Rosemary Cairns’ Stories: Ordinary People Making a Positive Difference

I have been collecting stories of people changing the world for (can it be) almost two decades now. It really grew out of my Human Security and Peacebuilding thesis, when I explored how people built peace for themselves in Brcko (northern Bosnia) and Somaliland. When I was thinking about how to share my research, the university said I could use Moodle (which we use for teaching) or a wiki.

I wasn’t familiar with a wiki, but figured if I was going to learn how to use it, I might as well use it for something practical. So all those stories I had been coming across – stories of how people were doing something extraordinary in their community, or their country – came to mind. Here was the way to share peoples’ achievements – and by sharing that knowledge, encouraging others elsewhere to do the same thing, or something similar.

The very first story I ever put on Hopebuilding wiki was this one:

Molly Letela was principal of a school in the tiny state of Lesotho, nestled inside South Africa’s borders. She was getting repeated complaints from some of her teachers about how their students couldn’t concentrate, and so weren’t learning. But she knew that most of the problem was that her students were hungry – not unruly or deliberately disruptive – and she had, for a while, dreamed a dream about how to address that.

On the empty land around her school, she imagined crops that would feed her hungry students. But she was a wise woman, and knew that if she told the parents what to do, it wouldn’t work nearly as well as if they thought of the idea themselves. So gradually, in conversations, she subtly helped the parents realize the possibilities that came from all the land around the school, and their agricultural knowledge. And one day, they came and proposed to her that they create a garden in the empty land around the school.

Once the parents shared her vision, she found a small South African NGO that specialized in how to multi-crop on land, so that the school could grow more than one crop in a season, and that knew how to work respectfully with the local farmers and parents to build on what they already knew.

The parents planted the new crops, the home economics class made breakfasts and lunches, and the students were well-fed and able to work. The community’s health and food security improved, too, as people used the new ideas in their own farming at home.

Soon, a nearby community came to see what their neighbours had accomplished. And the knowledge spread, in what the Community Development Resource Association in Cape Town, South Africa, describes as “horizontal learning” – neighbours learning from neighbours. Soon, there were hundreds of similar school meal programs in the district – without any donor funding or aid agencies being involved, apart from the small amount of funding Mrs. Letela used to bring in the small South African NGO at the very beginning.

I love this idea of ‘horizontal learning’. It is so different from how people have often conceptualized ‘learning’ as being a process where neophytes learn from ‘experts’ – ‘vertical learning.’

The second story begins with a South African couple who used to collect tiny glass ornaments that depicted African animals. But then one day, they realized that they hadn’t seen any of the ornaments for a while. So they decided to find out what had happened to their favourite collectibles.

Their journey took them to Swaziland, where they discovered that the glass factory (started eight years earlier with funding from a Scandinavian aid agency) had shut down. So they decided – even though they knew nothing about glassblowing or factory operation – to find a way to restart the factory, and thus continue to create work for local people.

The factory, which had been started in 1979, had been quite successful. From 1981 til 1985, when it closed down, the factory was run entirely by local people. Two local people had learned glassblowing from some of the world’s experts.

The Prettejohn family re-opened the Ngwenya factory in June 1987. They use only recycled glass, and they pay local school teams and citizens for used glass bottles. So people from all over Swaziland collect old bottles and are paid per kilo for clean glass. As well as providing raw materials for the factory, this also (of course) makes the area much tidier.

The factory now employs 70 people, which includes two of the original blowers (who teach new apprentices) and four of the other original staff. Every piece of glasswork is handmade and mouth blown.

Not only is the factory concerned about the small animal figurines it sells – it also cares for the real animals and their environment. The company organizes regular cleanup days along main roads in their area, and it launched the Kingdom’s most successful wildlife conservation fund – the Ngwenya Glass Rhino and Elephant Fund – which is dedicated to saving endangered rhinos and elephants. A percentage of Ngwenya Glass’s worldwide sales are donated to the Fund.

I love this story because, for me, it shows that if the developmental focus is local, people can see all kinds of linkages between things that outsiders would never see. And it also suggests the power of curiosity and serendipity – this couple loved the small glass figurines they collected and then became curious enough, when the figures stopped coming, to find out what had happened. And their curiosity, and determination, led to all kinds of things they never could have imagined.

Using recycled glass means that, as well as making figurines for sale and creating jobs in the community and attracting tourists to the factory and its local shop, the factory inspires people to keep the area clean by collecting and delivering all local bottles and glasses. A project that was created using the kind of ‘silos’ that so many projects fall within, would have been so much less likely to do three or four things simultaneously. People locally see these kind of connections, and act on them. This is ‘win-win-win-win-win’….. 🙂


And finally, because I am at the ‘granny’ age these days, a third story that I have always loved…….the story of the Wakefield Grannies and the joy of serendipity.

