A journey to discover the people who change our world.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Once in a blue-ish bloom

Once every 12 years the delicate blooms of the rare Kurunji plant flaunt their flair on the high hills of Munnar in Kerela. The slopes become carpeted with a blue-ish tint, and crowds ascend the heights to bear witness to the rarity.
Arriving into Kerela my timing was unplanned, but perfect, so I decided to take a detour to east to have a chance to see the blooms. True, they were very special, but so too the amazing views surrounding the hill station of Munnar, as thick lush forest winds its way into tea plantations, their verdant green adding a brightness, order and clarity to the rolling hills. The air too was crisp and cool, making a welcome break from the heat and humidity of the lowlands. My lungs feel new again, and the detour has given me fuel to motor on.

Balance, but not Validity.

‘You have balance, but you have no validity’.

This was said to me in all sincerity. Out of context, I could have been very offended. Given the situation however, I was thankful for the clarity. What am I on about? Mobile phone tariffs.

I’ve been learning a lot about since starting out on my travels. In each new country I buy a local SIM card and set myself up with a number. It means I’m more flexible, independent and can more easily get directions if I get lost on my way an interview. But at this stage, I could do a comparative study of operator arrangements across the continents. India is the most confusing to date. Numbers are sold on a regional basis. So when I bought my cards in Mumbai, it means when I travel out of there I am roaming, a convenient but more costly setup. Along with call credit, I also have to buy phone validity on a monthly basis, which keeps the card active. To get the SIM in the first place, I also had to present my passport, visa and have a passport photo at hand. Finally, when all was set up, and I got the number, I end up getting about five spam text messages and automated phone calls a day.

Oh well, it is all an education, and at least I am indeed, mobile.

A Recommended Read

I have been engrossed and in love over the last while, with one and the same thing. A book by the name of Shantaram.

It is book which has changed the way I think, feel and act towards this country, and is one which I know I will internally carry with me for a very long time yet.
Written by Gregory David Roberts, an Aussie escaped convict, who ran to the streets of Mumbai for cover, it is a story which sweeps you immediately into the underbelly of the city, into the crime, into the slums, into the mafia and almost in contradiction, into the heart of what makes the place tick; the unrelenting, uninhibited spirit of the people, their resilience, grace and charm. It also takes you inside the dirt and shame of a Mumbai prison, where Roberts did time, and into Afghanistan, where he fought with the Mujahedeen, and ultimately into his love for a woman and the city.

Each page is littered with eloquent prose and snatches of wisdom.

For anyone who wants an insight into Mumbai, I can not recommend it enough. For anyone who just likes a good read, read it. And for anyone who wants to be swept away into another world, this is pretty much a guaranteed magic carpet.

Enjoy the ride.

Sparking Growth- Meet Sheela Patel

Sitting with Sheela Patel, the founder of SPARC in her offices deep in the whirl of Mumbai, sitting back and sipping a cup of chai, she let the story of SPARC unfold.

To Sheela and SPARC there are a few acknowledgements which have to be made. Firstly that the slums are growing. Fast. It’s not just the result of rural migration, but the slum population itself is in its second, third or forth generation. And growing.

Next. The slums have to be acknowledged for what they are. Communities which are contributing to the economy and deserve the legal recognition of their existence (many currently are ‘unofficial’, which means residents have little security or land rights).

Next. That those same communities should have an equal say in how their community should develop and grow and this means really acting on what ‘partnership’ really means. Sheela would agree that partnership in much development speak is lip service. Organisations say they ‘partner’ with their communities but do not really understand or respond to the community needs, especially when the risks of doing so for their own organisation is high.

This really is the crux of Sparc. ‘There is a big gap between saying that you want to partner, and actually doing it’, said Sheela. She finds that after 3 or 4 years most NGOs are afraid to take risks, whereas most poor peoples lives are full of risks. Too often, Sheela believes, the interests of the institution are put before the interests of the constituency that they serve. For SPARC it has taken nearly thirty years to build relationships with the slum communities, to build the trust which is required for the change to occur but that is how long it has taken to now do what they do.

