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Sylff: Making a Significant Difference to Early Childhood Development in South Africa

September 19, 2019
By 25517

Sylff fellow Louis Benjamin has been proactively engaged in early childhood development in his home country of South Africa through the Basic Concepts Program. Developed by Benjamin, who has incorporated the contexts of the South African educational system into education for preschool and early primary school students in disadvantaged communities, the Basic Concept Program undertakes “a structured metacognitive intervention approach for educators to address language, learning, information processing and socio-emotional barriers in young children, particularly from disadvantaged communities” (quoted from the Basic Concepts Unlimited website: http://www.basicconcepts.co.za/about/about). Benjamin believes in the immense potential of early educational intervention for children in disadvantaged communities, which generates lasting impact on their motivation for learning, thereby contributing to their higher educational achievement for better career opportunities. Benjamin has received a Sylff Project Grant (SPG) to disseminate the Basic Concepts Program in the Northern Cape, one of the poorest provinces in South Africa. Over the three years of the SPG period and beyond, Benjamin is trying to achieve his vision to provide the program to all preschool and early primary school children through workshops and follow-ups for school teachers of the province.

* * *

I am most honored to have been awarded a Sylff Project Grant for the next three years. The funding will be used to implement an early years intervention program for children run by class teachers in the Northern Cape, South Africa. The program is called the Basic Concepts Program (BCP) and aims to improve both teaching and learning in the preschool years and first three years of formal schooling. The BCP was developed by me during my PhD degree at the University of the Western Cape, which was generously funded by Sylff.

I am a native of the Northern Cape. I grew up and was educated in the diamond town of Kimberley, a town well known for its Big Hole dating back to the Diamond Rush at the turn of the twentieth century. It is therefore no surprise that I was drawn back to the province that holds my earliest and most precious memories. The Northern Cape is the largest province in the country but is also the most sparsely populated. Although it is endowed with many mineral deposits, the Northern Cape is one of the poorest and least developed provinces. More than half the population in the province lives in abject poverty (Statistics South Africa [Stats SA], Poverty Trends in South Africa, 2017). Research has shown that children from poor socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to fare poorly at school and/or drop out and have poor educational and vocational opportunities (as cited in the OECD Report Equity and Quality in Education, 2012), and the Northern Cape is no exception. Although approximately 87% of children attend school, only 1.5% attain a tertiary qualification (Stats SA, 2016). The Northern Cape has the second highest (28%) illiteracy rate in South Africa (Stats SA, 2016).

A map of South Africa, with the Northern Cape in red.

The Big Hole, Kimberley.

There is a critical need to improve these educational outcomes if children in the province are to break out of the poverty cycle. The focus of the current project is to give children who are starting school a preparatory boost to ensure that they are able to learn successfully when they receive formal instruction and are taught how to read, write, and calculate. The research data we have gathered over the years (2008–2018) show that the majority of learners who start school are very poorly prepared for school learning. These children without exception come from moderately to severely deprived living circumstances and consequently have limited exposure to the kind of early childhood experiences that would have prepared them for formal, higher-order school learning.

What Is the Basic Concepts Program?

In the BCP, there is a focus on both the development of cognitive processes, such as accurate perception, matching, comparing, classifying, seriation, perspective taking, and conservation (Figure 1), and the expansion of understanding of conceptually structured content (Figure 2). The content of the BCP includes the following higher-order conceptual domains: color, shape, size, position, number, and letter and their associated subordinate concepts. These concepts are used to mediate the cognitive processes in the program and are particularly important for children who have not had adequate early childhood educational experiences or who start school with deficient language abilities. The BCP thus provides the classroom teacher with an extensive higher-order conceptual language for instruction that is easily transferrable and linked to the curriculum.

Figure 1

Figure 2

In addition, the Concept Teaching Model (Figure 3) provides a detailed, systematic scaffold for mediators of the program. While the program was developed as a cognitive intervention program, it can also be run in the mainstream classroom to improve teaching and learning. Teachers are trained and assisted to run the program with small groups of learners who need intervention, but in Grade R (Reception Year) the program is used as a curriculum and is run with all learners. While the teacher works with one group on the mat inside, the other learners work on related activities in rotation. The teacher works with each group for approximately 15 minutes and sets aside around 60 minutes per day to run the BCP sessions.

Figure 3

The Northern Cape Province was one of the first provinces to introduce the BCP. I in fact started my work in the province while I was still busy with my PhD. I conducted a trial of the program in the Namaqua Education District in collaboration with the Rural Namaqualand Education Trust (RNET), starting our work in a small cluster of schools before expanding to around 80 Grade R classes.

The results of the initial pilot projects were recognized by the Northern Cape Department of Education, which wanted to extend the program and make it available to all its Grade R teachers. (See an example of results in the chart below.) There are approximately 800 Grade R teachers in the province. A Memorandum of Understanding was subsequently signed between Basic Concepts Unlimited (the organization responsible for the Basic Concepts Program) and the Northern Cape government, and the Basic Concepts (BC) Advocacy Project was born. The BC Advocacy Project in the Northern Cape (2019–2023) aims to improve the school preparedness of Grade R learners by between 20% and 30%, thereby improving the overall literacy and numeracy outcomes of learners in the Foundation Phase (Grades 1–3). Baseline testing was done on a sample of Grade 1 learners drawn from the project schools. It showed that a majority (72%) of the learners were not prepared for school learning.

A total of 350 teachers from the districts of the province were selected to participate in the BC Advocacy Project. The district officials are responsible for supporting and monitoring the project teachers, and they will also be responsible for the continuation of the project and the training of the remaining teachers in the province once this project comes to an end.

Phase 1 of the project was initiated at the start of 2019 with approximately 85 teachers in two of the education districts. The teachers have thus far attended four days (out of the six days) of training and have implemented three of the six conceptual domains. Approximately 2,200 learners are receiving intervention. The project is supported and monitored by the local district officials who are ably assisted by teams of mainly retired teacher-volunteers who do regular classroom mentoring visits. 

Provincial and district officials and volunteers in the JTG District.

Teachers at a training session in the Pixley Kaseme District.

Teachers mediating the BCP to small groups of learners. (1)

Teachers mediating the BCP to small groups of learners. (2)

The teachers have already made wonderful progress as they learn to become mediators of the program. We have begun to hear increasingly more complex learner verbalizations while the teachers have become more confident in demonstrating the Concept Teaching Model. The change in the teaching style of teachers has in many cases been dramatic. For many teachers this has been the first time that they have used more interactive and questioning-based approaches in their teaching. The majority had previously used more recitation-based approaches, where the children merely copied what the teacher said. While it is very exciting to see these initial signs of change in these classes, we are aware that it takes time for these to become a permanent part of the teaching repertoire. Admittedly, there have also been some teachers who have required additional support and encouragement to implement the program and to run it on a regular basis. It is for this reason that each phase of the project is run over a period of two years. This allows the teacher time to become a mediator and to use the program with increasing frequency and confidence.

In conclusion, we have been very pleased with what we have observed over the first six months of the project. The teachers have responded positively, and we have also been most encouraged by the response of the local and provincial officials to the project. The enthusiasm for the project remains high, with high levels of participation. As our baseline data show, it is essential that we try to shift the preparedness of the learners in Grade R for school learning. The BC Advocacy Project offers teachers a tool to significantly improve the prospects of their learners. The BCP not only provides teachers with a way to better access their learners but also develops those nascent and often fragile cognitive functions needed for school learning. The core philosophy of the BCP emerges clearly in this project—that children, notwithstanding their circumstances, have the unlimited potential to learn and to continue learning, provided they are given regular classroom mediation by an involved and caring adult.

For more information about the project, please click here.

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[Report] Fall Session of Sylff Leaders Workshop 2018–19

November 16, 2018


An inaugural group of 20 Sylff fellows participated in the fall session of the newly launched Sylff Leaders Workshop from September 16 to 23, 2018. The fellows, who were selected from among 114 applicants, were a highly diverse group in terms of nationality, Sylff institution, field of specialization, and current occupation.

Sylff fellows and secretariat members in Sasayama.

Sylff fellows and secretariat members in Sasayama.

The main objective of the workshop was to provide graduated Sylff fellows an opportunity to experience diverse cultures through intensive discussions with people from different backgrounds and with varying viewpoints. Fellows were also able to deepen their ties to the Sylff community and gain new insights into Japan—not just the well-known aspects of the host country but also traditional and local areas off the beaten track.

About Sasayama

All participants had been scheduled to reach Sasayama via Osaka, but some were forced to switch routes, as Kansai International Airport was heavily damaged in the catastrophic typhoon just prior to the workshop. From Osaka, fellows traveled an hour and a half by bus to Sasayama in Hyogo Prefecture, where most of the sessions were held.

Sasayama is a scenic farming community of low-lying hills famous for such products as kuromame (black soybeans), mountain yams, chestnuts, and tea. It is also a former castle town, and the castle originally built in the seventeenth century has been partly reconstructed. Some buildings and neighborhoods retain the style and structure of the castle town.

Fields of harvest-ready rice in Sasayama.

Fields of harvest-ready rice in Sasayama.

A reconstructed section of Sasayama Castle.

