Saturday, 12 June 2010

To create your future, or let it create you?

I grew up in a TV-free house as a cultured cultural weirdo. Despite this, I absorbed a little bit of When You Wish Upon a Star-ness from a 70’s Britain of anomalies. How the universe manages to exhale Maggie Thatcher and Disney in the same breath without needing some kind of metaphysical Heimlich manoeuvre I’ll never know, but somehow it does. The future was a rosy series of beckoning successes, especially for swots. I would reach out and pluck the results I needed, a fabulous life partner, a good job and some satisfying avocations from the garden of life. ‘I can show you the world, shining, shimmering, splendid...’ I don’t think I was abnormally responsible in expecting to take quite a lot of control of my future, or abnormally lucky in expecting it to be pretty good on the whole.

Here attitudes to the future are a lot more tentative, for many good reasons. Last October, I wrote about a Community Development Plan I was hoping to work through with Aishalton Village Council ( Last Sunday we at last brought to birth a plan that has been a tidy nine months in gestation.

The pregnancy analogy is apt. The lack of control. The constant worry and anticipation. The effort needed at every stage. The careful adjustment of everything over a period of months, but combined with a sense of powerlessness about this creature that is forming itself out of nothing. And not least, the knowledge that the ‘end’ of the whole arduous process is not an end at all, but the beginning of a journey which will take on a life of its own, whilst still unapologetically taking over yours.

My own role in the planning process has oscillated wildly, from the ideal of detached benevolent facilitator through basic skills tutor to nagging Little Red Hen. I have been asked to intervene and keep out, train and facilitate and watch and stay away. Individuals on the steering group have ranged between conscientious, absent, brilliant, unreliable, dominant, baffled and drunk. I have made facilitation resources with fishing net, clothes pegs, backwards sticky tape, chopped-up clear pockets, scrubbed kebab spikes, old packing boxes and an overstretched imagination. I have felt excited, thrilled, frustrated, rejected, despairing, involved, implicated and alienated, sometimes several of them at once.

In the end, this is what happened. On 1st March we had a launch event. That was a riot. About 120 people turned up. I cannot be sure exactly how many came for the free snacks, but I have no qualms about bribery at an event that exists to capture attention and generate enthusiasm. What matters is that when they came in, they engaged with it all. The constituencies we identified right back in October were pegged on the wall, and B photographed people displaying which constituencies they belong to, creating a gorgeous poster. To our delight, someone from every single constituency was at the launch. We had to add an extra flipchart to the giant draw-it-yourself poster introducing the vision, to accommodate all the different ideas. The problem tree burgeoned with leaves.

Young and old alike crowded round the jigsaw puzzle, and listened to the beginner’s guide to chess and strategic thinking. The good things and opportunities represented by really yummy cakes, spicy doughballs and beef patties received their fair share of attention but no more. We ended late because the jigsaw group didn’t want to leave until they completed it!

The momentum carried through pretty well to the Vision day on 22nd March. Five different groups met, under trees and in benabs, at bars and shops and churches. All of them visualised the future they want for Aishalton five years from now, and through discussion came up with their most important elements. There were seven in total; better education for all, improved infrastructure and power, good health and prosperity, building positively on Wapishana culture, good and enjoyable new activities, better land use and taking advantage of local resources.

I knew the next stage would be the hardest, but I did not dare to expect such a reflective, self-critical outcome. In three larger groups this time, we met on 26th April to identify the obstacles that prevent Aishalton from reaching its best potential. Fourteen big obstacles were identified, and if an outsider came in and said those things they would get lynched! Out of the mouths of Aishalton’s villagers came the following insights. “Disrespect, negativity and selfishness are harming the way we work together. Disheartened by bad infrastructure, we don’t manage our skills and resources to the full. We neglect our elders. Leaders at all levels are not building trust through good example. We neglect community education, and undervalue schooling. Medical understaffing and our inadequate diet and hygiene are affecting health. We are not taking enough responsibility for our land, water and produce. We are not building pride in Wapishana culture. Abuse and neglect in the family is damaging individuals. Poverty is preventing some people from improving their opportunities. Alcohol abuse and drunkenness are damaging families, work and community. Bureaucracy and political channels block our progress. Negative influences and lack of opportunities are reducing young people’s interest. Religious disagreements hinder cooperation.” Coming from an NGO, a priest or a politician, this would be an unwelcome and devastating critique. Coming from the inside, I would say that this level of self-knowledge, and willingness to analyse, offer a lot of hope for the future.