And what to they do? Many things. Mainly SPARC acts in an advocacy role for the slum communities, representing their needs and rights to government. They have been pushing for land rights reform, pressing for tenancy agreements within the slum, so that dwellers can invest in housing and infrastructure, and so have ‘security nets’ to fall back on. What you need to secure those nets though, Sheela explained to me, ‘is large numbers of people, working over a long period of time’. Which is where SPARC comes in, acting as a catalyst to bring a collective voice together; those large numbers Sheela talked about, and not being afraid if this takes time.

The idea behind SPARC was to share the risks with the slum dwellers, and always maintain their relevance to the needs of the communities their partner with. “The question was, can we put the skill sets of what poor people have when they survive in such difficult circumstances’, explained Sheela, ‘and can we match them to the skills sets we have, so we can produce a complementary set of skills sets that can push this process beyond where it is, to transform this”.

Sheela summarised. ‘So the process is how to form the partnership, and how to form strategies and mechanisms for people to stay organised over a long period of time, because you just don’t get tenure in two years.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

And then the rains came, and continued

Just when you think the rain can not get heavier, it does.

Random Encounters

So there I was, sitting in a dingy internet shop on a back street of Mumbai, when I hear a voice, ‘Is that Clare Mulvany?’. Low and behold there was Arron Kennedy, a friend of mine from Ireland who I had not seen or heard from in about four years. Last I had heard, he was running a computer shop in Cavan, but no, he is living in Mumbai, studying to be a Montessori teacher.

Meeting up was fantastic. I got introductions to some of his classmates, and was able to gain some insight into what college life is like here. Plus it happened to be Arron’s birthday and I was able to tag along to his party. I even got a jiving lesson!

Gosh, it is indeed a small, oddly connected, wonderful world

Dasra- Fortifier of Deeds

Deval Sanghavi was born to India parents in the States, and Neera, to Indian parents, in Canada. India was a distant cousin to them growing up; rooted with their relatives there, but living the American Dream. After college both went on to work on Wall Street, in Investment Banking and Mergers and Acquisitions. Deval was dealing with venture capital funds, seeing what could be done with strategic investments, and seeing some make significant financial returns.

But there was something nagging, and it was the question of how to apply venture capital thinking to the social sector, in India. The question only got louder with time and led Deval to return to India to set up a social capital investment fund, one of the first of its kind in India, mostly backed by wealthy Indians in the USA.

Overtime though Deval realised that the money which organisations received was only a small part of what was valuable about their offering. The coaching and human resource development components were equally valued. And so emerged Dasra, an organisation Deval co-founded with his wife Neera.

‘Dasra means ‘doing wonderful deeds’ in Sanskrit, explained Deval. ‘You have so much funds going into the non-profit sector, but very few organisations are built to provide hands on assistance to these organisations. In end, it is human resources which really run an organisation, and if you can strengthen human resources you can make a lasting impact in the sector. Our role basically is to help the organisations think about their work in a more effective manner’.

Dasra bring management and field staff together to help improve the way they work, communicate and strategise. They also work with donors to help them understand the needs of the beneficiary organisations more clearly and make use of the reports and information which is generated within the field. ‘The information is there it is just not used properly’, said Deval, in an exasperated tone’. Dasra though aim to bridge the gap- between donor, organisations, communities and beneficiaries.

Given the fact that it was one of Dasra’s clients who recommended that I speak with Deval, I took it as a solid reference for the strength of their work.

I didn’t get a chance to meet up with Neera on this occasion. She is heavily pregnant, with twins, and was otherwise occupied. I wish both Neera and Deval well in the coming weeks as their family expands!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Silence Zone

Whizzing, hurtling, through the alleyways of Mumbai in a taxi, horns blaring, pedestrians scrambling, I laughed loudly at the following;

‘CAUTION. You are entering SILENCE ZONE’.

Thing is, it was no more silent than a rock concert.

So, since when has silence become a danger?