A reconstructed section of Sasayama Castle.

Welcome remarks by Sanae Oda.

Welcome remarks by Sanae Oda.

Sanae Oda, executive director of the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research, welcomed the fellows on behalf of the Sylff Association secretariat. “One major aim in developing this program was to enable fellows to renew their understanding of the kind of leadership qualities we’re looking for,” she said in her remarks. “Society today has become very divisive. We need leaders who will bridge differences and promote understanding between people of diverse cultures and values. The message I hope you’ll take home from this workshop is that this is a role Sylff fellows should play in working for the common good.

“Our second aim is to help you enjoy your stay in Japan and gain a better understanding of the country,” she continued. “Through your two visits, I hope you’ll not only get to know each other better but also come to appreciate the many faces of Japan.

Activities in Sasayama

Being a community with a vibrant agricultural sector, Sasayama was an excellent setting for the workshop, whose topic was “The Future of Food Production in 2030.” When considered in terms of the “food system,” the issue is of overriding concern across the globe, as it encompasses not only agricultural production but also transport, manufacturing, retailing, consumption, and food waste. There are impacts on nutrition, health and well-being, the environment and ultimately, global food security.

Keynote speech by associate professor Yoshikawa.

Keynote speech by associate professor Yoshikawa.

The keynote speech for the three-day program in Sasayama was delivered by associate professor Narumi Yoshikawa of the Prefectural University of Hiroshima, an expert on the agricultural economy, who described Japanese initiatives in organic agriculture and grassroots efforts to strengthen ties between consumers and producers.

The workshop was facilitated by methodology experts from German-based Foresight Intelligence, which supports strategic foresight and planning processes in various organizations. After the plenary session, fellows broke out into smaller groups to discuss the topic under a subleader, delving into such issues as “food security through efficiency and resilience,” “ethical attitudes and awareness raising,” and “responsible and open innovation.” Fellows also conducted an online discussion with Philipp Grunewald of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, who, in addition to running a mushroom farm, has expertise in such fields as the global food production system and organic farming. The three days in Sasayama formed the foundation for the presentations by fellows on September 21 in Tokyo.

Plenary session.

Plenary session.

Breakout session 1.

Breakout session 1.

Breakout session 2.

Breakout session 2.

A majority of fellows stayed at Nipponia, a traditional wooden mansion that has been renovated into a ryokan, or Japanese guesthouse. On September 17, workshop participants were joined at dinner by Sasayama Mayor Takaaki Sakai, who introduced the city and welcomed the guests from overseas. On the following day, fellows got a taste of Japanese culture, choosing to participate in either the tea ceremony or a visit to a local sake brewery. In the evening, fellows enjoyed a Japanese style barbeque, sitting on small cushions on the wooden floor. 

Welcome dinner at Nipponia on September 17.

Welcome dinner at Nipponia on September 17.

Dinner at a robatayaki (Japanese-style barbeque) restaurant on September 18.

Dinner at a robatayaki (Japanese-style barbeque) restaurant on September 18.

Fellows participate in the tea ceremony.

Fellows participate in the tea ceremony.

Visit to a brewery for a sake tasting.

Visit to a brewery for a sake tasting.

Kyoto Trip

Before moving to Tokyo, fellows spent a night in Kyoto, visiting the Gion district, where they were entertained by maiko (female performers-in-training between 15 and 19 years old) and geiko (trained performers over 20). Maiko and geiko are part of a social tradition in going back to the eleventh century, performing for members of the upper class.

A geiko (left) and maiko (right) play games with fellows.

A geiko (left) and maiko (right) play games with fellows.

Tokyo Session

On September 20, fellows visited the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research, located on the 34th floor of a high-rise in the Roppongi area, for a session introducing the activities of Japanese think tanks and the current state of the Japanese economy. Foundation researchers later joined fellows for dinner on a yakatabune boat cruise in Tokyo Bay.

A session with policy experts in Tokyo on September 20.

A session with policy experts in Tokyo on September 20.

The following day, fellows presented the conclusions of their workshop discussions. They used a methodology called “visioning and road mapping” developed by Foresight Intelligence calling on fellows to start with a target year—in this case 2030—and to work backwards from potential scenarios. In thinking about the status of food production in 2030, fellows first discussed bad scenarios and then considered more desirable outcomes. They identified specific problems, developed the means to resolve such problems, and presented their visions of the future. These tasks were considered in reverse chronological order (using the “backcasting” approach), rather than by envisioning a future based on the current situation. Visioning and road mapping are tools enabling the normative construction of the future and are designed to remove current biases and to think about ethics and the values needed to build a desirable future.

Fellows divided into four groups to make their final presentations, expressing clearly how a desired future could be created.

Final presentation (1) on September 21 at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research.

Final presentation (1) on September 21 at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research.

Final presentation (2) by Rosangela Malachias (left of screen) and Stefan Buchholz (right).

Final presentation (2) by Rosangela Malachias (left of screen) and Stefan Buchholz (right).

Final presentation (3) by Kabira Namit (left) and Evgeniy Kandilarov (right).

Final presentation (3) by Kabira Namit (left) and Evgeniy Kandilarov (right).

Final presentation (4) by Andrew Prosser.

Final presentation (4) by Andrew Prosser.

The workshop ended with a lunch reception with Nippon Foundation President Takeju Ogata, who recounted how the first Sylff institution, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, came to receive a Sylff endowment and how Sylff as a program has developed thereafter.

The same 20 fellows will meet again in April 2019 in Beppu, renowned for its natural hot springs, located in Oita Prefecture. The workshop will be hosted by Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, a Sylff institution located in the city. Fellows will wrap up their discussions and make their final presentations.

The workshop was launched to facilitate networking and to give fellows a fuller appreciation of the rich diversity of the Sylff community. The Sylff Association secretariat intends to offer this program biennially and is already planning ahead to the next round.

A group photo at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research on September 20.

A group photo at the Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research on September 20.

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Catalyzing Cultural Revitalization in Western Province, Solomon Islands

June 7, 2018
By 19632

Indigenous knowledge and practice are critical on Kolombangara Island, but they are often not visible in discussions of conservation and resource management. In response, Sylff fellow Joe McCarter and the Kolombangara Island Biodiversity Conservation Association (KIBCA) initiated a workshop to discuss cultural revitalization, as well as teach practical documentation skills to rangers and community members. The workshop was held in Hunda, a village on Kolombangara Island in the Solomon Islands’ Western Province, and was led by representatives of the Vanuatu Cultural Center (VCC). The VCC team included three fieldworkers (ni-Vanuatu researchers) and the head of the Vanuatu Women’s Culture Program. The workshop covered a variety of topics, including the challenges and ethics of cultural maintenance, techniques and best practice, and the importance of such activities. On the final day, the group came up with several action points and next steps, including community and home-based recording and maintenance and agreed to create a new network focused on Kolombangara Island and run through KIBCA.


Project Background

Indigenous knowledge and practice are important components of everyday life in the Solomon Islands. Most people live in rural areas, and gardening, fishing, and food gathering are the basis of income and nutrition. Most land is managed under customary tenure, and people’s links to the land can be traced back several generations. Local languages and cultures are important and diverse, and cultural practices guide interactions and governance over much of the country.

On Kolombangara Island, a high volcanic island in Western Province, local knowledge and practice play a key role. Over 6,000 people live on the island, largely in small rural communities on land that is managed under customary tenure. Kolombangara is a biodiversity hotspot, and KIBCA has been working since 2008 to coordinate and promote biodiversity conservation activities around the island. However, there has been little attention to the maintenance of language and kastom (a Solomon Island Pijin concept referring to history and tradition), and KIBCA has been seeking to increase its focus on maintenance and revitalization.

This work is driven by fears that elements of kastom are being lost. In the present day, local language and knowledge are often not valued by education systems, cash economies, and the time pressure of everyday life. For example, school systems usually focus on Western educational techniques and may not support traditional forms of knowledge transmission. There is concern that this may lead to the erosion of knowledge, practice, and language over time. In everyday life, knowledge of language and history can help students to excel at school and can guide healthy food practice based on local and organic food produce.

Moreover, and more pressingly, ongoing commercial logging on Kolombangara continues to threaten sacred sites and people’s links to land. Often, logging operations will destroy cultural sites (for example, old village sites or shrines), which in turn weakens knowledge and the cultural histories associated with place. Because land is under customary tenure, and this knowledge is often orally transmitted, these activities can result in people losing their claim to land and a reduction of the biocultural values of the landscape.

The Workshop

With generous funding from Sylff Leadership Initiatives, KIBCA coordinator Ferguson Vaghi and Joe McCarter worked together to bring participants to Kolombangara the maintenance of knowledge and practice. This was relevant to KIBCA’s work because it focuses on maintaining ecosystem services and values associated with intact biodiversity areas. Vaghi led and facilitated the workshop, set workshop goals and objectives, and liaised with the Hunda community to arrange accommodation and housing for the workshop. I assisted with designing the workshop, liaising with the Vanuatu group, arranging logistics, and setting the agenda for the meeting.

Participants outside the venue in Hunda.

