Central African Lessons, interactions and Reflections

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Africa » Gabon
August 9th 2012
Published: August 9th 2012
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“The greatest problem with communication,” George Shaw writes, “is the illusion that it has taken place.” I had come across this quote several times in the past and, rather than understanding the core issue, I had fallen victim to its detriment – one of many of life’s self-fulfilling prophecy, I suppose.

Having started a new job less than three months ago, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the ground, my feet dirty and, frankly, to get new stamps in my passport! The opportunity presented itself rather auspiciously when, less than a couple of weeks into the new job, my new boss, Sean, asked if I would join him to Gabon to help teach a ‘Communications for Development’ workshop to a team of 9 Congolese and Gabonese Graduate students, as part of a Masters’ Program in sustainable development. I’m not sure how anyone would turn such an amazing opportunity down; but like any self-respecting new employee, I felt the need to ask a few follow up questions in order to better understand the task at hand. “So, we’ll be teaching these guys ways to become better communicators so that they can apply these lessons in the field of conservation?” Truth be told, I didn’t get very far in my Socratic inquiries before I was already at the Gabonese consulate, getting my visa processed to go to this mystical Central African country –a place which I had dreamed of going for years, having read about its rich history, its beautiful coastal landscapes and its pervasive folkloric culture. Being the only Francophone on the team, it made sense for me to go over much better-qualified colleagues who have a lot more experience in this field. Either way, I’ll take it! And off we were to Libreville, via Paris.

During the flight I read more about Gabon and was impressed with how committed the President has been to the environmental growth and preservation of the country’s biodiversity. Moreover, Gabon was poised, according to many eco-tourist professionals, to become Africa’s Costa Rica – a beacon of hope and a paradigm of change, based on solid development initiatives, for other regional countries to emulate. That’s a stretch, I thought; not to mention that the last couple of times I’ve been to Costa Rica, I’ve been turned off by the saturation of culturally-insensitive tourists (mostly North Americans) who have been flooding the country with pseudo ecological construction initiatives, all of which have been hampering the organic development of this beautiful country. I digress. Enough with these tangential diatribes, let’s get back to the other side of the world!

Landing in Libreville right around sundown, I was able to barely get a glimpse of this bustling “metropolis” (relatively speaking for a country with about 1.5 million people). We were punctually picked up by Benoit, a gregarious Gabonese driver who welcomed us with an effusive smile and a traditional handshake. With an unparalleled knowledge of the country’s roads (which are in surprisingly great condition), Benoit drove us to our destination: ‘Cap Estérias’, about 20 km north of Libreville– our home for the next 8 days. On the way there, Benoit gave us the lay of the land, telling us all about Gabonese traditions, food, music, sports and customs. We reached our humble accommodation: a basic but very nice 2 bedroom apartment where a warm meal and cold beers were waiting for us… Not a bad way to start the trip! Despite a profound feeling of lethargy and jet lag, I was too excited to retire; but alas melatonin worked its homeopathic magic and with barely enough time to slip into my mosquito net, I was out cold!

Talk about convenience… The classroom where we would teach for the entire week was a 2 minute walk from our apartment. So, a few minutes before 9 am, the next day, Sean and I made our way to meet our students who were all dressed in their distinctive uniforms, patiently awaiting our arrival, ready to get their learn on! We spent the better half of the morning getting to know each other (the first lesson of effective communication: know your audience!) This group of 9 students (6 from Gabon and 3 from Congo) which comprised the MENTOR (Mentoring for ENvironmental Training in Outreach and Resource conservation) FOREST team, had been spending the past 4 months together studying biology, ecology, economics, statistics, tropical diseases and extractive industries, among many other things. They had been complementing these courses with some practical impact studies and several visits to the Country’s National Parks. These guys knew each other really well. This was evident, as we went through the room and asked each student to introduce the person next to them rather than go with the traditional self-introductions. As part of the Master’s program, they had received presentations from a number of NGOs and industry experts throughout the past few months. The heat was on… We had to deliver and hopefully do so in a way that will add value to the already impressive curriculum.

I was quickly taken back to George Shaw’s words and made a solemn promise to myself to be mindful of the important nuanced process of communicating as we’d go through the week’s agenda. Communications, I insisted, is a two way street and the reaction is just as important as the action. Before diving right into the methodology and the content of our agenda, we underlined the importance of understanding what the class, as a group, wanted to get out of the week. The great thing about communication is its malleable application to practical settings (speaking engagements, interviews, oral presentations, or simple group discussions). This was the future of Central Africa’s conservation leadership, and so it was important for each to be master communicators in their field to be able to articulate the various issues, needs and initiatives undertaken from the grassroots all the way to the policy level, in the various fields of sustainable development. This realization was further cemented by the student’s unequivocal desire to focus more on practical communications application rather than spending too much time learning the theory. “More doing and less writing” is the way they put it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my ephemeral experience as a teacher is that if you want to get your message across, you have to be sure that the students are engaged. The more interactive the lessons, the better… This may seem like basic teaching 101 to anyone reading this, but for me, it was an important and practical realization. And so it was in that spirit that we framed the agenda for the week – light on the power point presentations and heavy on the practice (oral presentations, mock up interviews, designing ad campaigns and tons of group work).

