Author:  Anele Herbet Dube, November 2 2016 - In my previous article I wrote about how community radio promotes participatory communication based on my experiences. During those times, I remember my colleague Jerry Zingwevu saying to me ‘I think people (referring to Civil Society Organisations-CSOs) need to re-think how they view these rural communities. They are no longer the same. They are now very complicated’. He had a point, a very valid point. Probably his argument was based on his experience as our Monitoring and Evaluation guy when he interfaced with and analysed the data we would have collected rural Matabeleland.

If he had said that statement in a workshop or conference in a certain hotel in an urban setup, I bet, many would have dismissed him. They would deliberately choose not to interrogate his statement because of the ‘we know’ mentality which I personally believe has been one of the contributing factors to failed interventions by CSOs in Zimbabwe. The ‘we know’ mentality has clouded many CSOs through a CSO-Community juxtaposition where the later are not only viewed as knowledgeless but also powerless. The juxtaposition is such that CSOs have defined themselves ‘experts’ going out to the rural communities to liberate or extract them from poverty, oppression, manipulation etc because they (communities) have failed to do so themselves.

How complex are rural communities

The complex nature of rural communities is quite interesting and is actually a positive element to development agencies if deeply interrogated. As we conducted that TAMERA project in Lupane, Tsholotsho, Bubi, Matobo, Nkayi, Bulilima and Mangwe districts I realised that rural communities are not as ‘knowledgeless’ and unaware of current affairs as many organisations assumed. Indeed, access to information is a challenge but there is no total blackout on information.

Rural communities have their own local systems of information access that inform their decision making and knowledge creation processes. These are opinion leaders such as retired personnel from the public and private sectors and include teachers, police officers, former business managers, jobless graduates etc. These communities are also characterised by young people who passed O and A levels but could not pursue tertiary level due to various reasons that are economically, socially and politically rooted.  The communities own radio sets that connect them to Studio 7 and television sets that tap into the satellite. These groups (opinion leaders) form a critical composition of rural communities, neutralising the perceived information deficiency.  They are the persons who bring information to communities after visiting urban areas for services such as pension monies. They engage on debates based on their ‘urban’ experiences with their rural counterparts creating a convergence and synthesis of knowledge.

Another group is that of transport personnel such as drivers and conductors of buses and kombis who frequent Bulawayo and have access to current affairs and news updates which they share with their relatives and friends back in these communities. I also observed that public service employees such as police officers, teachers and nurses (where they are available) are also information providers to communities as they have increased opportunities of visiting urban areas for various reasons. In such an information network, the nature of rural communities is definitely redefined as there is information access no matter how diluted and compromised it could be. It is also important to note that mobile penetration in rural areas has boosted information exchange. Mobile penetration is at 84% according to Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStat, 2014). Radio which has been a dominant source of information stands at 51% whilst television is at 31% (ZimStat, 2014).

These factors have redefined the composition nature of rural communities creating a complicated knowledge creation process which leads to high breed knowledge. I call it high breed because it is a fusion of the traditional and modern community groups with varying experiences, beliefs and exposure. As a result, these communities, through their knowledge bases, and the networks have gained capabilities to challenge and resist manipulation especially in relation to their resources. The Maleme land dispute in Matobo where a good example as communities, collectively protected their land resources and defended their livelihoods with CSOs being spectators on the sidelines. The Matobo community managed to mobilise itself as reflected by three community meetings where attendance figures were 576, 300, 460 and 890 (interview, Nyathi, 2015). They spoke in one voice, built their cases through evidence of benefits from the Ebenezer irrigation scheme, openly narrated how their lives have changed and created a platform of equality whether male or female, young or old, married or widowed. Having strengthened their case through evidence building, consistence in messaging and displaying high levels of confidence, they explored avenues of power in the form of traditional leadership to convey their message. Civil Society organisations surely should take some time and learn from the Matobo community.

Indeed I have to acknowledge that some CSO joined the struggle later playing roles of publicity and legal services when 12 community members were arrested.  Sadly, some CSOs, as expected went on to claim the glory as they awarded themselves accolades of successfully defending the Maleme land.

Why Dialogue based interventions

One of the debatable challenge is that in an economically paralysed environment like Zimbabwe, where getting employed is almost a miracle, the civil society space has become more of an employment zone. This has affected development approaches a lot in that the focus (by CSOs) shifts towards winning that donor proposal award and be guaranteed of salaries and benefits. This has to change and the starting pointing is that’s CSOs should strive to deeply understand these communities through conducting ethnographic studies, surveys, etc which provides rich knowledge of these communities from their natural setting. Understanding their beliefs, their values, their attitudes, feelings are all the missing link to designing effective interventions. This requires dialogue because it is only them (communities) who can share knowledge, experiences, culture and beliefs about their environments hence proffer solutions

There is no way a programmer, in an air conditioned office, drinking Coca cola can ‘google’ the challenges of a single mother who travels 7kms to fetch water from a borehole in Tsholotsho. Dialogue should be understood as a process of learning and knowing and applies to both parties involved in it. Freire (1970:89) argues that ‘dialogue cannot be reduced to the act of one persons "depositing" ideas in another, nor can it become a simple exchange of ideas to be "consumed" by the discussants’. Dialogue encompasses reflection and action and this should be a collective process where a partnership exists.

Dialogue also equalises relations between the community and the development agent as none is perceived to be dominant than the other. Freire (1970: 69) articulates that “only the dialogue, which requires critical thinking, is also capable of generating critical thinking’. In this case, communities are critical thinkers in their own right and should be afforded an opportunity to prove so through dialogue. This therefore denounces labelling communities ‘beneficiaries’ as by doing so, is tantamount to portraying CSOs as ‘saviours’ doing these communities a favour. It depicts a master-servant relationship, which tilts the scales of the partnership to the CSOs. We need to seriously re-think calling communities beneficiaries because in the process of development, CSOs and donors do benefit too. That is why there is always that ‘Lessons Learnt’ section in project reports. Recognising communities as development partners invokes their critical thinking and boosts their self-confidence in that they gain the belief that they are a stakeholder in a development initiative rather than just a ‘beneficiary’.

Dialogue also depoliticises interventions as communities will arguably view an initiative as a process they themselves identified and therefore need to address it collectively despite their different political jackets. The Maleme land dispute is a very good example where the community collectively met several times and established solutions despite political differences.  Arguably, if the resistance had been brought by a civil society organisation the results would have been different. Further, dialogue enhances participatory communication as communities become drivers of the development process in an active rather than ‘mute’ manner. Through dialogue, communities reclaim their voice and have a say at every stage and therefore input in decisions regarding those interventions. This fertilises experiences leading to rich lessons and generation of new knowledge hence giving birth to best practices.

What happened to baseline surveys and needs assessments if I may ask? Are they out of fashion now? Have they been replaced by the internet and desktops? Food for thought…