As a rural development agency that works across all districts of KwaZulu-Natal and focuses on the development of women and youth, Africa!Ignite requested funding from the DG Murray Trust in 2011 to identify, train and support 20 youths from across the province as rural journalists, photographers and story-tellers.
At the time, we were confident that this engagement with youths would help to make our rural newspaper iThubalethu a true newspaper ‘for the people by the people’. We also assumed that the youths would help us to achieve our purpose of ‘creating partnerships with rural and other marginalised communities to facilitate their fair participation in the economy and society and to help make their voices heard’.
We did not, however, anticipate just how pivotal the creation of a network of youth activists would be. The youths have not only become the voice of rural communities, they have also become our eyes and ears in rural areas, and our conscience prompting us to act where they see the greatest needs. The connection between questioning, proactive, relatively well educated rural youths who speak English, and their less-empowered, more resigned elders such as mothers and grandmothers, has also become a powerful force for improving the lives of rural communities. As a result of what we’ve learnt through the interaction with these emerging youth activists, we will in future see our rural development role in a much wider context.
BACKGROUND TO THE PROJECT
Africa!Ignite’s team has worked with rural communities across KwaZulu-Natal for 15 years, initially as part of MiET Africa and since 2007 as an independent organisation. As Africa!Ignite we have focused on support for communities around a network of about 20 of the rural education centres that were established by the provincial Department of Education to support clusters of rural schools and the communities around them.
A major focus has been support for adult and youth forums at these centres, and specifically with groups of women who engage in craft enterprise to earn a living and support their families. We currently provide support to roughly a thousand women grouped around 19 rural nodes in nine of KwaZulu-Natal’s 11 districts.
Over the years we have also trained youths as rural research field workers (about 40), as water and sanitation outreach workers (120) and as rural craft and tourism entrepreneurs. By 2009, we had become acutely aware of how marginalised and isolated rural KwaZulu-Natal is, how limited the access of rural communities was to information that could help them to improve their lives, and how they had little or no means to make their voices heard.
We therefore identified the need for a rural newspaper ‘by and for rural communities’, conducted an extensive feasibility study tand needs analysis, and in early 2011 we secured funding to publish a rural, free monthly Zulu-language newspaper, iThubalethu (‘it is our time’), of which 40 000 copies are distributed across all of KwaZulu-Natal, using the network of rural education centres and high schools to ensure distribution beyond towns, into villages and homesteads. iThubalethu aims to give rural communities a voice and to improve their access to information, education and quality of life.
At the time, we had asked for funding to identify and train youths from all districts of KwaZulu-Natal as rural correspondents, so that iThubalethu could truly be a newspaper for and by rural communities, but this component was excluded from the approved funding. We therefore continued to seek funding for what we sought as a critical component. And because we believe strongly in the power of stories, and believe that KwaZulu-Natal’s rural women and communities have important stories to share, we also asked for funding to train the same youths as rural story-tellers.
THE ISSUES THAT WE AIMED TO ADDRESS
The project aimed to address pervasive issues linked to the status of the communities in rural KwaZulu-Natal, where more than half of the province’s population lives and where poverty, HIV/AIDS and unemployment are endemic.
We selected youths from nine of KwaZulu-Natal’s districts, predominantly from areas that were part of the old KwaZulu homeland and where the broken terrain of deep river valleys and soaring mountains and hills makes communication and access extremely difficult. The areas are also characterised by poor communication, roads, water and electricity.
Through our work with rural communities over the years and in particular through the interviews with 1 000 community members that were conducted during the Ithubalethu feasibility, we had became very aware that the rights of rural community members were routinely being abused, that they had to make do with second-rate service delivery, and that they felt helpless in terms of changing their own destiny.
