Monday, December 8, 2008

Learning to Learn

Give a man a directive and you occupy him for a day. Give a man an analogy and some space to grow and you give him options for life.

We all know the fish analogy: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life.” It’s a theme that runs throughout the development context which differentiates it from humanitarian aid. This isn’t going to be a post that talks about hand-outs versus hand-ups however. Instead I want to talk about what I learned when I attended a Community Experience Sharing Festival.

In Yendi District, 25 communities have been taken into a project that helps them to write community plans and to select food security projects from those plans. For a rural community largely isolated from government centres it requires a mindset shift to start organizing a community local government alongside the traditional elders and chiefs. Other countries have either abolished chieftaincy, or not recognized it within the legal framework. Ghana and a few others are trying to retain some of the rights and responsibilities of chiefs while at the same time developing a democratic local government. It's often a complicated balance, but it does offer a better chance for communities to protect some of their customs and traditions.

These communities brought their traditional dance to the festival to accompany a song about their experience.

Inspiring trust in a government and a bureaucratic system to deliver services requires a real leap of faith on the part of community members. Illiteracy, language barriers, and development jargon don’t help the situation any. To help communities understand the principles behind planning and advocacy in government an analogy was adopted.

In each community that we visited to ask about the project, they related how they came together to weave a net. If that net was good, then the community would be able to catch many fish with it. The district government, we were told, is a pond, with many different kinds of fish in it. The net could be cast many times for different fish.

The net of course was the community plan that they wrote together, the fishermen are the community members contacting the district government. The fish are programmes and services available through the government.


I was struck by the effectiveness of the analogy and the power of a concept versus a process. This is certainly not the first time I’ve run into analogies. Growing up reading scriptures I became quite familiar with parables and analogies to convey ideas. What I really came to appreciate was not the ability to transcend cultural and language barriers, but rather the freedom that an analogy gave as opposed to a set of instructions or directives.

The evening featured a movie night where videos of entire communities sharing their experiences were displayed for the participants in the district festival.

Somewhere along the line as I waded my way through academia and began reading books by really intelligent people, I started seeing less and less analogies and more and more jargon, Venn diagrams and philosophical debates with the odd metaphor. Somehow it started to seem like analogies were old fashioned, or at least more useful in a context where the receiving party is not familiar with the idea or likely not to understand it at first.

Yet in my experiences in Canada, and from what I’ve observed here in Ghana, rote learning, while often more detailed and specific, is debilitating. It gets people locked into processes, afraid to make mistakes, and less able to do self-guided learning. The cycle reinforces a “wise and knowledgeable teacher” and “unknowing, incapable student” relationship. This in turn encourages small simple directives from the directors to the subordinates instead of engaging them in large complicated systems. The intention is to teach and build capacity, but the reality is rather condescending and limiting.

In the case of this project, communities didn’t have to learn about civil rights and bureaucratic processes, so much as recognize their role and feel empowered in their relationship with government. This understanding and power dynamic can be readily transferred to other programmes, on a small scale community level, and on a large scale international level for farmers looking to export their crops to foreign markets.

A documented plan enables you to take advantage of more programmes and services.

The power of sharing

The other lesson I learned was about sharing the experiences. The favoured mode of transferring information in the industrialized world is THE REPORT. The trouble with this is that usually reports are boring and not many people read them. Even if the subject they’re reporting on is exciting, it takes a certain amount of skill to get things to leap up off the page. PowerPoint animations and fancy fonts aside, people like stories, and stories outlive any rhetoric. Telling a story encourages reflection in the story teller and the listener. In that way, both have the opportunity to learn.
These communities prepared a play to share how they came to involve disabled persons and "lower caste" tribes in decision making.

With this project, communities are encouraged to include women as an equal decision making power and even to prioritize their needs when it comes to food security as they are largely responsible for the family's needs. As you can imagine this is a new concept for many communities, and it takes some time to not only accept it but to recognize the benefits.

I've been on monitoring trips for this project and others like it before. Inevitably things get lost in translation, and some things never get revealed because we just don't know how to ask the right questions. To add to that, communities still aren't sure what to expect but their primary objective is to have projects like this return in the future, so their priority is to tell us everything we want to hear. I often leave these visits wondering if some of it is too good to be true.

In this festival however, instead of answering the "outsider's" questions, communities were given the space to express what they wanted to share with other communities, through whatever means they liked. The result was a far richer discussion than I've ever witnessed before.

We learned of the nitty-gritty details of communities arguing that disabled people can't care for livestock anyway, so there's no need to include them. Then through the project they are surprised to learn just how capable these people are, and how much they all benefit from these people being more independent.

This community sang of how the plans they developed were like a walking stick, and now each of them are moving forward with it.

We learned about the communities where women began farming soy to provide nutritious food for their families, and sell the surplus to the market in order to earn money for other family needs. The trick was, the farming was only profitable if the men of the household helped their wives and their mothers to have a good yield. Some men didn't want to support their wives in this way as they had their own obligations to attend to. Others saw the importance and the personal benefits they would receive from their wives earning an income, so they learned how to plant the soy and helped the women to farm.

This man helped his wife and other women farmers to sew their soy field.

This woman laments to her son how she will not have a good yield from her soy field because she did not have help from his father.

It was real, and it was in their own words. I have to say that it's extremely humbling to see communities being so open and honest about how difficult it can be to adopt a different system of planning and decision making. That shift would be difficult for anyone, never mind those who are so risk averse because they've never been able to count on much outside of their family.