Well in this city silence takes on a new meaning. It is a rarity here, almost an abnormality in the way the city functions. The noise is incessant. The sheer mass of people on the move create a rock concert all of their own. Car horns are constant, but are used not in insult or anger, but as warnings of approach, or indicators, or simply as greetings. In this city the noise just part of the function.

So yes, if I did come to a place which was silent, I too would be cautious, asking myself, ‘What is wrong?’

Mumbai Squeeze

This place, this place. The sheer size of it at times overwhelms.
Take these for numbers (I have been told them from various people, so don’t takes them as a given.. but I reckon they are pretty close)

18 million inhabitants.. give or take a few million, no one really knows.
6 million living in the slums.. give or take a few million, no one really counts.

I have been warned not to travel in rush hour, for I may end up very squashed, and very lost. This is why.
6 million people travel on the trains each day. There are only two main lines into the city.. In a nine carriage train, about 5000 people push in. Do the maths per carriage; that is a very tight squeeze. Not all make it. There are more deaths from people falling off the trains each year, than they have been in all the terrorist attacks in India.

But it is not only the trains which are packed. There are a lot of building here and on average there are 4.7 inhabitants per room.

Then there are the cars, and rickshaws, and taxis, and buses, and carts, and bikes, and trucks..

I ask myself, can they really all fit into this place.

I am not sure how, but somehow they do. Tightly.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

And it all came crumbling down...

(Above, a group looking on in shock, just behind where the building had fallen).

Arriving back to the Meljol offices, in the city of Thane just north of Mumbai, a huge crowd had gathered, and dust was everywhere. The crowd was on edge and nervous, - understandably so, since the building directly in front of the Meljol offices had just ten minutes before... collapsed. All five storeys of it.

From what we were told, no one was inside at the time, but it was hard to really know. The fire brigade had arrived and were searching the rubble. The residents had been warned six months ago that it was likely to happen.

Apparently, this is a common occurrence in the city. The buildings are not maintained, and the city, literally, is crumbling.

Scary, very scary stuff.

Meljol- bringing things together!

, (‘coming together’), is an organisation which promotes child rights and responsibilities, bringing children and teachers from different casts and backgrounds together to understand each other and share common experiences.

Through their ‘Aflatoon Programme’, children’s camps and teacher training programmes are organised to promote rights issues. Meljol have also produced a series of children’s books and teacher training manuals around the issues of child rights, using the character of ‘Aflatoon’, a fireball from outerspace, to explain the concepts!

In the schools, Meljol also helps to set up 'Aflatoon Banks', child savings groups in which children are encouraged to save whatever money they can. For some this may only be a rupee or two, but over time, this accumulates and can be used to buy school materials or go on class outings. The concept has really been taking off, and through the saving schemes the children are learning the importance of budgeting and financial management. What’s more, their parents are also learning, and so it is having a knock on effect in the communities. When parents see what their children are able to do with their saving, it encourages them also to plan and manage their finances.

I went to visit one of the schoolsm, Gunj Budhavli Ashram School (An Ashram school is an boarding school), in a rural area about 2 hours drive north of Mumbai, to see the set up of the schools and talk to the teachers and pupils about the banks.
I received an amazing welcome, and I seemed to be somewhat of a novelty. The children sang and danced for me, and in return I was asked to Irish dance, and sing… mmmm, embarrassing! But when travelling, sometimes you just have to go with the flow, and this time the flow meant joining in and making a bit of a fool of myself.

Of the 400 pupils in the school, 87 pupils are involved in the saving scheme (which has be running for less than a year)- they are 87 kids who will learn key skills, and which will impact on their families. They sure know how to welcome too!

The Man who Experiments.

Rajiv Vartak has been able to combine two of his great loves- science and questioning- into a programme which is showing alternative ways to approach science and environmental education.

He is a man who love to experiment. When I arrived to meet him, in a school deep in the heart of the city, he had a series of little experiments laid out to demonstrate; ones with magnets, balloons, water basins and electric circuits. I really felt like I was stepping into one of his educational sessions.

Rajiv, frustrated with the rote learning style of teaching which is all to common in this country, and bothered by the lack of questioning which takes place in educational environments, set about designing a programme for the reform of science teaching.

