5 key lessons learned from a social initiative in a rural area

5 key lessons learned from a social initiative in a rural area

April 22, 2017

On 13 and 14 April 2017, as part of the Connexions Citoyennes programme, 15 people with experience in project managing social initiatives, from around ten African countries, came to Malika, Senegal, to immerse themselves in a rural area.

I was part of the group and I would like to share five lessons I learned from this visit to Malika.

1- Our idea of rural areas is not always in line with reality

When we were told that we were going to Malika, about 25 km from Dakar in Senegal, almost all of us believed we were going to a small village cut off from the world, and in particular cut off from the Internet. The project manager that I am had a very clear idea of what she expected it to be: rustic, a bit of a "backwater". Malika may well be in a rural area, but it is very lovely and, in some ways, it is better kept than the city of Dakar.

I was struck by the cleanliness of the public infrastructures, especially the town hall, the Cours Saint Villiers and Nguediaga, the place of prayer and pilgrimage. Malika is a district better known as the home of a 175-hectare landfill site (Mbeubeuss) than for its sandy beaches, and residents are sick of living in the shadow of the dump. The cleanliness of their public roads and buildings is a clear testament to this desire to be known for something other than waste, waste which comes from all over Senegal and is a threat to both Malika's ecosystem and the health of its residents.

Déchets à perte de vue à la décharge de Mbeubeuss à Malika
Waste as far as the eye can see at Mbeubeuss landfill in Malika

2- The needs of the authorities, be they administrative, traditional or religious, are not necessarily the needs of the people

Guided by photographer and social activist Mandione Laye Keb, aka MLK, our first visit was to the town hall of Malika where we met Mayor Momar Gadiaga, village chief Mandione Sène and Sérigne Mamour Thiaw Laye, the representative of the Khalife. After telling us all about Malika's background and system of government, the authorities asked us to help them get their message out to the world, to incite long-term measures to tackle the problem of Mbeubeuss.

As brain synapses started firing, Boursier Tchibinda from Gabon straight away suggested an Avaaz petition. We had the knowledge and the skills, we were more than capable of writing the script and Cameroon filmmaker Cyrielle Raingou would be in charge of making the video. Benin's Maurice Thantan and Awanabi Idrissou would draw on their experience as journalists and bloggers, while Guinean Sally Bilaly Sow never afraid to speak out against an issue, would also be a huge asset.

We left the mayor's office with a clear strategy in mind, sure that the course we would follow over the next two days was set… that is, until we asked the young people of Malika who were to participate in the hackathon how they wanted us to help them build a "better Malika". Their answer was very clear. Like their leaders, they were aware of the danger posed by Mbeubeuss. And just like their leaders, they wanted a permanent solution to this landfill, but their priority lay elsewhere. In their view, it was essential to improve the image of Malika, and the way to do this was to harness the power of the Internet.

The youth of Malika did not want a long-drawn-out project that would ultimately go nowhere (you cannot make 175 hectares of waste disappear by clicking your fingers, no matter how many petitions are signed). They wanted, by promoting their town and all that is beautiful about it, to make the national authorities realise they had to "do something about the landfill". They wanted a digital presence, a website that would showcase their community and its residents. Malika had to be about more than just Mbeubeuss.

So – of course – we bowed to the will of the people.

Le chef du village, le représentant du Khalife et le Maire de Malika, à la mairie
The village chief, the representative of the Khalife and the Mayor of Malika, at the town hall

3- We are all guilty of the approach so often taken by international organisations, which is to think that they know what people need better than the people themselves and that they are leading them out of the darkness.

Within our team of 15 we had all the skills needed to create a website and a solid digital presence. All of us had headed up social initiatives involving the use of digital tools. Tidiani Togola from Mali, and Togo's Charles Kondi and Edeh Etchri had all the knowledge required to build a website from scratch and, compulsive Twitterer that I am, I was ready to put all my know-how to good work.

We were somewhat surprised to learn that among the young people with whom we would be working was a graphic designer, Ouzin Konaré who designed the logo for Sunu Malika, the name given to Malika's website, meaning "Our Malika" in Wolof. He even came up with a new logo for Tidiani's organisation, Tuwindi. Malika has quite a lot to offer on the technological front and our young colleagues were pretty good at what they did. MLK, for example, does not take great photos just to keep them on a memory card. He posts them on his Instagram account and on various social networks.

Once the technical issues had been dealt with, the content of the site had to be agreed. In addition to highlighting the history and beauty of Malika, we were determined to include an argument for (or against) Mbeubeuss. A large part of our strategy for showcasing the best of Malika was based on raising awareness of the landfill elsewhere in the world. The young people made themselves clear. The landfill was to be everything but a key element of our work together. Malika first, Mbeubeuss second. Our role was not to lead, but to follow. We were not there to give orders, but to help as best we could in line with the needs and aspirations of the people of Malika.

Hackaton à Malika pour la création de sunumalika.net
Hackathon in Malika for the creation of sunumalika.net

4- Adaptation by project managers to the local context and cooperation are key to the success of a project

It was vital that we did not treat this as a sight-seeing opportunity and act like "foreigners". We needed to integrate into the community in order to gain the trust of the people we were working with and to get them to open up to us. We also had to recognise if we were doing something wrong so as not to jeopardise the initiative.

For example, I had to think about how I dressed. I spend my life in jeans. It is practical and comfortable, especially when going out in the field. I had not expected to find myself filming at a holy site for the Malika website, but that was what happened. We had to find a way to avoid offending the people present: to enable me to carry out the task assigned to me by the team, I borrowed Cyrielle's sarong to wrap around my waist and used MLK's scarf to cover my head.

Our last stop in Malika was Mbeubeuss. My first instinct was to take out my camera, without asking, which annoyed the locals (yes, some people call Mbeubeuss home). They were offended and perceived it as a lack of respect. Once I realised my blunder, I put my camera away. In particular, I was careful not to hold my nose, even when we ventured further into the dump. What would those who have no choice but to live in this place think?
How would my actions be interpreted?
What sort of message would it have sent?

5- Working together is essential to the success of a social initiative

This is the core lesson I have learned from this experience. Only the people really know their needs. Authorities may have ideas from the perspective of leaders, but ultimately only collaboration with citizens and their inclusion in projects aimed at them and their well-being can bring a social initiative to fruition.

We would have been bending to the wishes of the leaders if we had launched a petition, and we would have forfeited the buy-in of the local people. We would have been following our own agenda if we had made the landfill a priority on the website, and in all likelihood the platform would have been rejected by the young people on whom it depends for survival. Even now there is no guarantee that this website will last, but one thing is certain: the participation of the people of Malika in the project and the fact that they feel that this initiative is more theirs than ours increases its chances of longevity a hundredfold.

This article was written by Anne Marie Befoune and published on the blog Elle citoyenne.

Anne-Marie Befoune is from Cameroon and has lived in Senegal, in Dakar, for four years. A freelance translator, she is also a cyberactivist and a member of the Africtivistes network, a group of African cyberactivists working for democracy.
In 2015, she set up Elle citoyenne to promote, educate and inform people about citizens' rights and obligations.
What started out as a blog has now become a participatory platform, on which the people of Africa air their views about their country.

Copyright photos : Mandione Laye Kebe