The question was so utterly unexpected that both the woman to whom it was addressed and the general audience needed extra time to grasp its import. The question was posed by Dr. Gayle K. Porter, a clinical psychologist who co-authored, with former U.S. Assistant Surgeon General Marilyn Hughes Gaston, M.D., Prime Time: The African American Woman’s Complete Guide to Midlife Health and Wellness (Random House/One World/Ballantine). It was addressed to Dr. Mahawa Soumah, a gastroenterologist from the Republic of Guinea, who serves as a consultant to the World Bank in the fight against H.I.V./AIDS.
In the United States, Dr. Porter told Soumah, we are coping with an alarming situation in respect to the health of Black women. Our young women, like yours, face a growing threat of H.I.V./AIDS, and too few are taking the necessary precautions and being tested, she said. In your work with young women, what are some of the practices you employ and lessons you have learned that we can use with our young women? she asked.
The tables had turned. Here was an American, American-trained, doctor soliciting best practices of an African, African-trained, doctor.
This unusual but enthusiastically welcomed exchange took place during a forum on “Black Women Building Collective Identities,” at the 22nd Annual Conference of the U.S.-based International Black Women’s Congress, hosted in late September in Toronto, Canada, by the local IBWC chapter. The Congress of Guinean Women, which Soumah represented at the conference, and whose training and research division she heads, is an IBWC affiliate.
In response to Dr. Porter’s question, Soumah promised to begin documenting that information to send back to IBWC. Could this be the start of a trend in knowledge sharing between Africa and its diaspora?
Dr. Porter’s question led me to look at grassroots examples of community problem solving in Africa and the lessons that can be extracted from them. I found the notion of collective responsibility, pooling skills and resources and decisive, practical action to be key solution ingredients.
Collective Responsibility A case in point was reported in the Oct. 5 editions of The Gambia Journal. According to the newspaper, two local villages, where electricity was inaccessible, sent one woman each to be trained in solar engineering at Barefoot College in India. After a six-month course, the two women would be able to install solar units, fabricate charge controllers in their villages and carry out all repairs and maintenance on the spot. With the application of this new knowledge, the villages will become the first to be solar-powered in The Gambia, an important step toward rendering them technically and financially self-sufficient, which is the ultimate goal.
Why Barefoot College? Opened in 1972 in rural India, with support from local government, international and U.N. agencies, the college is recognized internationally as a leader in sustainable community development. It has trained literally barefoot villagers as teachers, doctors, solar engineers, hand pump mechanics, designers, chemists, communicators and accountants. Moreover, the college paid for the women’s travel, training, board and medical expenses in India, as well as the purchase of the solar-panel batteries, equipment for an electronics workshop and their delivery to The Gambia.
Pooling Resources Nomia Mokoena lives with her unemployed husband and seven children in a shack. Jennifer Nxumalo, a single mother, has no money to send her son to university. He passed his qualifying exams but works as a gardener. Until recently, Linah Mkharhi, a widowed mother, carried the shame of illiteracy.
According to a local newspaper report, they are three of 11 women in Lulekani, a village in the Limpopo province of South Africa, who are joint owners of Sasavona Guesthouse, a facility now under construction and scheduled to open early next year.
The women embarked on the project after being taught life skills, business management, marketing, computer literacy, food preparation, tourism and hospitality by the Limpopo Business Support Agency. They registered the business as a cooperative and say they will employ more than 50 people once the guest house opens. Theirs is one of about 30 cooperatives in the province that are funded by the business support agency.
“Cooperatives are the best way of fighting poverty because any member of the community, regardless of their education or social status, can become a co-owner in the business,” says Kagisano Motana, LIBSA’s administration officer for the Cooperative Business Unit.
Simple lessons from proven strategies, if only we would listen.
By Rosalind McLymont