In Mumbai he and a team of teachers run extra classes for students. But for the average Indian student they are no ordinary classes. Instead of being told to memorise, they are encouraged to question and probe into why the world works in the way it does. Rajiv and his team have over 2000 experiments which they can conduct with the pupils in interactive and fun ways.

In the south of the province, Ravij also runs a mobile lab, a truck which tours schools in the region- bringing experiments and exploratory learning to the pupils, and a full time team which travels with it.

To Rajiv, it is about encouring curiosity. He has two kids of his own, and my suspicion is that they too have a lot of questions!

Rallying the Rag Pickers

Shree Mukti Sanghatana (Women’s Liberation Movement), was established by Jyoti Mhapsekar just over 30 years ago, and was one of the first women’s organisations in India. They now run a whole series of programmes, targeting the poor, aimed to improve the conditions of women in Mumbai.

One such programme is Parisar Vikas, a waste management programme, which employs women rag pickers, aiming to get them a fair price for the waste they collect, while both improving their working conditions and combating the huge waste problem in the city.

A series of recycling plants, composting plants and bio-gas production plants have been established, through which a ‘zero waste’ ideology is espoused. They have the support of the local municipal corporation, which also back the zero waste movement- calling on all households to separate their wet and dry waste materials. This is not always complied with, and so, when I visited the bio gas plant, I found of a group of women having to sort through the rubbish.

It is difficult, unpleasant work, and admittedly my stomach turned when visiting the dumps. Seeing people rummaging through them barefooted, scrambling for what may make them a few rupees, is not a pretty sight.

However, for the women who work in the recycling plants, a steady income is guaranteed, and their health and working conditions are better. There they have the support of a community, and can also link into Shree Mukti Sanghatana’s other programmes, including a counselling service and micro-finance initiatives.

Jyoti emphasised that from the start it has been a huge team effort to keep the organisation running, and growing, and without the dedication of the team, nothing would have happened.

Jyoti, who worked for many years as a librarian, is also a playwright and songwriter, and much of the organisation’s funding has come through drama productions of her plays, which have toured considerably. The biographical notes for one of her plays, ‘A Girl is Born’, reads as follows;
‘Jyoti Mhapsekar is a librarian by profession and a women’s movement activist by choice’.

Her choices means that women are being given a chance, and the structure to improve their own conditions, and the environment are being forged.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Mumbai Musings

There is an energy and life in Mumbai which is distinctive and certainly very different to the Africa I have just travelled through. It is a whirl and frenzy of stimuli which refuses to settle. Everytime I step outside, I don’t know what to expect. The smells change. The heats changes. The atmosphere changes. I am acutely aware of the fact that I have only just arrived, and it is like standing on the edge of a vast, deep, turbulent, dynamic lake. I’m only dipping my toe in at the moment, paddling around, testing the waters. But I know, clearly and surely, that there is so much more. Everywhere.
The history of this place is ancient, the religion integrated. It plays out on street corners. Like how dried flowers and herbs adorn architraves. How little shrines appear, everywhere, decked in layers of colour and flash garlands, candles and offerings.

This morning, a cup of chai- a sweet, milky, spicy concoction which bubbles in steel pots on street corners. I chat with the other people who share in the daily practice. It is beginning to become more familiar.

This city is wealth and poverty in a single glance. Today, one moment I was playing a game of firecrackers with a group of street children, and the next, I find myself walking through a fancy pancy courtyard, rimmed with exclusive boutiques and jewellers. I can walk through worlds here. I may stick out like a very sore thumb, but the access is odd. Which world will it be next? Wait, let me have a look around.

Welcome to India!

What hits first? The heat.
It comes to slap you in the face like a shout. Very soon, the half a litre bottle of water you were saving is gone, and you can almost wring your clothes out.
Welcome to India.

What next? The colour.
Saris, flapping pink, gold, blue, green, everything, in long sleek strands. They are prayer flags. They are bunting. They wave high and bright. The women wrapped in rainbows.
Welcome to India.