In these areas of rural KwaZulu-Natal, women continue to do exquisite hand craft, part of a proud and ancient tradition which still provides women with their first entry into the economy. Sadly, although we would argue that KwaZulu-Natal has the richest craft traditions and some of the most skilled crafters anywhere in South Africa, the province’s master crafters are not recognised as the true artists that they are. Youth, in particular, often look down on crafters as old ‘mammas’ who do craft because they can do nothing else.
Like much of Africa, KwaZulu-Natal has an ancient oral tradition and story-telling was once part of family and communal life. Unfortunately, as youths have told us, ‘we used to tell stories, but we don’t any more’. Because many stories have not been documented, they are being lost. In fact, the history, culture and stories of KwaZulu-Natal and of the Zulu nation have largely been documented by non-Zulu speakers.
One of every four South African children, and more than one in every five youths are in KwaZulu-Natal. As Africa!Ignite, we have over the years encountered thousands of bright, positive youths with great potential who do voluntary work in their communities, but for whom there are little or no opportunities to earn a living. One of our main aims has therefore been to address youth unemployment by creating opportunities for youths.
HOW WE AIMED TO ADDRESS THESE ISSUES
‘In Africa, when an old person dies, it is like a library burning’
‘Until lions have their own historians, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter’.
We aimed to address these issues through the following strategies:
Provide unemployed rural youths with useful journalistic/photographic and story-telling skills and with opportunities to earn an income and build a career.
Develop the youths into rural researchers, story-tellers and communicators so that they could take a lead in sharing the stories of rural role models and showcase the rural lifestyles, values, culture and environments of each of their districts.
Make rural communities less marginalised by giving them a voice and bargaining power.
Elevate the status of Zulu craft and of KwaZulu-Natal’s master crafters, by getting youths to document and showcase the stories of the crafters.
Analysis of the experience of implementation
What we have done so far
We identified 20 youths from eight districts who met our criteria as candidates to be trained as local journalists and story-tellers. They demonstrated that they had both the interest and the capacity to benefit from the training and become valuable resources in their districts.
To identify them, we liaised with education centre managers. They distributed application forms, screened and recommended applicants. We relied heavily on their judgement, because we would later depend on them to provide local support and mentoring to the youths, and to make the IT facilities at their centres available to the youths.
Each youth had to complete an application form, give us a profile of who they are, and motivate in writing why they think they would be suitable candidates. We screened their applications, and also interviewed them telephonically. The written motivations have provided us with a baseline assessment of their writing skills.
In the end the 20 youths came from around the education centres where the centre managers in those districts were more proactive in recruiting candidates. There are larger numbers of youths from the poorer rural districts where we work most intensively, such as Umkhanyakude and Umzinyathi.
The first step was to bring the youths together to train them as journalists and photographers. We deliberately chose to use a trainer with vast experience of rural reporting across Africa, who had trained rural youths in Swaziland before. We wanted the youths to be exposed to the highest journalistic principles, even though we worried whether they would have the basic grounding to be able to benefit optimally from the training. The trainer submitted a course outline to us, and we screened it carefully to try to ensure that it would be pitched at the right level for participants.
We brought 19 youths together in Durban during COP 17 in early December 2011 (one dropped out at the last minute). Even though the timing made it difficult to find accommodation for the youths, we thought that all the action in Durban at the time would create interesting opportunities for the youths to test their reporting skills.
They underwent intensive training for three days and then went out on the streets in pairs, having identified the stories that they wanted to do. They tackled tough issues such as xenophobia and the sustainability of the riksha business on Durban’s beach front, and one team talked their way into a press conference with President Jacob Zuma. Even though a back-up team was available to assist them if necessary, not one team asked for help. They took photographs and wrote their stories overnight. The next day they got together again to review stories, discuss challenges and plot a way forward for them to collect stories in their districts.
The youths then went back to the rural areas where they live. They put forward ideas for stories and researched and wrote the stories that were agreed on. Africa!Ignite’s iThubalethu journalist Zasembo Mkhize provided feedback, edited the stories and in several instances sent stories back for rewriting. This was mostly done by youths using the computers and internet connections available at the education centres. Much of the feedback was by telephone.
