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Fred Mweetwa: I have a dream

INTERVIEW WITH FRED MWEETWA by Jeroen Geelhoed, &samhoud consultancy

Macha Works!
Macha, a village community in Zambia, has been transformed from a society dominated by poverty, illness, fear and lack of prospects into a healthy and enterprising one, but without sacrificing its own unique culture. In this section, Gertjan van Stam, the inspiration behind Macha Works, explains how they did it. But we start with the story of Fred Mweetwa, one of the people from the local community who make sure that Macha works. 

Fred Mweetwa
I was born and raised in the village of Macha. There was a lot of poverty. I can still remember having to go to school in my bare feet during my first year, because my parents could not afford any shoes. I also had to miss meals regularly, simply because there wasn’t any food. For my parents, it was difficult to pay my school fees every year, and after eight years I had to leave school, because we had no money. Nevertheless, I insisted on staying at school for the full period, and ultimately I managed to do so. 

I have a dream
I then more or less immediately had a dream and a vision that I wanted to fulfil in my life. Right from an early age, I was aware that there were places that were better off than us, such as our capital, Lusaka. Then I began to think about how I could help develop and improve my own community. It all started to take shape when Gertjan van Stam came to Macha. One day, I decided to pay him a visit. I told him about my dream and vision, and asked if he would be willing and able to help me. I had the idea of developing a radio station, so that the community could gain access to a major source of knowledge and information. It would be a platform that could serve as a basis for safeguarding and preserving African culture and Macha’s character. Gertjan’s initial response was to ask how he could help me. I replied that he could teach me how I could set up and manage such a radio station, so that I could do it myself.

Although everyone was very positive about my ideas, people also did not believe that it would work in Macha. Gertjan worked hard to convince people of the idea that opportunities did indeed exist. With regards to the specific ideas, like the radio station, I thought I would give it a try and see if it worked. And luckily, it did! The moment the radio station went on the air, new doors opened for the local population. The good thing that came out of it was that more and more people came forward with new ideas. I also managed to get funding for the radio station with Gertjan’s help. Particularly at the start that was not easy, but he took the risk himself and invested his own money in the radio station. This has enabled us to put our dreams and initiatives into practice.

Getting the radio station up and running has not always been an easy process. We have had various setbacks and my patience has been tested on several occasions. I lost a lot of time because of the length of the journey between Macha and the capital, Lusaka – a trip I frequently had to make in order to turn my dream into reality. I also often had to go to Murumbinda in Zimbabwe for consultations. All very time consuming. The trip from Macha to Murumbinda is comparable to that from Amsterdam to Milan, but then over sand tracks. I really had to fight to get official permission from the government to set up the radio station, so the day when that permission came through was a really special day. Everyone thought it would be impossible, but eventually it all worked out, partly as a result of the dreams and visions of the local population. We were really pleased when the radio station turned out to be a success. 

Building with people
When a dream becomes reality, it represents a big change. Suddenly, I was in charge of a start-up company. Nevertheless, I did not experience that responsibility as a burden. As soon as the radio station started up and I knew how to manage it, I began training other people from the community. When I work with other people, I make sure that I teach and train them well. That makes it easier to transfer and share your responsibilities, depending on the number of people you have trained. As a result, I have little responsibility and am primarily around to give advice, wherever necessary. At the same time, it has taught me something important – that people who are motivated are people with dreams and visions, and it is their motivation that enables them to turn their dreams into reality. Without motivated people with dreams and visions, everything would happen as it always has and there would be no room for innovative ideas or developments. It is people like this who can take the first steps in helping Africa. And that is something we have done together.

Mweetwa is now a key figure in the Macha community. He has launched an innovative and successful sunflower production company, studied via the Internet at a South African university, runs the local radio station, is a director of a communications centre and responsible for creating many jobs in his community. His dream has become reality, but he has not finished yet. His plan for the future is to seek out leaders in his community with motivation, and this is what he now fully focuses on. Ultimately, he wants to be able to transfer all responsibility to them. The next step is a television station. No doubt he has a surprise somewhere up his sleeve… However, Mweetwa’s story is just one side of the coin. Below, Gertjan van Stam talks about the methods used by his organisation, Macha Works, and there are contributions by Dick Uyttewaal, a director at Macha Works, and Peter Chevalier, who is closely involved with the organisation. 

