A communication training for community-leaders in Blikkiesdorp

Working in Africa means working with the community. For newcomers in Africa, it can be a rather difficult concept to grasp: ‘the community’. In our own society, the concept can be found in several settings: our household and direct family as a ‘group’, and then different groups organized by society, like a village or city, municipality or province. Yet, in Africa there are even more group connections that intervene with the constitutional group constructions; the community, based on an interesting mix of ancestry, ‘extended family’, and tribalism. The former ‘apartheid’ policy and the deeply rooted gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in South Africa further influenced the merger of a variation of communities in this country.

Although the system of apartheid has technically been out of practice for almost two decennia, the Cape region gave birth to a new, very special community some years ago: Blikkiesdorp. Cape Town was ‘cleaned’ for the World CUP Soccer in 2010 and many homeless people and beggars were simply picked up from the streets and dumped in Blikkiesdorp, built on a piece of dry land 30 Km out of Cape Town, the closest ‘attraction’ being the –for the inhabitants completely irrelevant- international airport. Apart from this attraction, Blikkiesdorp has absolutely nothing. No schools, no hospital, just endless rows of corrugated iron shelters (Blikkies) and two rusty play installations for kids.

In the start-up phase of the Ubuntu Academy, we are investigating whether we could do something for this community and in order to do that we have to get the full picture of this community’s everyday reality. Nothing could be more perfect than working together with the 12 community leaders of Blikkiesdorp, who have united themselves in the ‘Blikkiesdorp for Hope’ foundation. After two meetings, they make it clear that they would love to get a communication and presentation training. So that’s what they’ll get.

Today is the day. We play, sweat, laugh and talk together for hours. Among other things, I give them parts of a training I normally give to trainees and professors in Holland. I realise again that intelligence has many faces. These people -most of them without any form of professional education- are way faster in understanding and implementation in several areas than their University schooled peers.

One of the community leaders, Gerard, comes to me during the break. Without asking any questions, he calmly starts to explain that he things that good leadership is actually a serving job. Being ‘the boss’ isn’t about having a higher status, you have to serve your group members, leading the way and encourage them with your knowledge. This vision actually exactly contains the underlying message of my trainings, one that is often met with some resistance back home. Now I find myself here in Africa with a participant who comes up with the exact same ideas, all by himself.

After the break we continue. We work on the challenge of public speech, of claiming space for yourself, and how to work with full attention. Everyone works on their own set of pitfalls that limit them in different forms of communication. People laugh and cheer, barriers are eliminated, boundaries are pushed, timidity is defeated and we collectively decide to no longer be afraid of fear. Hurray!

Estelle approaches me at the end of the training, a small bird-like woman with intense looking eyes. She grabs my hands, looks at me and says with a soft voice: “Today, you gave me back my self-confidence”.

Then the clown of the group, Alie, a short, solid man without front teeth, starts to speak. He surprises us with a passionate elucidation that underlines the importance of ‘Love’ and it’s value compared to material assets. It are not just empty words, you can clearly see that he practices what he preaches and knows what he’s talking about in terms of love, togetherness and sharing. His speech touches us deeply.

No, I’m not romantic about Africa; I’ve worked and lived here too long. Nevertheless, I realise time after time how narrow-minded our contemporary idea of development is. How we, the West, but also in modern Africa, strive with a very limited vision for the things that we think will bring us success and happiness. And how often we feel very lonely on this quest.

Yes, we will make every effort we can to integrate Blikkiesdorp in our Ubuntu Academy and help improve this poverty-stricken community. But above all, we can conclude that the world is ready for some training in devoted intelligence & team spirit by the Blikkiesdorp community members. I would say, let’s start with the Dutch Universities.

Fre Hooft van Huysduynen



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