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
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
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!