Gertjan van Stam
It starts with you as a development worker. You have to have a calling – a personal sense of urgency or sense of excitement for something. I believe that everyone has a certain task to fulfil, so it is important to find out what it is. We are all unique and we all have a unique destiny. This also raises the issue of competition: if you feel as though you are competing, that is a sign that you are working in the wrong field, or that you are not in the right spot. If you know what your calling is, you also have the energy to get down to work, to get through the tough times and to break down barriers. It helps you stand up at decisive moments and to be a light when all around is dark. It gives you opportunities for linking up with other people. A calling always has something positive, something optimistic – and without optimism there is no energy. A calling allows you to dream, gives you a sense of excitement, gives hope and makes growth possible. It takes you into the world of the impossible.  

Life is governed by seasons, and not by minutes or seconds. By that I mean that, if you want to achieve something, you really have to take your time about it. To be precise, I am referring to a season in your life. For me, a season is the period between dream and reality. This means that you commit yourself for a long period of your life. Most development workers go to a country for a particular length of time, during which you have to complete a project, for example. Generally speaking, though, the time allocated is far too short. You need a season of your life in order to be able to really contribute something. This means that all life around you is involved, too. Your entire family, assuming you have one, of course, also has to enter into that commitment.

That is asking an awful lot! But it is certainly necessary, because it means you truly want to realise your dream. It was not that long ago that I discovered something crucial in this connection. If Africans have a feeling that a change is going to be temporary, they resist it. Anything temporary must be kept out of the community. If they believe that something is going to be permanent, they are very keen to be a part of it. Initially, Africans regard the work that development workers do as something temporary, so they do not become involved. This insight puts corruption into context, because things that are temporary must be resisted. It is only when it becomes clear that it is permanent that something stirs and people start to get involved. It is for this reason that ‘commitment for a season’ is such a basic precondition. I have even experienced a chief of a local community coming to me, and making clear that I was not welcome and being asked to leave. I replied, “I can’t – I live here.” So you see, that makes things permanent.  

Looking and modelling
Everyone therefore has their own share of personal experiences in advance of their arrival in the area where they will be working. That is the basis of your work. But what do you then when you arrive in the community that you want to help? Nobody has any wish for you to come and help. In fact, people in Africa want to help you. They don’t see you as somebody who comes to offer help, but as someone who needs it! So take a good long time looking around you. Observe things with an open mind and really try to understand what is happening.

Test your understanding by talking to people. This is an important starting point. You want to get to know the community and to gain their trust. People themselves have a very keen sense of whether someone is genuinely interested or not. Networking is crucial for picking up as much input as possible in order to become sufficiently knowledgeable and wise. There is plenty of scope in the community for that.

First open up a conversation, after which anything is possible. Once they know you, they are very eager to help you. For many westerners it goes against the grain to have to invest in relationships in this way and to take your time. After some time, I discovered that the people in Macha initially did not want to change anything, as they would later have to account for their actions to their parents and ancestors. So if you want to change anything, you have to invoke a ‘higher authority’, who will have to convince the chief and say that we should all do things in a particular way. That works. You also notice that change can be achieved through the church. This is the kind of thing you have to discover for yourself, which is why the looking-round stage is so important. In Macha, it took a year. One of the problems was malaria. In order to fight it off, you can decide to offer medication. That is one solution, but it does not solve the underlying problem. By looking carefully, by researching and by combining things, we gained an increasingly better understanding.

To deter malaria mosquitoes, something needed to be done with the houses. They had to be of better quality, with zinc roofs that kept the heat in, so that the mosquitoes would find it too warm. But the population had no money for that. They had no money because they earned too little from the products that they sold to the outside world, and they were too afraid to raise their prices because they feared that the outside world would stop buying from them, so that they wouldn’t be earning any money at all. So the basic problem was fear! And how do you overcome fear? Free information – access to the Internet, for example, and other free media! This took us to the second stage: modelling. What is the basic solution to the core problem? A sound analysis of the problem is crucial here, as is a healthy dose of creativity, in order to arrive at a basic solution. Use lessons from history or from other similar situations. Make stakeholder analyses, SWOT analyses, and think holistically all the time. In other words, this is both a highly creative and analytical stage at the same time, in which you don’t reinvent the wheel, but combine good practices and lessons from other situations.