The major goal of the workshop was to allow the chance for exchange between Kolombangara and fieldworkers from the Vanuatu Cultural Center (VCC). The VCC group comprised Evelyne Bulegih, Numaline Mahana, Chief Jimesan Sanhambath, and Chief Joachim Moleli. The VCC has been working for over 30 years to promote the maintenance of traditional knowledge, practice, and language. The heart of its operation is the presence of a nationwide network of over 100 “fieldworkers”, volunteer indigenous anthropologists who meet annually and are trained in various forms of cultural documentation. They typically work within their own community to record cultural histories and traditional knowledge, which are then stored in the community and in the national archives. The fieldworkers also act as the gatekeepers for external agencies seeking to work on cultural or social issues in Vanuatu, providing advice and guidance that ensure that ethical concerns and intellectual property are appropriately addressed.

The objectives of the workshop were to:

  1. Provide training in methods for documentation of oral histories and traditional knowledge and practice
  2. Provide training in methods for mapping and recording of sacred sites using GIS technology
  3. Provide a forum for sharing and exchange between Solomon Islander conservation practitioners and ni-Vanuatu indigenous anthropologists
  4. Produce and publish a short article for the national media about the importance of cultural knowledge and practice for the management of the environment

Attendance varied between 20 and 23 people across the three days of the workshop. Participants included KIBCA staff, among whom were four rangers (responsible for carrying out KIBCA’s work, including enforcement and awareness activities); community representatives from the neighboring communities of Votuana, Cana, and Ireke, as well as from the host community Hunda; and community representatives from Vavanga and Kalina (Parara Island), which also form part of a biocultural network. These representatives included two village chiefs. Attendance was largely male, but there were at least five women attending each day of the workshop.

The meeting was held at Hunda, a small village of around 200 people on Kolombangara. All catering and accommodation were provided by the village.

Vanuatu and New Zealand workshop participants: from left to right, Joachim Moleli, Evelyne Bulegih, Joe McCarter, Numaline Mahana, and Jimesan Sanhambath.

Outline of Events

Wednesday, February 21

The aim of day one was to understand the context of work in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. The meeting was opened by the chief of Hunda village and then formally begun by Vaghi. During the day, participants worked to compile lists of challenges around the maintenance of kastom and culture in their communities. The Vanuatu fieldworkers were able to provide input to these solutions with their practical experience. Discussions particularly focused on governance and how it was important to record knowledge on genealogies and leadership protocol; the participants felt that one of the key issues in the communities at the moment was a lack of legitimate leadership, combined with a lack of respect from youth. In the final part of the day, the Vanuatu fieldworkers went into greater depth about their work, including a discussion of some of the challenges of maintaining kastom and culture in Vanuatu.

Waiting for the workshop to start on day one.

Thursday, February 22

The aim of the second day was to pass on skills to assist with some of the challenges that were identified on the first day. The day began with a discussion of the “kastom economy” and the ways in which tradition and culture intersect with daily life in the village environment. For example, Chief Moleli discussed an initiative in his community, Tavendrua, to use traditional wealth items such as yams and pigs to pay teachers in the kastom school, while Mrs. Mahana discussed traditional marriage arrangements on Tanna Island. Participants then split into small groups to document the kastom economy in their communities. These groups focused on a variety of topics including traditional medicines, fishing techniques, and exchange items. In the afternoon, there was a practical session on the maintenance and recording of kastom and culture. Each of the fieldworkers gave a talk and held trainings on an area within their expertise: Mrs. Bulegih discussed the written recording and storage of kastom stories, Mrs. Mahana the written descriptions of weaving and woven products, Chief Moleli the recording of kastom stories, and Chief Sanhambath the use of handheld units to document sacred sites. The focus on all these presentations was to try to make sure that participants understood that technology should not be central for this work—that it is better to record things in a basic format (e.g., with pen and paper) and store it securely, to ensure that it is accessible to future generations.

Small group work on day two (photo by Piokera Holland).

Friday, February 23

The aim of the third day was to define next steps. Throughout the day, participants worked in small groups to define what practical steps could be taken to halt the erosion of kastom and culture. These were discussed in a closing plenary session. Topics included home-based recording with family members, consultation throughout the communities to decide which components of traditional knowledge and practice are at risk, and a cultural documentation network run through KIBCA. The group decided it was important to maintain linkages with the Vanuatu group, through Facebook and email, so that lessons could continue to be shared.

Saturday, February 24, and Sunday, February 25

On Saturday and Sunday, the Vanuatu group traveled to Imbu Rano field station on Kolombangara. During this trip they were able to observe KIBCA’s biodiversity conservation work in practice, as well as learn about threats to the area and the challenges that the rangers face on a daily basis. 

Outputs and Outcomes

The workshop was lively, well attended, and able to produce the outputs that were intended. These included:

  1. Provision of a discussion forum and practical trainings around the maintenance of kastom and culture on Kolombangara
  2. Initiation of efforts on Kolombangara to maintain kastom and culture, at a household level and through the networks of KIBCA
  3. Creation of linkages and exchange between Vanuatu fieldworkers, biodiversity conservation rangers, and community members
  4. A draft newspaper article, which has been submitted for publication in the Solomon Star and Vanuatu Daily Post (find it in the full report)

We are confident that these outputs will lead to a range of outcomes. For one, this workshop gave the Solomon Island participants an introduction to the skills needed to monitor, record, and maintain cultural knowledge and practice, including the mapping of sacred sites around their home communities. More importantly, the discussions and activities of the workshop provided a forum for dialogue on the value of cultural knowledge and practice, which can sometimes be lost in the day-to-day focus on livelihoods and living. The participants agreed to some solid and measurable next steps, so we are confident that this workshop was a first step toward an ongoing network of cultural monitors and the maintenance of knowledge and practice on Kolombangara.

Over the longer term, we see these efforts as being a small but necessary contribution to the overall goal of maintaining the biocultural resilience of rural communities in the Solomon Islands. Both cultural and biological diversity are critical to the ongoing vitality of communities, and we believe that more of these kinds of activities and discussions are needed into the future.

Personal Reflection

From both a personal and a professional standpoint, it was a pleasure to be involved in organizing this meeting. On a personal level, it was a privilege to reconnect with the VCC group after several years, and it was exciting to begin to foster some dialogue around the importance of kastom and culture on Kolombangara. The VCC has been a regionally leading institution, and there would be much to be gained from further collaboration. From a professional standpoint, it is clear that the maintenance of knowledge and practice should form a key plank of ongoing efforts to support conservation work around the island. This work aligns well with other Kolombangara projects, including a push by KIBCA to seek national park status for the area above 400 m. The partnership with KIBCA was absolutely critical to the success of the meeting, and while there were challenges (for example, arranging logistics for Hunda, setting the agenda remotely, and the difficulties of scheduling across several different calendars), Vaghi and his team worked hard to make the meeting a success. I look forward to our working together to turn the discussions in the workshop into solid progress over the remainder of 2018 and 2019. 

Find more details of the project in the original report.

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Workshops on the Socio-Analysis of Oppression

February 22, 2018
By 19626

Melinda Kovai, a 2009 Sylff fellow at Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, and her team members have recently completed their SLI project, which took them over one and a half years, to address the problem of social disparity strongly linked to negative notions toward the “Gypsy.” The project incorporated the idea of reflection on one’s own social position to encourage understanding of different social groups, which contributed to the uniqueness of the project. The training materials, the final project product, have been already integrated into two courses at universities in Hungary. The project members hope that the materials will be utilized in many educational settings not only in Hungary but also in neighboring countries faced with similar social challenges. They are determined to keep working on resolving the issue and extending the impact to society.



A mother and son of the Roma people, commonly known as Gypsies.

In Hungary, primarily due to their disadvantaged social position, the Roma people are by far the greatest subjects to racism. In public discourse, the “Gypsy” is inseparably bound up with such negative notions as poverty, permanent unemployment, benefits, informal economy, and crime and, more generally, with fears related to existential insecurities. In most social domains, the “Gypsy” is intertwined with a certain inferior class position and social marginality, such as exclusion from or taking the most inferior realms of the formal labor market, with possibilities severely restricted by manifold exclusive processes. The Gypsy-Hungarian ethnic distinction is in many cases a manifestation of class difference, since class positions are heavily ethnicized in many areas of life, in villages and town districts, and in educational and other institutions. While the lower middle and middle classes are associated with majority Hungarians, marginalization from the labor market is associated with the Roma. Everyday social conflicts are hence often experienced as confrontations between different ethnically interpreted class positions, where the “Gypsy” appears as a menace to the middle-class normativity of the majority.

Our team of trainers comprised social scientists whose academic work focuses on social inequalities, public education, and the Roma communities. The project idea arose from a shared urge to engage in activities that have a more direct and palpable impact on the lives of the communities we work with. Therefore, this project was also a way to experiment and to elaborate methods of intervention and ways of committed political engagement that feel right and adequate to us, to our habitus. We held four one-day and four two-day workshops for six groups of university students training to become public-sector professionals and for two groups of Roma university students. Half of the workshops took place in Budapest and the other half in other big cities. In the workshops, participants were invited to work with and reflect on their own social position, their social roles, and their class position. Our workshops are based on the idea that reflection on one’s own social position can help to better understand the behavior of other social groups and encourage collective action and solidarity across groups. Recognizing the social interests and conflicts involved in encounters with the Roma helps to identify the source of negative emotions and reveals how racism veils the real causes of conflicts.