What then? More colour.
A swarm of black and yellow taxi cabs. They are buzzing for fares. There is a herd of them, a hive of them. Pity my driver couldn’t find his keys. He looked in the same pocket about 20 times. He was a Sikh. Eventually he found them in his turban.
Welcome to India.

We made our way though the city. It is familiar. It is new. Rickshaws are permitted on the outskirts, whittling at speed (or as fast as their little engines permit) through the taxis. The taxis still going for it. Cyclists braving it. Pedestrians taking a very big chance.

There are lines painted on the motorway to give the option of lanes, but they seem very optional. The ‘lanes’ morph and blend. Three cars. Five cars. Five cars, a bus and a bicycle. Noise.

I looked around. Soaking it in. Thinking ahead. There is no doubt about it. I am here. Welcome to India!

Wired to the Streets

The offices of Streetwires are a creative, colourful domain. On the ground floor, a workshop, where teams of artists bend, mould and bead wire into the most amazing transformations. On the first floor, a design team, where more experienced and skilled artists get to innovate new designs and styles. Beside them, a shop, where products are displayed and sold. Beside that again, a team of administrators and marketing personnel who keep the business motoring.

In between all of that you will find Patrick Schofield, co-founder of Streetwires, a man with an incredible mind and heart, who has poured his passion and business acumen into making the whole thing happen, keeping it going, and making it work.

It has been six years in the making. What started out as a team of 3, now is in excess of 150. In that time, Streetwires has helped to rejuvenate the whole wire art industry and put a quality stamp on their work.

Patrick explained the evolution of the business idea to me.

‘Streetwires was started when myself and a good friend, Douglas, were looking at the preservation of African culture through music, developing a concept called Ipi Africa. An arm of that was to look at social development around music. One of the wire artists around Cape Town had become friendly with Douglas, and had started making wire radios- a little electronic circuit around a wire beaded frame. Douglas came running to me and said, “you have to see this, this is incredible. It links in so well with what we want to do with culture, coming though craft, though music”.

I had seen what extraordinary effects craft had had in the development of Zimbabwe (where Patrick is from). Zimbabwe was initially a fairly segregated society, and as tourism developed, I saw how craft became a major income generator and a way of bringing traditional heritage into contemporary society, and, in that way was preserving cultural heritage. That linked into what we had been looking at on the music side, and we realised how craft could do that as well. Looking at what the street artists were doing, I saw huge potential for bringing in those traditional craft influences into society, where you can create contemporary craft and generate sustainable income for people living in today’s world”.

Streetwires now employs local workers from the townships, and provides an environment in which they can earn a steady income- and develop a sense of community. The business is a platform to showcase and nurture talent in the townships, and in return each artist gets a fair price for each piece that they produce. Those with talent are encouraged to develop it. On the day after I arrived in Cape Town, I was taken to an exhibition where Streetwire artists were given central stage- and rightly so. Their work is outstanding.

Patrick talks enthusiastically about his work, and is always looking for new ideas. The entrepreneurial streak has been in him for early on, starting his first business, a local ‘what’s on’ magazine at the age of 22. Along the way he learned core skills; management, leadership, and essentially, delegation. I have seen him at work- he let’s those with the creative talent get on with it, those with marketing flair get on it with. All the while he keeps business ideas coming in, and an eye on finances.

I stayed with Patrick while in Cape Town, and was blown away by his generosity, kindness and the friendship that he extended- and am very grateful for his hospitality.

Thanks Padraig (he’ll hate me for calling him that!)

Talent to Bank On

It was an early meeting with Soloman. 8am in a small café in Cape Town. He was running off to a meeting, and I was running to catch a plane. But I was really glad we had a chance to cross paths.

Soloman is a warm, open, charismatic individual from the township of Khayelitsha, just outside Cape Town. He speaks with such enthuaism that the café nearly took flight. He told me about his ventures.

“I am working in a place which translates as ‘the place of knives’. When the place was just established somebody was stabbed and killed. Khayelitsha is a working class area with very little opportunities for people to have access to resources. And so we are working there to try and change people’s mindsets. To begin to look at the resources within and between themselves, instead of looking outside of the place. We can bring about change ourselves, and change can not be brought by depending on outsiders”.