Late in February 2012, Africa!Ignite brought the youths back to Durban for a second, four-day training session, this time focusing on story-telling. Although this was not originally part of the plan (we had intended to merely travel from district to district to support each team of youths in starting to gather stories), we decided that it was important to build an initial story-telling foundation first. We included four youths from rural WOWZULU craft tourism Marketplaces in the training, since telling the stories of KwaZulu-Natal is also an important part of what the Marketplaces do.
The training programme had two components: The first part focuses on the importance of story-telling and the power of stories to motivate, inspire and imprint information; as well as on story-telling in Zulu culture and how to gather and document stories with appropriate sensitivity. Each team of youths constructed a story-board of their district to showcase what is special about it. Africa!Ignite’s story-telling specialists Wilna Botha and Zasembo Mkhize, with Zulu historian Eugene Hlophe led this component.
The second part of the story-telling workshop focused on how to tell stories using your voice and dramatic techniques. Prominent African story-teller Gcina Mhlophe led this component.
From the start, an important objective was to train youths to document the stories of their districts’ iconic women crafters. This was the main reason why Gcina Mhlophe wanted to be involved, and we agreed with her that we will have a follow-up session in June, when we will focus on the youths telling the stories of crafters. We also agreed that we would aim to create opportunities where the crafters and their stories could be showcased in front of an audience.
In April, we started to visit the different districts to work with the youths there, in order to introduce them to story-tellers, historians, crafters, tourist authorities, museums, art galleries, newspapers and other relevant people and places in their districts. We started with the Umzinyathi District, moving on to Amajuba, Umkhanykude and Ugu. We conducted initial interviews together with the youths, briefed them about the type of stories that we wanted them to collect and how to conduct the interviews sensitively, and left them with a detailed briefing guide with sample questions for each type of interview.
We started to receive stories in May, and have worked with the youths on finalising these.
In May Mantombi Tofile, who is a trained and experienced journalist, joined Africa!Ignite as marketing and business development manager. The ‘youths as journalists and story-tellers’ project now falls under her and she is providing Zasembo Mkhize with valuable support.
Reflecting on our experience – what we’ve learnt so far
WHAT WORKED WELL AND WHY - the Postives
The huge potential of the youth
We have been delighted by how well youths responded to the opportunity. The experience reminded us never to underestimate rural youths, simply because they come from far-flung places. We have realised again that there are many youths in rural areas with huge potential, who are hungry for opportunities but are denied these because of where they live. The majority of youths soaked up the learning and were eager to be given opportunities.
In her training report the journalism trainer observed the following:
‘I was personally hugely impressed with the group of students, all of whom showed an earnest interest in learning the craft of journalism and worked extremely hard throughout the five day course to make the most of it. While it is disconcerting to know that this youth is currently wasted on unemployment and a general lack of opportunities for advancement, it is indeed heartening to learn that rural South Africa harbours such great talent!’
Where we depended on youths to organise district visits, we also found that they demonstrated a great sense of responsibility and care in organising these.
Paradigm shift in the youths who now see themselves as community activists
Most of the youths are deeply aware of the issues that beset their communities and are ready to be positive community activists, standing up for the rights of communities. They have a strong sense of civic responsibility.
The youths have sensitised us to many of the most pressing issues in their communities and have been impatient with Africa!Ignite when we have not seemed proactive enough in taking up the issues that they have raised.
Working through the education centres
The project gave us a new appreciation of how valuable our relationship with education centres and centre managers across KwaZulu-Natal’s districts are. The education centre managers have proved to be invaluable support for the project. And it has also become clear that the centres with the strongest, most proactive managers are the ones where the project has the greatest chance of success.
Youths assuming their role as district story-tellers
During the training, it became clear that youths were aware that story-telling was part of Zulu history and culture and felt a sense of loss because this was no longer the case. They saw the course as a call to action and accepted that they should take responsibility for rediscovering the stories of their districts. They soaked up the stories of Zulu historian Eugene Hlophe, and it was also interesting to see from the district maps how much youths from the more rural areas in particular already knew about their districts.