Potential Target Groups and Specific Objectives

The main target group of our workshops is professionals who regularly encounter Roma clients as part of their professional roles. According to the literature, street-level bureaucrats are public-service professionals who represent the state by their work and, on a daily basis, make numerous small decisions in relation to the lives of their clients.[1] Typical examples of such professions are social workers, health care professionals, and the police. In this project, we offered the trainings to university students preparing to enter these professions; in the future, we plan to approach in-service professionals as well.

The workshops address the complexity and tensions of the professional roles related to social assistance, care, and support. We spend time discussing the typical sociological and recruitment characteristics of the professions. We had to bear in mind that university students do not yet have professional casework experience, so the workshops concentrated on their past “private” minority-majority encounters (which most often happened at school) on the one hand and the motivations, desires, and fears related to the caring relationship on the other.

When working with university students, school was often an important theme: we discussed the role of schooling in social mobility, the class-specific strategies related to schooling, as well as the inequalities of the Hungarian education system, and the school’s role in mitigating or reproducing inequalities.

Our other important target group consisted of young intellectuals of Roma background. In these workshops, we discussed the situation of the Roma people within the Hungarian social structure, the typical Roma roles and social phenomena (e.g., ethnically framed poverty, entrepreneurship, and widening middle class), and the constraints of upward mobility. Subsequently, the workshops addressed the tensions of harmonizing the experience of deprived homes and middle-class intellectual roles. By sharing their stories and experiences, the workshops helped young Roma intellectuals recognize the similarities in their backgrounds and challenges and hence share the “weight” of upward mobility.

The Workshops

Melinda Kovai, team members, and other sociologists discussing the contents of the training.

The first part of the workshops concentrated on the social positions of the participants; they shared their memories and their private and work experiences in relation to conflicts with the Roma people. We then explored these encounters in a dramatic form, wherein participants placed themselves in the shoes of both sides and collectively explored the social constraints from which behaviors (stereotypically) associated with the “Gypsy” derive. Ideally, the recognition of common social constraints develops a sense of solidarity and recognition of the differences of the other.

It was important to constantly respond to the social differences among participants and the corresponding differences in career choices. On the final day of the workshops for university students, we set aside time to explore their career choices in the light of their social positions and experiences. While for first-generation young intellectuals our workshops shed light on the constraints and possibilities coming with their upward mobility, for young people coming from long-standing intellectual families the training provided an opportunity to reflect on their privileges.

The following training methods were employed in the workshops:

  • warm-up and energizing games
  • dramatic exercises, the adaptation of the “wall of success” in particular
  • storytelling: sharing experiences, which then become materials for dramatic exercises
  • sociodramatic exercises and action methods: the enactment of typical situations related to ethnosocial conflicts, exploring the motivations, positions, and interests of the participants through dramatic enactment
  • sharing, reflection, and discussion

The overall aims were that, by the end of the workshops, participants

  • understand that society is hierarchically organized along various dimensions and that the distribution of various forms of capital (economic, cultural, and social), based on which class positions form and encounter other social determinants such as housing, gender, and ethnicity, are decisive;
  • have a comprehensive idea of the structure of Hungarian society and the perspectives of people in various positions;
  • have a reflective understanding of their families’ and their own social positions, their mobility pathways, their career choices, and their interests, needs, demands, beliefs, values, tastes, and so forth;
  • understand how society shapes personal beliefs, interests, demands, and tastes and how habitus works;
  • understand how social conflicts are sparked by the clash of different habitus and how actors in higher social positions generate such conflicts according to their interests with the aim of preventing the formation of antisystemic alliances; and
  • in the light of their own social positions, recognize the opportunities for social action and possible alliances with groups in different but proximate positions to form antisystemic alliances despite the differences in their positions and habitus.

Participants’ Voices

At the end of the workshops, as a closure, we asked all participants to share how they enjoyed the course and which elements they liked and disliked in particular. Two weeks after the workshops, we also invited participants to anonymously fill out a detailed online feedback form. In the questionnaire, they could assess group directing, the structure of the workshop, and the tasks and activities, and they were asked to describe their positive and negative experiences and to give us suggestions for improvement. The majority of the participants gave an overall positive feedback on the training and the trainers. They highlighted that, even though it was an emotionally shocking experience, recognizing their own social position and social differences in general were the most important lesson of the workshop. In the participants’ own words: 

I engaged both intellectually and emotionally—I was deeply touched in both respects. I thought a lot about these themes in the time between the workshops. The workshops were emotionally exhausting, but they were also extremely interesting intellectually.

“I developed a sense of social remorse. . . . I could do so many things to be more responsible socially. . . . I used to see helpers as being in a great distance from me, as being much more clever, experienced, capable people. . . . Yet they just probably took the initiative, started something, and then became good at it. . . . Next year I will volunteer at a shelter for elderly or mentally disabled people.” 

“The topics broke taboos. It is painful to realize how stereotypical our thinking is.”

“I grappled with multiple feelings over a short period of time.”

Based on the feedback and our own experiences, we concluded that it would be more worthwhile to organize two- or even three-day workshops for each group. One-day workshops do not provide sufficient time to process such shattering and difficult experiences. One-day workshops were less successful as participants did not have time to open up or, to the contrary, brought in very moving stories and experiences into the group that could not be processed sufficiently and reassuringly in the given time frame. This difficulty was the most striking in the workshops held for Roma colleges. Furthermore, in the cases of both one- and two-day workshops, participants signaled to us that they would welcome more factual knowledge as well as more emphasis on practical solutions for solving conflict situations.

Citing participants:

“The dramatic enactments were great, but I think it would be good to focus on finding some optimal solutions for these situations. This would have helped us in applying what we learned in “real-life situations.”

“You should give us more factual knowledge on the second day. What is integrated education? How was it implemented and responded to? What is the situation with integrated education now? What are the main political claims about the Roma?”

“I was missing some frontal knowledge, as I was interested in data and practices related to [Roma] educational integration in Hungary.”

Training Material, Dissemination, and Future Plans

Working with Roma schoolboys.

The final output of the project is a detailed set of training materials based on the workshops. The training materials were produced with two objectives in mind. On the one hand, we would like to provide our partners with an introduction to the workshops in advance. On the other, we are planning to disseminate our methodology among university and secondary school teachers who are using action methods or are trained in social sciences. The document explicates why we think that awareness and reflection on one’s own social position can tackle racist attitudes and in what ways our approach is distinctively different from “traditional” anti-discrimination and intercultural awareness raising trainings. We describe the structure and main elements of the workshops in detail.

It perhaps indicates the success of our project that two of our partners, the Faculty of Social Work at Eötvös Loránd University and the Faculty of Psychology at the Károli Gáspár University of the Reformed Church in Hungary, integrated our training in their curriculum from 2017–2018 under the title of “Meeting with the Other” as an optional course for social worker students at the former and “Socio-analysis for Psychologists” as a mandatory course for psychology students in the latter’s Intercultural Psychology program. The trainings are led by two trainers: Melinda Kovai, who is a university lecturer at both universities, and another member of our team.

According to the participants’ feedback and our own evaluation, the workshops had the most tangible impact among Roma and non-Roma students enrolled in universities outside the capital. These students predominantly come from working-class families or from families in extreme deprivation. The workshops have the potential to help them not to experience their background as a source of shame but, instead, to recognize the resources in their difficult experiences and thus become professionals deeply and proudly committed to their work with socially deprived children and adults. We plan to orient our future workshops to this target group by developing a longer training in close cooperation with our partner institutions. Furthermore, we would like to begin working with professional adults and adapt the training to their needs.

The training materials are available from the following. (Please note they are written all in Hungarian.)
Training material_Hungarian

[1] Lipsky, Michael. Street-Level Bureaucracy: Dilemmas of the Individual in Public Services. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation, 1980.


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Finding a Lasting Solution: Insights From the Forum on Violent Extremism and Radicalization in East Africa

May 31, 2017
By null

Dr. Jacinta Mwende, Majune Socrates, Steve Muthusi, and Alexina Marucha, four Sylff fellows from the University of Nairobi, initiated and implemented a forum titled “Understanding the ‘Push’ and ‘Pull’ Factors Underlying Violent Extremism and Radicalization among the Youth in East Africa” on December 8 and 9, 2016, at the University of Nairobi’s Chiromo Campus. The forum gathered 35 young leaders from African countries including 10 former and current Sylff fellows from Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The participants identified the fundamental causes of the grave problem of violent extremism and youth radicalization and suggested the importance of small but meaningful steps taken by individuals that will bring a major change in their community, country, and region.

 * * *

The twenty-first century has experienced more rapid changes and crises than the previous ones. While the past centuries saw more interstate conflicts, recent crises have centered on intrastate dynamics. The challenge of violent extremism did not emerge yesterday; in earlier times, though, minimal attention was given to violent extremism and radicalization. The horrors of 9/11 set off a spate of violent extremism in various countries and led to the emergence of terror groups pursuing various agendas with political and social motives. Civilians have been the main victims, but members of security forces have also lost their lives in the struggle to protect their beloved countries.