To do so, Soloman has established a number of initiatives. He is running a ‘community college’ which supports community leaders and develop their skills. They look at models outside of South Africa and try to apply them to their own development. Models in Brazil, for example, or other regions in Africa.

Also, through the Community Networking Forum, he links a number of families together in a region, to share their resources and begin to rely on each other more. Every 150 houses are divided into four ‘family units’. Each family unit then has a different project; it could be brick making, it could be chicken rearing.

‘It is community building’ Soloman elaborates, ‘because currently the backyards are dividing people. People are in an ‘I’ and ‘myself’ mode, so we are trying to turn this around, and breakdown the barriers’.

Soloman also runs a community talent bank in which people can register their abilities. These are then pooled as needed, and skills exchanged. It may be as simple as making a cup of tea but the aim is to show the everyone has the ability to contribute to change in their community. There is even a restaurant which runs on talents- where people offer skills in return for a meal!

I did not have a chance to attend the restaurant, but would love to, one day.

Super Nun!

The Irish Missionaries have a long relationship with Africa, and Ireland is held in high regard by many as a result. By virtue of my birth, I am often associated with their work while travelling through, so it seemed appropriate that I meet up with a missionary on my way to learn a little more. Sr. Margo Mulvey was to be it, a contact from a friend of a friend back home.

I am ashamed say I had a rather tainted preconceived image of who I was going to meet, formed from my catholic schooling during my primary years. I was expecting a habit. I was expecting flat, dark, boring shoes. And I am very sorry to say, I was expecting a closed mind. I am very happy to say however that every single preconception was blasted away, powerfully. What I met was not a habit wearing, habit formed nun, but a dynamic, caring, energetic, delight of a woman, who wears bright red shoes. Sr Margo, aka, Super Nun!

Sr Margo is starting up a new organisation, St Kiziti Children’s Programme, alongside Bukeka Bikwani, a former principle at a primary school, which seeks to support vulnerable children and orphans in Khayelitsha, one of the townships outside of Cape Town. Rather than tell me all about their work, they decided to show me, by taking me around Khayelitsha for an afternoon, introducing me to some of the people they work with. Accompanying us was ‘Mr. Big’(I am not sure if this is his actual name!), a big man, with a big heart. He is the caretaker in the local church, but in his ‘spare’ time, he acts, very very effectively as a local social worker. I got to see him in action.

We visited a number of homes. One was the home of three orphaned boys. The eldest was 16, the next 15, and the youngest 10. Both their parents died last year, and they have been struggling to cope since. The eldest took it the worst, and Mr. Big told me he has since gone into a state of shock. The middle boy, by default, is left to keep the family together.

There are resources within the community, but often young children do not know how to access them. St Kiziti intervene by trying to link them up to resources. It could be with a school, a crèche, a community gardening programme, or a clinic; but they are there to act as a guide, supporting the children through very vulnerable times.

In the case of these three boys, it was largely around the basics. How to manage the home, how to access school resources, how to cook. The place literally was a shambles, and Sr Margo and Mr. Big were discussing with the boys how to maintain the property. I saw the reaction of these boys to the presence of support. It was genuine, it was welcomed.

I’m really grateful to Sr. Margo for taking me under her wing for the afternoon. It blew away some of my own cobwebs, and got me to question, to think, to reframe. Not only about my impressions of missionary workers, but also my impressions of Cape Town. I left Khayelitsha angry that afternoon; questioning how a resourced country can create such an under resourced community. It left me questioning the future of those three boys, and the many more like them.

I think such questions, and a decent dose of anger is necessary. It is fuel, to continue.

Documentaries with a Difference- Meet Nicky Newman

Nicky Newman. Filmmaker. Producer. Editor. Distributor. Storyteller. Juggler!
Nicky, who runs a production company called See Thru Media, is refreshing and delightful. Her eyes sparkle. Her ideas sparkle. I say ‘juggler’ because she is managing 15 concurrent filmmaking projects at the moment, and talks about each with passion and purpose.