Involvement of Gcina Mhlophe opening up new opportunities
Involving prominent story-teller Gcina Mhlophe, whom the youths clearly idolise, in the training added an interesting new dimension. Gcina focused on dramatically portraying stories using one’s own voice, body and other dramatic techniques in a way that is true to yourself. Gcina also impressed on youths the importance of showcasing the stories of iconic women crafters in their districts, and we will continue to work with Gcina to do this effectively.
Youths as story-tellers welcomed in the districts and provincially
One of the things that surprised us most was the enthusiasm with which provincial and district stakeholders welcomed the creation of youths as the story-tellers of their districts. Clearly they had felt the need for young, articulate, enthusiastic youths who can write and speak English and who are interested in the history, culture and stories of their districts. It is clear that opportunities will open up for the youths as soon as they are confident to market themselves as district story-tellers.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK WELL AND WHY – SOME NEGATIVES
The difficulties of working across deep-rural areas
Even after almost many years of involvement in rural development across KwaZulu-Natal, the project has once again made us aware of just how ‘rural’ the province is and has reminded us why so few organisations try to work across the province’s rural areas. Even though the distances that one travels in rural KwaZulu-Natal are not as vast as in provinces such as Limpopo or the Northern Cape, the broken terrain with its countless mountains and deep river valleys make both travel and IT communication a challenge.
Long-distance communications challenges
We probably underestimated the difficulties of communicating with education centre managers and youths in 11 different districts of the province. Because we tried to reduce the project budget, we did not budget to visit all districts at the outset. It would have been ideal to make two trips to each district, first to introduce the centre managers to the project and brief them well so that they could identify the right youths, and then to interview the youths face to face. We did all of this telephonically, which was probably not as effective.
Poor communication infrastructure has continued to be a challenge. Telephone connections are often unreliable and even though the education centres all have 3G connections, these do not always work.
We established a simple way to communicate with the youths, by E-mail, phone or SMS. We thought E-mailing would be simple and easy, but there have been challenges in the more remote places where reception is very poor.
Our biggest challenge by far has been the slowness with which our core iThubalethu funder has been able to process reports and requests for new tranches of funding, and the subsequent difficulties to keep publishing the newspaper regularly. As a result, we have gone on a concerted drive to find alternative, supplementary sources of funding.
Eugene Hlophe getting sick
Our Zulu cultural and history specialist Eugene Hlophe, who was supposed to go on all district visits with our team, also suffered from a mild stroke early in May and was in hospital for two weeks. This has caused some implementation delays.
‘The middle of somewhere important’
Africa!Ignite coordinator Zasembo Mkhize: ‘The places where youths come from is “the middle of nowhere” yet it is the centre of their worlds – somewhere that is very important to them. We have not promised these youths the world, but the project has instilled a sense of pride in them. These are young people from rural areas, really remote, who’ve now become journalists, researchers and story-tellers and who have been exposed to a whole new world. We believe they now understand they can do so much and have great potential.’
For Zasembo – being the first among peers
"I have had to learn how to manage my peers. Sometimes I find that they see me as an authority figure, and they’d ask each other questions, but are afraid of Zasembo.
It is not as if there are barriers, though, because people will send SMSes at 11 pm at night or over weekend. Because some people are so far away, communication is sometimes difficult, and so it may be difficult for them to understand why their stories haven’t been published. If we commissioned them to do a certain story, and we can’t use it, then they complain that they’ve had costs. Although we never committed to publishing all stories, yet people expected that. We have now realised that we need to cover direct costs if the stories are not usable".
Like craft, story-telling is in danger of dying out
It was a shock for us to realise to what extent story-telling is in danger of dying out in KwaZulu-Natal, and how stories that had been passed on through oral tradition could be lost. It made us realise how important it was to create story-tellers and tell KwaZulu-Natal’s stories.