Extremism in East Africa

With the recent development and growing pull of violent extremism and radicalization, a significant number of youths in East Africa have joined extremist groups. Kenya, for instance, has witnessed a sharp increase in individuals joining extremist groups since 2011, when attacks were launched on Kenyan soil. The government responded by “putting the boots” in Somalia. Since then, more troops have been added while extremist activities have escalated, resulting in the loss of lives and destruction of property. Furthermore, the government’s move to target Muslims of Somali origin has led more youths, the majority of them being Muslims, to join these extremist groups in revolt against marginalization. Religious and tribal identity, which are most prevalent in Kenya, have highly accelerated the rate at which radicalization is spreading.

The states are therefore faced with a major problem that, if not curbed in good time, will claim their youths to violent extremism. The Sylff Peace Forum held on December 8 and 9, 2016, brought together 35 citizens of the African continent to not only better understand the problem but provide solutions and a way forward to countering radicalization and violent extremism. Ten of the participants were former and current Sylff fellows (from Kenya, Uganda, South Africa, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo), while the rest comprised nationals of Kenya, Uganda, Somaliland, Tanzania, Sudan, and Burundi. Coming from diverse backgrounds, they included members of civil society, academic institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and government, as well as students.

During the two-day forum, various speakers—among them were Professor Bruno Kaimwa, Barbra Natifu, Dr. Hassan Kinyua, Dr. Patrick Maluki, and Debarl Inea—gave various insights, prompting heated discussions that delved into experiences of the individuals present and literature that they had read.

Photo session of all attendees on day two. Photo session of all attendees on day two.


To start off the discussions, Dr. Patrick Maluki gave a presentation on the “Political and Economic Perspectives of Radicalization” in which the definition of radicalization was deeply explored. According to Maluki, a radicalized person is one who is tricked, swayed, and seduced into taking radical beliefs. Hence, radicalization is a process whereby individuals adopt extreme political and religious beliefs once they join a certain group with radical ideologies. The group believes that change is necessary and that violence is the means by which this can be achieved.

Professor Bruno Kaimwa, a former Sylff fellow from the DRC, extended the discussion to the state of violence and radicalization in eastern DRC. Barbra Natifu outlined the role of historical injustice in perpetuating violent extremism, while Dr. Hassan Kinyua outlined the link between religion and radicalization. Lastly, the role of media in radicalization and extremism was reviewed by Debarl Inea.

Based on the discussions by current and former Sylff fellows and others, the following factors were identified as drivers of radicalization and extremism among youth: social networks, which are useful in the recruitment of new members; poverty and unemployment; corruption and favors in the public sector; and marginalization due to religious and ethnic affiliations, a big contributor where some communities have been sidelined not only by the government but also by parts of the private sector. Denial of political and civil rights by the government and lack of opportunities to be heard by the government or leaders in power have also fed radicalization. Selective application of the law to citizens, which is harsher on youth, is another one of the major reasons why radicalization has become rampant.


What can be done to solve the crisis at hand? That is the major question facing states. Although efforts are being made to curb extremism, the real challenge on the ground is complex and difficult. Fleeing of countries to places where the ideology is more profound is what is being experienced. One speaker noted that the marginalization of Muslims by governments is real. A refugee from the DRC shared an experience where, while crossing the border using the same pass as that of other refugees, his Muslim comrade faced tougher scrutiny than him.

The exploitation of religion and tribalism has led to the spread of violent extremism and radicalization. Remedies include holding peace forums, promoting education, addressing the challenge of youth unemployment, strengthening governance, and bringing the leaders on board as well as getting them to understand that ideological wars need to be fought using the mind and not physical force. Only when we have achieved this will we eventually see violent extremism and radicalization eradicated from society.

“Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” ―Martin Luther King Jr.

Facebook page of the University of Nairobi Chapter: https://www.facebook.com/Sasakawa-Fellows-University-of-Nairobi-397988557219449/


Dr. Jacinta Mwende Maweu received Sylff fellowship in 2004–2006 to pursue an MA in Communication Studies at the University of Nairobi. She is currently a lecturer in philosophy and media studies at the university, having obtained a PhD from Rhodes University. Her areas of interest include critical thinking, socio-political philosophy, leadership and governance, media ethics, political economy of the media, mass media and human rights, peace journalism, and media and society.

Majune Kraido Socrates received Sylff fellowship in 2013–2015 to pursue an MA in Economics at the University of Nairobi, where he is currently a PhD student in economics. His areas of interest include international economics, public economics, institutional economics, and econometrics. Socrates is also a sprinter who specializes in the 100 meters, 400 meters, and 4 x 100-meter relay.

Alexina Marucha received Sylff fellowship in 2014–2016 to pursue an MA in Communication Studies at the University of Nairobi. Her areas of specialization are event organizing and coordination, media and public relations, and development communication.

Stephen Muthusi Katembu received Sylff fellowship in 2014–2016 to pursue a Master of Psychology degree at the University of Nairobi. He is passionate about helping to uplift the lives of all by working together with individuals, institutions, corporations, and communities. He furnishes them with information through training and education for personal, professional, and community development with the aim of leading to improved livelihoods and a better-informed, healthy, and peaceful society.

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Nubian Women’s Arts and Cultural Continuity:The Role of Civil Society in Promoting Nubian Women Art

April 25, 2017
By 19646

Naglaa Fathi Mahmoud-Hussein, a 2015 Sylff fellow at Howard University in the United States, implemented a social project for women handcraft artists in Nubia, Egypt, under the Sylff Leadership Initiatives (SLI) program from mid-June to September 2016. The three-month project, comprising field interviews, workshops, and a training program, helped these women get educated on financial knowledge and skills. More importantly, the women are now aware of the value of their artistic pieces and how they should be fairly evaluated.

 * * *

Motivation behind the Project

Women in the Middle East and Africa share a common history and cause. In both regions, women played active roles in resisting and recovering from the colonial trauma. In postcolonial times, however, the perceptions of African and Middle Eastern women and their role in development have often been underrepresented. Women handcrafters, for example, are considered merely producers of unsubstantial commodities—goods that add little to the economic empowerment of nations. The artistic production of those women is seldom acknowledged as art that should be nurtured and included in the art scene, which defines the scopes of cultural identities of these societies. As a case in point, Egyptian Nubian women handcrafters do not enjoy the ranking status of artists whose work is based in Cairo workshops, studios, and exhibitions. Hence, it is important to reach out to those women.

Nubian women handcrafters are now navigating different facets of their identity complexes. Already placed on the periphery and being darker skinned, residing mainly in the villages on the border between Egypt and Sudan, Nubian women are negotiating their blackness, their gender dynamics, and state policies toward their artistic productions.

During the time of Hosni Mubarak (1981–2011), Nubian women handcrafters depended heavily on the trading of their artistic productions during seasons of high tourist influx in Egypt. However, the political unrest in recent years has greatly impacted the influx of tourists to Nubian villages. Moreover, new state legislations restricting civil society work have resulted in a shortage and even lack of funding to these women.

For example, on November 28, 2016, the Egyptian parliament approved a new restrictive draft law to govern civil society organizations. The draft includes provisions that require permission from the government before civil society organizations (CSOs) can accept foreign funding; require government permission before foreign CSOs can operate in Egypt; require government permission before CSOs can in any way work with foreign organizations or foreign experts; limit CSOs’ activities by requiring government permission to conduct surveys or publish reports; raise the fee for CSO registration and give the government broad discretion to refuse to register a CSO; and heighten the penalties for violations of the law to include prison sentences and steep fines.

The main objective of my project was to contribute to the empowerment of rural Nubian women artists by helping women to run small businesses and providing them with the necessary skills needed to establish and effectively run their businesses. Secondly, I hoped to create a sustainable instrument that provides Nubian women with economic consultations and support. Finally, my project’s overall endeavor was, and still is, to preserve and promote Nubian artistic handicrafts.

The Project

Field Interviews

In my field interviews, I focused on underscoring key challenges that face women running small businesses as articulated by the interviewees. Thirty women were interviewed.

Based on the field interviews, which were also documented on video, I found that women owning small businesses in Aswan suffered from several problems including the lack of marketing and promotion skills, inability to perform simple accounting tasks, and lack of knowledge on loans institutions, on how to carry out feasibility studies for their projects, and on the registration and taxation process. Most of the women whom I interviewed had never participated in art exhibitions, lacking the means to reach out to the exhibition organizers. Most interviewees welcomed the idea of establishing economic consultation centers (ECU) that provide economic consultation to women owning small businesses.

Training of Trainers Program

Ms. Mahmoud-Hussein with TOT trainers and participants

Ms. Mahmoud-Hussein with TOT trainers and participants

I then organized a Training of Trainers (TOT) program from July 26 to 28, 2016, in the Aswan governorate. The training brought together 15 young educated women with relevant university degrees to become economic consultants who can provide capacity building for women running small business. The target trainees were selected based on their education, their willingness to volunteer and continue to provide business consultation for women, and their geographic location. Participating women cadres gained TOT skills, consultation providing skills, small business accounting skills, and various outlets for obtaining small business loans. The training included practical exercises, such as simulations in which the trainees played the roles of a consultant and a woman seeking a specific business consultation. The trainees worked to design and produce a blueprint of the proposed training lessons, which they will be using to train women who run small businesses.