The Wakefield Grannies have been supporting grandmothers in one South African township since 2002. Wakefield is a small, historic village of about 4,000 people located in western Quebec just half an hour’s drive from the Canadian capital city, Ottawa. It began in 1830 as a village of immigrants – from Ireland, Scotland and England – and while its focus is now tourism and art, rather than timber, its well-traveled residents know they live in an interdependent world. Canadian prime minister Lester B. Pearson, whose invention of international peacekeeping in 1956 found a creative way to resolve world conflicts, is buried in the village. Like him, Wakefield’s grandmothers know that changing the world begins with small steps.

The story of how they developed a strong friendship with 40 South African grandmothers living in a crowded township near the South African capital of Johannesburg began with film-makers Brenda and Robert Rooney, who had worked with the Canadian International Development Agency and Vision TV in 2002 to make a documentary film entitled Condoms Fish and Circus Tricks. Shot in Malawi, South Africa, and Zambia, the film offered an intimate look at the people who are dying, those who are caring for them and why AIDS has had such a devastating impact on African society. They screened the film at Wakefield’s United Church and raised $1,000 for the church’s AIDS campaign.

In the audience was Thomas Minde, a doctor at Wakefield’s hospital, whose parents had just returned from a year in South Africa. His mother, Nina, a child psychologist, had volunteered at a children’s mental health clinic in Alexandra township, a tightly packed ghetto that is home to nearly 340,000 people. Shocked to see more and more children being brought to the clinic by their grandmothers because their parents were dead or dying from AIDS, and herself a grandmother, Nina offered to run a support group with clinic head nurse Rose Letwaba.

While not much attention was being paid to grandparents in 2002, Rose saw them as the silent victims of AIDS. She invited three grannies to a meeting and they told their stories and everyone cried a lot. The next week, there were five, and then there were 10 and there was no more room in Rose’s office. The grannies said they needed help in getting over the loss of their daughters and raising their grandchildren, who were often sad and angry; many of them had been plunged back into poverty. But as they met, and became more confident in their own abilities and shared their knowledge, they started to blossom and become more joyful.

Thomas told the story to minister Gisele Gilfillen, who invited Nina to speak at a morning service. She showed pictures of the East Bank Clinic and told the congregation about Rose, who soon would be attending a conference in Canada. Nina promised to bring Rose to Wakefield. And so, one Saturday night in October 2004, Rose painted a picture of a whole generation of South Africans lost to AIDS and grieving mothers left to carry the burden of raising their grandchildren to be healthy, educated, socially responsible adults. Rose described the 40 Grannies who were meeting at her clinic for sewing classes, gardening and moral support. An impromptu collection raised about $900, but that didn’t seem enough to 81-year-old Norma Geggie. She wanted to do more.

When Norma happened to meet Nina and Rose the next day, she asked “what if a group of women in Wakefield were to partner with these women?” They exchanged e-mail addresses, and Norma began making phone calls. When the Wakefield Grannies met for the first time in November 2004, each drew the name of an Alex Gogo – the Zulu word for grandmother – from a jar. It was the start of a relationship that was both personal, and collective.

The whole community was behind the grannies. They supported fundraising events, sent cheques, and businesses donated money, which was sent to Rose, who decided how it should be spent – for food, sewing equipment, winter blankets and track suits for HIV positive children who are highly susceptible to cold, and occasionally, overnight and weekend breaks for gogos and Alex teens who were heads of their households.

Knowing that grannies on the other side of the world cared so much about them gave the Alex Gogos tremendous hope, and helped dissolve the stigma that often affects such families. Within a year, as people heard about the Wakefield Grannies, other granny groups began in Canada and the United States. In the spring of 2006, the Stephen Lewis Foundation launched a Grandmother to Grandmother campaign that inspired the creation of hundreds of granny groups across Canada, and Lewis came to meet the Wakefield Grannies.

Robert Rooney had been filming the story from the start and soon realized it was a story about women, not about AIDS. In 2006, the Rooneys travelled to South Africa to film the Alex Gogos and then filmed several Wakefield Grannies at the Grandmother to Grandmother gathering. The story came full circle when Rose and three of the Alex gogos visited Wakefield on August 15, 2006. The resulting 80-minute documentary, The Great Granny Revolution, fittingly, had its world premiere in Wakefield on May 5, 2007.

This work is inspiring many younger people. Says one: “If grey-haired old women believe they can impact a change in the world, then why can’t our generation?” Near the end of the film, Rose Letwaba is speaking at the Wakefield United Church. “If everyone was like the people of Wakefield,” she says, “the world would be a better place to live in.”

This is one of many stories from a wide variety of sources and a multitude of forms contributed by people upon request for my 70th birthday in November 2018.   They are posted without editing, with the attribution that was with them.  I will be posting these regularly until they run out. There are about 7 more to go! If you have others to add, please send them to me soon!

About jofacilitator

On Sept 1, 2020, I celebrated 50 years of work with the Institute of Cultural Affairs, facilitating meetings, groups, communities, and organizations, making it possible for ordinary people to have a voice in decisions that affect their lives. I retired on December 31, 2021, but still volunteer with the organization.
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1 Response to Rosemary Cairns’ Stories: Ordinary People Making a Positive Difference

  1. Kathy McGrane says:

    Such beautiful and impactful stories! Thank you.


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