After this marathon, our Solutions meeting on 31st May was a relief. One big group met in the Community Centre. Low brick walls and slim tree trunks support a neat ité thatch, providing a cool and semi-enclosed space for public meetings, and the rest of the time sheltering cows and horses with extremely poor bladder control- they retreat into the Community Centre from the wildest storms, and moo, poo and chew the night away. Then a couple of hours before each community event, a few middle-aged ladies are sent round with brooms to remove the evidence. Meetings always start with tidy benches, clean floors and air mysteriously full of dung-motes, a not unpleasant earthy ambience.

We used the problems generated a month earlier to seek out wider solutions that would apply to all of them, coming up with strategic directions which will act as a rudder for the Village Council over the coming five years. We chose four; developing skills & creating opportunities, building strong, healthy families, sustaining & strengthening cultural activities, and developing leadership & responsibility. At the end we invited anyone from this session to be involved with turning these into an Action Plan for the coming year.

And now at last we had reached the final hurdle. On 6th June, a group of about 20 of us, with plenty of Village Councillors and steering group members, met in the Council Office to decide where to start. Participants selected which of the four directions they felt most passionate about, and we divided into four groups accordingly. Each group had a large collection of ideas from the other stages, as well as their own new ideas generated on the spot. From these they picked eight do-able actions and chose a logical order in which to do them for the coming year. Some are simple but clearly necessary; establish responsibility for proper garbage disposal, organise workshops for people interested in kitchen gardening, establish a body to seek funds for needy students. Others are more visionary; run video shows dealing with domestic problems, focus group to develop cotton weaving in Aishalton, consult youth group about what leadership training they need. At the end of the meeting, each group went out clutching their A4 implementation plans for each action in the first quarter, looking apprehensive, worrying about buy-in and success, suddenly holding tangible responsibility in their hands. The following day, lying in my hammock, I could hear voices drifting over from the quarterly Public Meeting, Aishalton’s main democratic forum, explaining the CDP and reading out the strategic directions. No-one called me over to explain anything. It belongs to the Council now. Where it will take them is anyone’s guess. It might fail. It might vanish. It might get eroded into a series of ad hoc activities. Or it might bring about a gradual shift in villagers’ sense of control, a trickle of confidence when facing outsiders with opinions about Aishalton’s development, a greater engagement with their future, and determination to do what they can to make it better.

Launch, Vision, Obstacles, Strategy, Actions. All those months of work for a series of small planned activities, fragile and for the most part unresourced. Why is it worth it? I have to return to the pregnancy analogy. It’s worth it because there is nothing more important. It’s worth it because the independence of something you had a hand in creating has far more potential for greatness than it ever would have if it stayed in you. It’s worth it because there can be nothing more humbling, more thrilling, more demeaning, more infuriating and more glorious than conceiving of something alive, independent, and then letting it go and create a future in which you will be incidental. Let’s face it, all you parents, writers, inventors, Dr Frankensteins and erstwhile creators out there, we have to feel lucky that we were in at the beginning, that we generated something, because from the minute you let it go, and you must let it go, it’s you that is on your own.


  1. Congratulations, it sounds like a mountainous and wobbly endeavour. I hope they pick it up, run with it and keep adding to it for a long time. Nx

  2. Fascinating. I love your complete unselfishness about it all. You have done a GOOD THING and I am proud of you. xxx