Women Training Workshops

There is no question that the above-mentioned legislations will hinder efforts to reach out to women handcrafters through systematic work with grassroots or civil society. In an attempt to open up a way forward for these women artists, I traveled during the summer of 2016 with the support of a Sylff Leadership Initiatives (SLI) grant to conduct two workshops to help Nubian women handcrafters find a platform for economic support. The two workshops saw the participation of 30 women running small businesses and provided these women with small business skills such as identifying business opportunities, business development, administrative skills, basic accounting, managing credits, and loans skills. The women received training on how to develop and refine their products for better marketing and on how to identify wholesalers and develop a commercial network. They also learned about how to outreach and participate in art exhibitions in and outside the governorate of Aswan.

Economic Consultation Units

Trainees who underwent the TOT program and those who have been trained in economic consultation skills work in coordination with partner NGOs in Aswan to provide free consultation. The contact information for the consultants were disseminated among women running small businesses during the training. The women regularly contact the consultants by phone, and in many instances they request a meeting, which then usually takes place either at the premises of a partner NGO or at the consultant’s place.


Trainees participating in the workshops acquired new skills including project management and marketing skills. They learned about the role of the Ministry of Social Solidarity in supporting the small business sector, the various forms of technical and financial assistance provided by the ministry, and means of approaching the ministry. The Nubian women gained information about various financial and lending institutions and the necessary procedures to apply for loans with such institutions as Nasser Bank, the Social Fund for Development, and NGOs working in the field of small projects. In addition, they learned how to carry out bookkeeping and use simple accounting methods to manage the financial side of their projects.

In conclusion, the three-month project helped raise the aspirations of these women to develop, promote, and market their small businesses. The impact that workshops like these have on women handcrafters’ businesses makes it essential to hold such trainings frequently.

Despite any difficulties that researchers and members of civil society may be stumbling across, they are looking at the future of social activism through artistic work with enthusiasm, devotion, and commitment.

Details can be found at http://tamkeen.webs.com.

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Report on the University of Nairobi Peace Forum

April 10, 2017
By 19670

Xena Cupido, a 2012 Sylff fellow from the University of the Western Cape, reports and reflects on the University of Nairobi Peace Forum held on December 8–9, 2016, which she was invited to attend.

 * * *

Socrates Majune

Socrates Majune

Violent extremism and the radicalization of youth are phenomena that have captured the attention of the world. To deliberate on issues relating to violent extremism and youth radicalization, a peace forum was initiated by Socrates Majune (2013–15 Sylff fellow) and conducted with the help of an organizing committee consisting of Dr. Jacinta Mwende (2004–06 Sylff fellow), Alexian Marucha, and Steve Muthusi. The committee received the support of the University of Nairobi’s Board of Postgraduate Studies, represented by Gachunga Joseph Kamau. The purpose of the forum was to provide high-level insights and solutions to violent extremism, drawing on the perspectives of various countries. The forum took place at the University of Nairobi on December 8 and 9, 2016. Sylff fellows from various countries in Africa were invited to participate in the peace forum. “If there is one thing I know for sure, it is that I know nothing for sure.” This article reflects on the learning that took place at the peace forum.


It is clear that no country is immune from the effects of violent extremism and youth radicalization. The global phenomenon has no doubt affected a vast number of countries, Kenya being one of the countries most impacted by violent extremism in its recent past. At the start of the peace forum Professor Henry Mutoro, Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University of Nairobi, delivered an emotional tribute in honor of the 140 students who lost their lives at Garissa University.

Professor Henry Mutoro, Deputy Vice Chancellor, University of Nairobi

Professor Henry Mutoro, Deputy Vice Chancellor, University of Nairobi

The opening address by Professor Mutoro detailed the University of Nairobi’s involvement in the post-extremism events at Garissa University. The story of the tragedy and the University of Nairobi’s gracious response in dealing with bereaved parents, visitors, sponsors, and bereaved students sketched a vivid picture of the destruction and mayhem that occurred. The deputy vice chancellor highlighted that many people do not treat seriously the issue of youth extremism. The University of Nairobi dealt with parents in an ethical and responsible manner and has since been recognized as a Center of Excellence.

It was the events at Garissa that partly contributed to the peace forum initiative—hosting a conference that would make a difference in the county. The organizers noted that East Africa has witnessed a surge of violent extremism, characterized by an increased incidence of acts of terrorism, organized crime, trans-border crime, illicit trade, and trafficking (USAID, 2012). At the center of extremist activities are youth who have been recruited to perpetrate these crimes. The objective of the peace forum was to discuss the causes of violent extremism among young people and to propose nonviolent measures to overcome this trend.

Push-and-Pull Factors in Youth Violence and Extremism

The young generation represents hope. However, young people are increasingly turning to violent extremism due to social and economic factors. It should be noted that the choice to support violent extremism is driven by multiple factors. To understand and explore the reasons behind the sense of disengagement and marginalization that makes young people vulnerable to recruitment, we need to view it from a country perspective. It has become clear that young people join violent extremist groups for a variety of reasons, making generalization problematic. The peace forum provided the opportunity for scholars from various countries to reflect on the importance of networking and harness their knowledge, skills, and competencies to bring about solutions to violent extremism. It also served as a platform to gain new insights.

Dr. Patrick Maluki, Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, University Nairobi

Dr. Patrick Maluki, Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, University Nairobi

Dr. Patrick Maluki of the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies at the University Nairobi gave a presentation titled “Understanding the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors underlying violent extremism and radicalization among the youth in East Africa,” in which he reflected on the political and economic perspectives of radicalization. He started by focusing on who a radicalized person is, a controversial and emotional topic. Maluki suggested that “radicalized” indicates a kind of passivity, whereby the subjects are presented as victims. The driving forces are normally seen as external. The radicalized are often presented as being alienated from choice, tricked, swayed, lost, or stolen. They are objects of pity and fear, which shifts the focus of attention from the personal or political motivations of radical actors to the methods and processes of conversion or seduction through radicalization.

Radicalization, never clearly defined according to Maluki, implies the violation of essentially passive individuals who are influenced by outside forces; it is an ordered, planned, and structured assault on those individuals. Underpinned by subjective and objective motivations, the phenomenon may be defined by exploring the common notions thereof. It is a process wherein people move away from dialogue and resort to confrontational tactics, such as violent acts of terror. Violence is often used to induce change, which is a fundamental belief of radical extremism.

Dr. Maluki presented a checklist for the radicalization of individuals. He identified five paths to radicalization, all of which are easy for radical groups to exploit: 1) young people from conservative societies and a closed, religious awakening, 2) feelings of marginalization and alienation, 3) grievances, 4) indignation, and 5) a sense of adventure.

Social contact and social networks play integral roles in extremist networks. Close friends and family have been known to be a powerful influencing factor. Radicalization, Dr. Maluki suggests, is an individual or collective social process by which people are brought to condone, legitimize, support, or carry out violence for political or religious objectives. Social bonds and group dynamics, as well as deeply held convictions or perceptions of unfair and unjust international systems, are recognized as strong drivers of radicalization.

Professor Kaimwa Maneno Bruno, Institut National du Bâtiment et des Travaux Publics

Professor Kaimwa Maneno Bruno, Institut National du Bâtiment et des Travaux Publics

Professor Kaimwa Maneno Bruno of the Institut National du Bâtiment et des Travaux Publics reflected on the Democratic Republic of Congo’s experience of violence and radicalization. He highlighted the push-and-pull factors as follows:
• More perpetrators of crime and violence are implicated in armed groups. The complexity and context of the conflict offer opportunities of linkages to criminals and organizations, e.g., local armed groups and trans-border armed groups.
• Child soldier phenomenon (pull factor)
• Governance of natural resources, arms trafficking, and poverty (push factors)

The forum discussed ways to overcome the problem of children being used in armed forces. Children who are left destitute are “given ammunition and told this is your mother and father.” Participants of the forum agreed that these children need to be exposed to peace programs instead of violence programs. We need to build a sense of community and a supportive environment in which to care for children. The participants shared information about projects that they were involved in that target violent extremism: programs leading to the empowerment of youth through workshops and forums that allow for dialogue to take place. There are challenges, often related to stakeholder engagement, partnerships, and funding. Nonetheless, the passion and dedication helps to address some of these challenges.

Starting Meaningful Conversations in the Media

On day two a media representative, Debarl Inea, addressed the forum. According to Inea, who hosts a morning TV news show, there are no conversations happening about radicalization or violent extremism despite all the acts of violent extremism. The media remains reactive toward such events, and no continued conversation is occurring around these events. He reiterated that there were systemic failures in seeing to the needs of young people and urged the forum to start conversations that would guide individuals who work in the area of radicalization and youth extremism, which is one of his own objectives.