Youths as Africa!Ignite’s eyes, ears and conscience in rural areas
The training and stories of youth reinforced our awareness of the fact that isolated rural communities do not have opportunities to make their voices heard, speak out about poor service delivery, influence political decisions or fight exploitation, and that they do not know what their rights are.
Our interaction with the youths prompted our decision that we must try to do something about this. As the quotes in Appendix 2 show, the youths want to participate in this.
The power of connecting youth and women
Africa!Ignite has been aware for some time that the rural women crafters whom we support suffer from a range of lifestyle related illnesses, including HIV, related cancers, high blood pressure and diabetes, and have wanted to assist the women to protect their own health. This project made us aware we could use iThubalethu and the network of youths as tools to teach rural women how to protect their health. Appendix 2 also shows that the youths want to do this.
Huge responsibility to continue to support youths and to create new opportunities for them
Our interaction with these remarkable youths has also made us feel a strong responsibility to provide them with more support, until they will have the skills and connections to be able to support themselves as rural journalists, photographers and story-tellers. While we do not want to create any dependence, we realise that the youths need more support before they will be ready to stand totally on their own feet.
The importance of local champions and initiative
We have once again learnt the lesson that seems to recur when one does development work: That it makes all the difference who the local champion or change agent is. Where the education centre managers were proactive and supportive, we received many names of good youths; whereas other managers did not respond even after several reminders. This has meant that the youths with whom we are working are concentrated in those areas where the education centre managers are most active – in eight of 11 districts.
Also, there are obviously some youths who respond far more positively to the opportunities given than others. This affirms our policy of development –
we can only give youths opportunities and it is up to them to respond: Seeds will grow where soil is fertile
Our plans for the future and observations relevant to others
The project has opened our eyes to new areas of rural development support which we wish to pursue in partnership with the youths. We have already been able to create strong firm and potential partnerships around these areas, and are pursuing funding opportunities together with these partners.
Helping rural women to protect their health
With highly committed partners HIVAN (the HIV Aids Networking Centre of the University of KwaZulu-Natal) and Sinomusonothando Community Development, a grass-roots health promotion agency in the Valley of a Thousand Hills led by oncologist and women’s health activist Dr Thandeka Mazibuko, we wish to use the resources that we have available collectively, including iThubalethu and the network of youths, to give women clear and reliable information and guidance on how they can protect their own health and access medical care. See Appendix 4 for an executive summary that briefly outlines the concept.
Acting as a watchdog to protect the rights of rural communities
We intend to employ the rural network of youths and iThubalethu to act as watchdogs to protect the human rights of rural communities as citizens and consumers. We intend to increase rural communities’ access to information, provide a platform for rural communities to make their voices heard, act as a watchdog by identifying and reporting instances of rights’ abuse, and take action on behalf of rural communities to protect their rights as citizens and consumers. See Appendix 5
Documenting and telling KwaZulu-Natal’s stories
As Africa!Ignite, we have resolved to develop a far stronger focus on story-telling across the organisation and to position ourselves, and the network of youths, as key resources to ensure that the stories of KwaZulu-Natal’s history, culture, people, natural environment and major events are documented and told. The KwaZulu-Natal Department of Arts and Culture had asked us to submit a proposal for Africa!Ignite to become their story-telling partners, and the National Youth Development Agency has approached us and asked us to explore opportunities for the network of youths to link into their ‘infopreneur’ networks.
The connection with Gcina Mhlophe has opened up opportunities for us to also involve youths in dramatically portraying the stories of KwaZulu-Natal’s iconic master crafters, as well as some of the evocative stories of the province. We have been asked to host a craft emporium as part of an International Partnerships Network Conference in Durban in September 2012 and plan to use the youths in performances during which they will use their voices, music and dance to tell the stories of crafters who will demonstrate their work and skills during the conference.