We split the group into 3 teams, each of which would be responsible for preparing a group presentation on the topic of their choice. This final presentation would ultimately represent the majority of their final grade; the rest would be complemented by a written exam and their overall level of participation throughout the week. The presentation topics were as varied as the means by which each group chose to present. We made it clear that as long as they defined who their target audience was at the beginning, each group was free to use the platform of their choice to present (power point, sketch, documentary, press conference, etc…) The other essential component was that each presentation had to contain a clear call to action (some sort of behavioral change concept which was to be translated into a clear objective). Group 1 chose to present on the MENTOR Forest Program, appealing to donors and insisting that they help fund this program for future generations in order to sustain the biodiversity of the Congo basin for years to come. Group 2 chose to focus on emerging diseases linked to endangered wildlife consumption; and group 3 chose transitional “buffer zone” and its impact on the future of conservation efforts in the region. From that list, I began to wonder who was going to be doing the teaching and who would be the students?!

And that’s precisely what made that week magical – the symbiotic (see how I used a science term there) nature and organic (I’m on a roll here) connection between teachers/students. We taught them a thing or two about communication and they taught us TONS about this beautiful part of the world and their expertise as a way to preserve it. We often say that communications is a two way tool and that its power and impact lie in the ability to balance speaking and listening. I can’t overemphasize just how important this is and my experience with the MENTOR fellows this past week has really validated it. I don’t know many teachers who can walk away from a class having learned as much as I did in the process. That’s yet again another great asset about the power of communication.

We had a really productive week, with a number of fun exercises sprinkled throughout it, all of which were punctuated with light targeted lessons on communications for development theory. The students designed a turtle presentation ad campaign; they interviewed each other, they simulated a press conference, put together a play that they wrote, acted and directed! We culminated the week with the much-anticipated presentations which were nothing short of stellar! Each group had invested a great deal of time, energy, creativity and passion into these presentations (a video documentary, theater sketch and power point). At the risk of sounding overly-sappy, I am incredibly proud of their achievements and can confidently say that if this is any indication of the caliber of Central Africa’s leadership, then I’d say we’re in good hands and the future looks bright!

We finally bid goodbye to the students, who had become good friends by now, and made our way back to Libreville. We spent the weekend checking out a nearby eco-tourist park, where I got to see my first elephant in the wild! It was also a great way to relax on the beach for a day and reflect on the week, while assessing each student’s performance. The following week, we had a series of meetings in Libreville with many of the country’s key players. Each meeting validated the idea that there is so much potential for us to set up a long-running program here in Gabon. The country is uniquely positioned in terms of its commitment to biodiversity/conservation as well as its hunger for good television. And with a devoted group of partners behind us, it will only be a matter of time until we’re back to this magnetic part of the world – a country rich in diversity and flooded with natural beauty which is only surpassed by the generous and affable personalities of the people who call it home.

I now find myself on the third leg of what seems to be an endless journey back home from Libreville to Los Angeles, by way of Paris and New York. With so many take offs and landings along the way, it’s hard not to fall victim to George Shaw’s warning that this trip, centered around the many lessons of “communication” has indeed “already happened.” But this is really only the beginning. The many conversations, interactions and reflections along the way have served to lay the foundation for more: deeper friendships and deeper engagement from a number of connections we’ve made along the way – too many to list. As my tired body and jet-lagged brain make their way through several time zones, I think back to one particular Central African quote which I had heard during one of the final students’ presentation: “On ne se lave pas le visage avec un seul doigt mais avec les cinqs doigts de la main” … “You cannot wash your face with only one finger, but with all five of your hand.” Though there is no doubt that I’ll need more than one full hand to clean up after these long hours of traveling, across three continents, I am eternally grateful for the countless lessons I’ve taken away from this memorable trip and the many friendships I’ve made along the way. I am blown away with the central African kindness and generosity and the selfless way everyone welcomed and treated us. Ironically, I came there to teach, but I’m pretty sure that, in the end, I’ve come away having learned more. So yes, communication is most certainly a two way road – a long winding road that is far from ending any time soon!

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9th August 2012
No need for electricity when you have natural equatorial light!

amazing shot

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