Forum participants

Forum participants

Inea shared the story of Mohammed Imwasi, a former IT student who came to be known as “Jihadi John.” Why did ISIL select him? Inea also shared stories of other young people who were radicalized, whose profiles suggested that they came from “well-to-do” families. This implies that the selection of young people stemmed from a strategic intent to recruit from the West, and it may further suggest that ISIL has the ability to infiltrate areas least expected using highly educated young people to spread radical ideologies over all kinds of media. Inea played a video in which Jihadi John spoke about his ideology and why they were taking the lives of the victims.

A discussion ensued around the meaning of jihad and the misconceptions around its meaning. The debate centered on the distortion of religion to serve a particular purpose. Religion is used to spread a particular narrative, but there are no counter-narratives to challenge the current narratives. Mainstream media is being used to spread the narratives as news. Hassan Kinyua Omar, a lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Nairobi, stated that violent extremism remains a global threat. As long as there is low political participation, feelings of detachment and misrepresentation, and governments that continue to ignore diversity, this threat will persist. He further warned that unchecked corruption can be referred to as a radicalizer.

Final Reflections

The peace forum, organized by the University Nairobi chapter with the support of Sylff Leadership Initiatives, provided the perfect opportunity for a meaningful conversation on the push-and-pull factors underlying violent extremism and the radicalization of youth in East Africa. Forum participants agreed that violent extremism needs to be countered intellectually. Acts of violence and terrorism stem from historical injustices. The question remains: Is the world being taken captive because of a lack of intellectual capacity?

At the Global Youth Summit Against Violent Extremism held in 2015, it was suggested that military force is often the response to extremist violence. But this approach only seems to heighten tensions and trigger more support for violent ideologies; it fails to deal with the factors driving participation in violent extremism. This approach often adds to feelings of exclusion and fails to engage youth as key partners in building resilience against violent extremism.

To move beyond dealing with the symptoms of the problem, young people must be regarded as part of the solution. As young people around the world are working to build peace and prevent violent extremism, more than ever before, the response to violent extremism needs meaningful youth participation at all levels. Working collaboratively with young people to promote peace and to effectively address the drivers of violent extremism requires youth engagement as partners in the design and implementation of relevant programs and policies. Hopefully, by applying our intellectual capacity in this way, we can we start to deal with the challenge of violent extremism.

Group photo with all attendees


United States Agency for International Development. Conflict Assessment Framework, 2012, available at http://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/pnady739.pdf

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[Report] Leadership and Character Building for Youth in Rwanda

January 30, 2017
By null

Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu, who received a Sylff fellowship at Howard University in 2010, organized an SLI workshop on youth leadership empowerment in May 2016. Attending the workshop in Kigali, Rwanda, as observers from the Tokyo Foundation were Mari Suzuki, director for leadership development, and two program officers: Keita Sugai and Aya Oyamada.

 * * *

Ms. Chika Ezeanya, the organizer.

Twenty years after the genocide in which as many as 1 million people are thought to have lost their lives, Rwanda today is making great strides in its social and economic development. What is necessary for further development?

The answer, for Sylff fellow Chika Ezeanya, was clear: leadership. Each and every citizen needs to be aware of the obligation to make a positive contribution to society through their actions. To promote such awareness among university students, she organized a workshop on youth leadership empowerment as a Sylff Leadership Initiatives (SLI) project on May 25-26, 2016, at the University of Rwanda’s College of Business and Economics in Kigali, Rwanda.

Ezeanya was one of three speakers at the event, titled “Workshop on Character Building and Preparing Young Rwandans for Leadership towards Societal Advancement.” Over the two-day workshop, discussions were held on the importance of respect for social norms, setting of goals, and the development of self-motivated leadership to effectively manage one’s strengths and weaknesses. Discussions on how individuals can contribute to the resolution of social issues focused on the imaginative power needed to pinpoint and address key problems.

Mari Suzuki, director for leadership development.

Mari Suzuki, director for leadership development.

During the Q&A session near the end of the workshop, one female student who had lost her parents during the genocide asked about reconciliation: “I myself am working to forgive. But how can we communicate these experiences to the next generation and carry on with the process of reconciliation?”

In response, Salomon Nshimiyimana, who teaches at the university as executive assistant, said that no clear-cut answers exist. But just as the antagonism between ethnic groups deepened over many years, “Reconciliation, too, is a process that will take time,” he said.

Dealing directly with difficult issues that people tend to avoid is an important aspect of leadership, and individuals who can encourage people to speak their minds and bring about meaningful dialogue are likely to play a key role in demonstrating true leadership and moving society forward.

Rwandan students after the workshop.

Rwandan students after the workshop.

Julius Tumwesigye, one of the students attending the workshop, said, “It was a great contribution to Rwanda’s future, as it provided us with various leadership skills and instilled in us the importance of self-leadership.” Other students said the workshop had inspired them to spread the message of personal and social responsibility throughout the university. Such reactions from the country’s future leaders were one of the positive results of the workshop.

The organizers are to be congratulated for the success of this very important workshop. The Tokyo Foundation hopes that Dr. Ezeanya, through her work on solving the social problems she encounters in her daily life, will become one of the leaders who will help to build a brighter future for Africa.


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Training for the Best and Brightest Students on Leadership and Character Building in Rwanda

July 28, 2016
By 19603

Chika Ezeanya, a Sylff fellow from Howard University in the United States, initiated and implemented a two-day “Workshop on Character Building and Preparing Young Rwandans for Leadership towards Societal Advancement” in May 2016 in Kigali, Rwanda, with the support of an SLI grant. The following article is her reflection on the workshop. The successful workshop greatly contributed to nurturing leadership in young Rwandans who will be leaders of the community, the country, and the world in the near future.

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Motivation behind the Workshop

The organizer, Ms. Chika Ezeanya, presents with passion at the workshop on character building and leadership development in Kigali, Rwanda.

The organizer, Ms. Chika Ezeanya, presents with passion at the workshop on character building and leadership development in Kigali, Rwanda.

On May 25 and 26, 2016, the University of Rwanda College of Business and Economics gathered 30 of its brightest 300-level male and female students (according to GPA) at Nobleza Hotel in Kicukiro for a two-day intensive workshop on leadership and character building for societal advancement. The workshop was supported by a Sylff Leadership Initiatives grant.

The motivation behind the workshop is that the burden of national advancement rests on the shoulders of young people below the age of 25, who comprise 67% of Rwanda’s population. The main objective of the leadership training was to introduce young Rwandans with leadership potential to the need for building character toward effective leadership. The overall aim is to prepare these promising young people to become well-developed individuals and citizens and ensure that Rwanda as a nation is able to leverage its human resources to meet its economic growth and social advancement goals at all levels.

What Lacks in Rwanda

Education has been established as a veritable tool for training young people so that they will be equipped to hold leadership positions across sectors as older adults. Not many young Rwandans, however, are able to complete secondary education. According to the World Bank, Rwanda’s secondary school gross enrollment rate stood at 33% in 2013. Even for the few Rwandans who are able to study up to the university level, the curricula are lacking in leadership training modules. Training on leadership therefore needs to be given to selected Western-educated and not-so-educated young people with leadership potential in Rwanda.

Rwandan students at the workshop.

Rwandan students at the workshop.

The leadership training endeavored to instruct young Rwandans with leadership potential on the concept of effective leadership and its role in ensuring economic growth and social advancement at all administrative levels. It is hoped that beneficiaries will be more capable of effectively discharging their present duties as youth leaders, in addition to being prepared for higher leadership responsibilities as older adults in Rwanda.

Since the genocide, the government of Rwanda has placed emphasis on preventing a reoccurrence and has instituted several strategies for ensuring economic growth and social cohesion. Much has been achieved through numerous successful education policies, poverty alleviation programs, and agricultural and rural development projects. But these strategies lack adequate programs aimed at training the minds of young Rwandans on the need to imbibe certain character and behavioral traits necessary for effective leadership, which can firmly place the country on the path to economic growth and social advancement.

At the Workshop

Two international facilitators from the United States and Nigeria were present at the workshop to introduce certain concepts to participants and to assist them in individually and collectively thinking and working through the concepts over the course of two days. One local facilitator was also available.

Topics discussed during the workshop included “Character building as a prerequisite for societal advancement” and “Purpose-driven living, values, and principles: establishing a connection,” presented by Olumide Omojuyigbe from Nigeria, and “From self-leadership to leading others” and “Ethics and leadership,” presented by Edozie Esiobu. Meanwhile, Dr. Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu presented three courses including “Aligning personal goals with community development goals” and “Trust and economic development—a nexus.”

Also present during the workshop were three representatives from Sylff who traveled all the way from Tokyo, Japan, to show support for the workshop. Mari Suzuki, who is Sylff director for leadership development, gave a speech on the vision of Sylff and the importance of workshops of this nature to the organization. Keita Sugai, a Sylff program officer, gave the closing speech and also presented certificates of participation to all participants. Ms. Aya Oyamada, also a program officer, was at hand to ensure the success of the event. The three representatives also met with Professor Nelson Ijumba, the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs and Research, who was acting on behalf of the Vice Chancellor Professor Phil Cotton, and with the Principal of the College of Business and Economics, Professor Satya Murty. During the meeting, areas for further collaboration between the University of Rwanda and Sylff were explored.