One project, for example, is training a group of young new filmmakers who are about to shoot a series of documentaries about gender violence. Another project, is a documentary about a young American girl, Ellen, who is working in the townships in Cape Town and helping to set up an orphanage. She is also planning a series of training films about self defence- coaching young girls and women in how to protect themselves against attack.

The list goes on, enthusiastically.

I asked Nicky whether she always wanted to go into documentary making. Turns out, that film making was not some grand plan. When deciding what course to do at university, she ran her fingers down a list of entry options, and stopped at journalism. While at Rhodes University in the 80s, in the height of the apartheid years, she learned what it was like to have a stills camera strapped to her hip, and the constraints of the media.

“Rhodes was one of the most political hotspots in the country, and I had my eyes rapidly opened’, she told me. ‘I started the course and realised that you can’t actually do anything. So I got involved with the whole left movement there. The student newspaper was very leftie and was one of the only publications in the whole of Grahamstown that could really say anything. It had quite a real voice. So I got a crash course in how to take a picture from your hip and smuggle the film out; that kind of stuff! Now ten, twenty years later, I am still trying to shrug some of that off!’

Her first venture into filmmaking was for her honour thesis, a film about eating disorders. It started being shown in eating disorder clinics and in universities, then got into a film festival, and ‘just started to travel’. ‘That little film took me almost around the world’, Nicky recalls.

She hasn’t stopped since. And long may she continue!

Connectors and Connections

My meeting with Don Edkins was a great example of how social networks are so powerful, useful and interesting; and how I can do what I do.

I was introduced to Don by Kim Harte, a manager at Streetwires, who used to work with him at the production company, Day Zero. I was introduced to Kim by Patrick Schofield, who is the co-founder of Streetwires, and who I was staying with while in Cape Town. Patrick also introduced me to Marisa, a young talented woman, who is working with the filmmaker Nicky Newman. Marisa put me in touch with Nicky, who I interviewed.

It turns out that Nicky also directed one of Don Edkins films in the Steps project. Turns out also that Don knows the people I stayed with in Dar es Salaam, John and Louise Riber, well. Don has also put me in touch with a number of filmmakers in India, who I can meet up with while there and Nicky in turn has put me in touch with a network of women filmmakers around the world (IAWRT).

In a nice reciprocal twist of connections, I also met with a friend of Patrick’s, Micheala Howse, who is an incredible photographer and interested in getting into documentary making. So, because I have been fortunate to meet such people along the way, I now can put Micheala in touch with Nicky.

This world is so connected! I love it!

Films for a Future

Don Edkins is a documentary film producer who makes films with a social edge; good films. Over the last few years, he and his film production companies, Day Zero and Steps to the Future, have made a series of films relating to HIV/ Aids. To do so they search out local filmmakers, to make local stories. For Don, it is important that his films get social messages across, without being prescriptive. It is about people telling their own stories, in their own ways.

Across Southern Africa, his team hunted down stories which highlight both the gravity and the humour of the HIV crisis- from how condoms are used as football fillers in Mozambique, to the life story of Zachie Achmat, founder of Treatment Action Society, one of the leading HIV/ Aids advocacy organisations in South Africa (interestingly, Zachie is also an Ashoka Fellow. On the day I tried to contact him, I turned on the news, only to see that he had been arrested for his advocacy work. Crazy!)

To accompany the films Steps to the Future was launched; an organisation which supports an education and distribution campaign around the films, to get them seen and discussed by as many people as possible. Mobile cinemas have been touring the region, broadcasting the films in schools, hospitals, education centres and prisons. The ‘characters’ in the films also frequently travel to the showings, facilitating discussion and responding to the often sensitive questions and comments which arise.

In addition to all of this, Steps has a training of trainers programme in place- teaching teams of facilitators how to work with the films and importantly manage the conversations which can arise. In all the films are acting as platforms for further debate, probing into the real issues, telling real stories.

Don’s next big project is on the theme of Democracy. He is producing a series of films from all around the world, which will be based on the theme, and screened simultaneously. I’ll be keeping my eye out for them. I suggest you do too!