of TEDx and wanted to make their own,” says Kubu. “And to see both the creator of the laptop program and the children who received it side by side brought it full circle.”
  • Empowers community. Otieno says that TEDx Kibera has changed people’s perceptions on who can teach. “They realize that despite their socioeconomic status they are not different. They can’t choose where they are born but they can choose what they want to be.” Since TEDx became a reoccurring presence in Kibera four years ago, new businesses led by event attendees have popped up across the sprawling slum.
  • Provides insight on universal technologies. The TEDx in a Box kit contains tablets and smart phones that can be plugged into projectors to screen TEDx talks. Kubu says that bringing this usually foreign technology to small communities is a huge step in global education, especially for youth. “Kids catch onto new technology faster than adults. It doesn’t matter if they are in a rural community or in New York City. With just a simple tablet or smart phone in a classroom, children can become global citizens,” says Kubu. “This is the future of education.”


Gomba, a local artist, speaks about art, empowerment and life in Kibera at the TEDx Kibera event.
 

How you can replicate it

While each area‘s TEDx events should be uniquely crafted to make sense in their community, Kubu and Otieno agree that the idea is meant to be universal.  If you’d like to host a TEDx in your small community, or know of one that could benefit from a TEDx event, consider these tips from Kubu.

  • Do your homework on the location.  Community members will only be interested in the talk if the topics relate to real issues and ideas that are relevant to their society. For example, in Kibera, Otieno invited the head of a local art studio to speak, encouraging listeners to contribute to the space. “To make it work, you have to know something about the community. You have to know what their needs are and how it can benefit them,” says Kubu. “It has to make sense.”
  • Find the right messenger. Kubu says that, if you aren’t from the area, it’s key to connect with a community leader to spread the word about the event. People feel more comfortable hearing about a new idea when it comes from a familiar source.
  • Make the audience comfortable Be sure to create a welcoming atmosphere for attendees. If they’re used to sitting on the floor, don’t bring chairs. If social events in their community usually involve snacks, make sure you bring the right ones.
  • Make cost a non-issue. “It’s important to show the community that putting on a event doesn’t have to cost a lot of money,” she says. “You can make money a barrier, and we don’t want that.  We want people to see that it’s easy and can be something they would have done on any other day.”
  • Provide tools to keep it going. Kubu left a stack of TED DVDs at Kilptown’s library—one of the few places in town with electricity and a DVD player. Now, locals visit the library weekly for an arranged viewing of a talk.

“Ideally, I’d like to see Kliptown put on their own TEDx talk,” she says. “But all we can do is start the idea. The rest is in their hands.”

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Interested in curating a small-scale TEDx talk? Contact Kelo Kubu at Kelo.Kubu@gmail.com or Kevin Otieno at otieno_rebel@yahoo.com. 

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