So the first two steps you take when you are ‘in the field’ are looking and modelling. This requires a range of qualities from development workers. For example, you have to be genuinely interested and to be patient, and also able to ‘see’ by looking below the surface, and you need analytical and creative skills as well. And that’s before you’ve even started …

Share your core solution with a range of people – open up discussions with them and communicate your solution to different audiences. Then it’s a question of waiting again – waiting for someone to take you up on what you have said. It can take a long time, but someone will come eventually. If it takes a really long time, then that is when you should start to gently rock the boat, by asking more provocative questions, for example. However, you should not make waves: that is the task of the talented locals who will be volunteering. At this stage, it is important to be in contact with the right people: people with dreams. The time spent waiting is a time of expectation. It is also a season of perseverance, especially if it takes a long time before someone steps forward. And if power and authority are important in a community, then this is the time to give people the space and the mandate to exercise their calling. It is precisely at this time that you should be positive, not negative or critical!

Mentoring and bonding
Once a local has stepped forward, change can be effectuated. It is then important to put the calling and the commitment of that person to the test. You do this by asking lots of questions, but also by creating a bond with that person and by standing side-by-side with him. For example, Fred often had to travel back and forth between Macha and Murumbinda. He thought this was a waste of time, and indeed it was!

But in fact it was simply a test to see if he was really able to persevere. There are many different ways of doing things. We get someone to spend a few months mowing grass, for example, or we give someone a thousand dollars to buy something and see if he comes back with the right change. This is also a season of waiting, of biding your time. If the person in question really does turn out to be a ‘local hero’, then you set him to work and supervise him. The waiting is then over and it’s time to spring into action: time to move quickly and get straight down to practicalities. That means ensuring that a school classroom is filled with computers within a week in order for people to have lessons, for example. The difference in pace during this mentoring and bonding stage is typical of the approach that has been adopted in Macha. But of course, the people involved have to do it themselves.

In time, you become more of a mentor and coach, and that is what Macha Works is continuing to do: localising and mentoring local talent in order to help them realise their dreams. It’s a never-ending process.

You have to keep following the ‘local heroes’: where are they? Do they still have the same motives as before? Has their attitude changed? Have they started behaving differently? It can change quite markedly, in fact: people can slip back. For example, if ‘local heroes’ gain more authority, then their attitude and behaviour can change from one day to the next. We constantly keep an eye out for this and supervise them over time. You could say that it is not projects that we monitor, but people. ‘Local heroes’ are a symbol of their culture – a figure for others to look up to. If they go astray, then the consequences are far-reaching, and that has to be prevented.

Mentoring and bonding involves something else of crucial importance. You cannot do a thing if local dignitaries disapprove, so you have to create a bond with them and get them on board. One way of doing that is to always invite important people to special events, such as the opening of a building. As a development worker, you have a major role to play here. You have to be able to link up networks. We do not seek to be donors, but people who create links. You need a sort of commercial instinct: you have to know who the stakeholders are and not be afraid to approach them, to enter into discussions with them, to challenge them and to offer them something that is of value to them. You can imagine that there are big differences between the man in the street, the chiefs, the government, the donor organisations, the bishops … you have to be able to link up all of these parties.  

The final element is that you should quickly demonstrate things. You can imagine a degree of initial scepticism among the population, and that is why you must quickly show that something works. In development work this is absolutely essential. The experience that people in Africa have had with foreign delegations is that all kinds of things are promised, but ultimately very little is actually delivered. For that reason, we have to make sure that the results of our work are visible very quickly. Once a ‘local hero’ is involved, then the first visible result has to be apparent more or less immediately. That gives new energy and pride. In other words, you show it, and let people be a part of it. If a new building is opened, then we have to make a real event of it, with a chief carrying out the opening ceremony and all kinds of important people being given a role. That way, you make changes visible.

Macha shows this not only to the local community, but also to outside visitors. The results in Macha are amazing. Currently there is a hospital, a thriving university, a sunflower business, and malaria has decreased by ninety per cent. There is also hope again. As a development worker, you face tough demands during the various stages of the process. You have to ensure that something really does happen, that you can mobilise people, that you have a network that extends from the man in the street to the highest dignitary, and that you can be dogged and determined. But more than anything else, you have to be a good teacher. Helping unique people in their unique development, and demonstrating results.


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