Feedback from the Participants

The audience participated actively in the question-and-answer segments as well as in the breakout sessions, where they were divided into groups and given questions to tackle related to the topics of the day. In an anonymous questionnaire at the end of the training sessions, student participants indicated their happiness and satisfaction with the workshop, citing the knowledge they had gained, and expressed their hope of forming an association across the University of Rwanda to promote the truths they had learned from the workshop. Most participants noted that they were being trained on character building for the first time ever and stated that they left the training on the final day with a transformed mindset.

A group photo of Mr. Edozie Esiobu, one of the speakers, Mr. Keita Sugai, Program Officer for Leadership Development for the Tokyo Foundation, and all participants, taken after the workshop.

A group photo of Mr. Edozie Esiobu, one of the speakers, Mr. Keita Sugai, Program Officer for Leadership Development for the Tokyo Foundation, and all participants, taken after the workshop.

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Helping to Develop Young Leaders in Community Resource Management

March 16, 2016
By null

Four Sylff fellows from Chiang Mai University, Thailand—Pradhana Chantaruphan, Olarn Ongla, Saiwimon Worapan, and Alongkorn Jitnuku—jointly organized a field study to raise students’ awareness of environmental sustainability through community resource management. This coauthored article describes highlights of the field study and explains how collaboration among Sylff fellows helped to facilitate students’ learning.

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On April 4-5, 2015, four Sylff fellows from Thailand organized an interactive activity in Pa Ngue village, Tanuer sub-district, Mae On district, Chiang Mai Province, Thailand.“Potential development for young leadership through participation in community resource management” was a joint project organized by Chiang Mai University and Silpakorn University. The idea of the project was to encourage students to become more aware of their potential as effective agents of change in society. Learning through real experiences helps students to understand their real potentiality.

Chiang Mai University collaborates with Silpakorn University in Bangkok to provide opportunities for students from both universities to work with villagers as a part of their efforts in community engagement. For students, community engagement serves as a real-world learning opportunity. Besides participating in activities related to their own areas of study, students must serve the needs of the community to help develop wider society and themselves as well. Becoming involved with the community in this way provides useful practice, training, and learning for students and encourages them to develop into active, responsible citizens.

After the university’s Sylff fellows group meeting in 2014, the four authors of this article felt strongly that there was a need for greater community engagement. It was this shared belief that made us decide to undertake a project together. Through our discussion of the strengths of our group, we thought of tapping into the community networks we have established through our various research and projects. We divided our work into several categories. Pradhana Chantaruphantook responsibility for coordination between the two universities as a faculty member of Silpakorn University, while the fieldwork sites were selected by Olarn Ongla based on his experience of research in this village.

Site Selection: An Important Step

The story of Pa Ngue village illustrates how the process of forest management takes place in the community in response to external pressures that can include state policies and economic conditions. One thing that is peculiar to this village is the coexistence of different ethnic groups in the same area. These ethnic groups are the Karen and the so-called native or indigenous people. These consist of two groups: one group is a mixture of indigenous locals and Tai-lu from Mae-Sa-Puad village; the other is made up of indigenous people from the On-Klang sub-district. Together these ethnic groups search for ways to protect their local resources and develop strategies to deal with the state and bargain for autonomy. This is one of the things that make the village so attractive as a learning area for students. The students can see examples of conflict management among stakeholders and witness the development of ideas consistent with the historical and social circumstances. The Sylff fellows selected this area for the project based on these merits.

Project Design

Three activities over two days provided students with opportunities to work with villagers. On the first day, students and villagers cooperated with pupils from the local school to construct a check dam. On the second day, students surveyed the area where the community lives and shared with villagers in a discussion on resource management, leading to an exchange of ideas between villagers and students. This project was devoted to improving the environmental sustainability of the community and to promoting leadership among students at the same time.

Day 1: Check Dam Construction by Students, Villagers, and Local Pupils

The schedule started with an introduction of participants and the community. Villagers told participants about their history and spoke about community development and the management of community resources. Later in the afternoon, students got to put their skills into practice in a real-world setting, working alongside villagers and local students on a resource management project by constructing the dam.

Check dams are made of a variety of materials. Because they are typically used as temporary structures, they are often made of cheap and readily accessible materials, such as rocks, gravel, logs, hay bales, and sandbags. Villagers usually cannot receive financial assistance from the government to construct check dams. They have to depend on their own resources, including manpower. Check dams are also limited in duration. These factors make students’ help relevant to the need of the villagers.

Check dams are a highly effective way of reducing flow velocities in channels and waterways. Compared to larger dams, check dams are faster to build and more cost-effective, being smaller in scope. This means that building a check dam will not typically displace people or communities. Nor will it destroy natural resources if proper care is taken in designing the dam. Moreover, the dams themselves are simple to construct and do not rely on advanced technologies. This means they can be easily used in more rural and less “developed” communities.

After dinner students shared their thoughts on the work of the community, their feelings on working alongside the villagers, and their ideas about young leadership.

Day 2 : Surveying the Community Area

The first activities got underway early in the morning, with the students separated into two groups. The first group carried out a survey on villagers’ working lives. Most of the villagers are farmers, producing corn on contract for the Thai Royal Project. Farming on contract with the Thai Royal Project brings many benefits, including useful information, access to raw materials, and experts who can give farmers advice. The contracts also guarantee farmers an income, giving them security and stability. This binds the village economy tightly with local resources, and brought home to us how important it is for the villagers to be able to manage the areas they use and share resources among the community in a sustainable way.

The second group conducted a survey on water management. The geography of the village is mountainous, and ensuring a steady supply of water is no easy task. Villagers have constructed a water supply system by themselves.

The group walked into the forest to survey the headwater. The villagers told legends about ancestor worship and the animist beliefs that the members of community act out in rituals that pay respect to the local spirits. Nature is therefore something that protects the villagers and their way of life. These traditional beliefs also help to encourage the community to use the water and other resources of the forest with respect. Animists beliefs make it less likely that people will take advantage of one other and help to instill a spirit of coexistence in the community.

Group Discussions

After the students had explored the community, they compiled the data and knowledge they had gained from the course. They shared with friends in the group and passed on these findings to other friends in the separate group who carried out their surveys in a different area. At the same time they exchanged ideas with the villagers about activities in the area and doubts arising from their experiences in the field. In this way, the students were able to learn from one another, and this helped to evoke an atmosphere of enthusiasm. Through the course, participating students came to understand that community resources need to be appropriately managed and that activities of all kinds can act as a bridge to new knowledge, whether the activity involves learning from storytelling, taking part in the everyday activities of villagers, learning about resource management strategies, or taking part in discussions after the activities are over.

Significance and Impact of the Project

(1) Effects on the Community

The community will be strengthened in the management of resources already available. Participation in this activity helped to generate confidence and a sense of pride that will empower the community to put their tacit knowledge into use. The project also served as a reminder that the knowledge of the community has been handed down from generation to generation. Owing to the university’s support, helping communities in this way earns them greater bargaining power with the state. By strengthening academic networks, it also helps to give confidence to youth leadership in the village.

(2) Effects on Sylff Fellows

This project had a positive impact for the fellows from its very outset, involving as it did collaboration between fellows from three disciplines (anthropology, economics, and political science). The project served as a useful reminder of the importance of working with local communities in order to understand the social and cultural phenomena that led us to pursue these careers in the first place. In addition, a joint project of this nature reflects the interdisciplinary work and exchange of ideas between fellows with knowledge in three different fields, each with something to contribute to the project. Political science is relevant to the idea of resource management and the community’s bargaining power vis-à-vis the state, while anthropology covers concepts of culture and beliefs in collective consciousness and community benefit, and economics helps to understand the wealth accruing to the community through resource management. All of this has helped to expand fellows’ understanding and is an example of interdisciplinary work.

(3) Effects on Participating Students

Involving students from different universities and different fields, the project successfully enabled the exchange of knowledge between disciplines and interdisciplinary work among fellows. The project also raised students’ awareness of several important issues, including the struggle between state control and community autonomy and the efforts being made to protect shared resources despite ethnic differences. Witnessing the way that events unfold within the community was in itself a lesson in diversity. By exchanging this newly acquired knowledge with fellow students laid down a basis for applying these insights to other social phenomenon. It is to be hoped that this taste of hands-on learning outside the classroom will help to foster an open and constructive mindset among the young generation.


Pradhana ChantaruphanReceived a Sylff Fellowship in 2013 at Chiang Mai University, Thailand, while conducting her PhD studies in anthropology. She is a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Archeology, at Silpakorn University in Bangkok.


Olarn OnglaReceived a Sylff Fellowship in 2013.Completed a master’s degree in Political Science at the Faculty of Political Science and Public Administration, Chiang Mai University.


Sasiwimon WorapanReceived a Sylff Fellowship in 2013. A master’s student in the economics program at Chiang Mai University, Thailand. Areas of interest include business economics, international economics, and the uses of economic theory and quantitative methods to analyze problems. Her thesis is titled “Impact of Remittances on Economic Growth in ASEAN Countries.”


Alongkorn JitnukulReceived a Sylff Fellowship for the 2013-15 period. An MA student in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Chiang Mai University, Thailand.