African Ingenuity


I am amazed at African ingenuity.  It is never truer than in a refugee camp.  Things I throw away at home become useful items here.  A Walmart bag is turned into a kite. A water bottle becomes a car, and a soda can a truck.  These are only some of the things kids do with what they find on the ground.  This ingenuity is not limited to the kids, either. Adults have just as many creative ways to get things done.  If one way doesn’t work, they keep working until they find a way to do whatever it is they have to do. An old wheel becomes a school bell. Bench seats in vans are removed to make space for bags of crops. Bikes can transport anything if they are used as carts. If presented with educational opportunities, I am convinced most engineers would come from African countries.

We showed a movie this week to the teachers at the conference.  Let me tell you, this was no small task.  We had to have a generator and the fuel to run it.  Then we had to have a cord to connect it to the projector, and a voltage meter to make sure we didn’t blow up the projector. We needed a screen to show the movie on instead of the mud walls in the school. Uche gathered the things on the Ugandan end of things.

Yet, another cord was needed to connect my phone to the projector, which was a model with older technology. Bill located and purchased several cords to make sure we had what we needed. We had to download the Netflix movie to my phone because there is no internet to stream it to my computer. It took all of us, but we were finally ready…so we thought.

Uche got the generator running the first day, only to discover the voltage was too high.  The second day we rented a different generator and got everything connected. The projector didn’t have a fan, so it overheated.  He took it apart and had one of the participants fan it with a small book. Once it was running again, there was no cord to connect the sound to the speaker, even with all the cords I brought with me.  Uche tried to connect the speaker to the Bluetooth on my phone and it worked for a minute.  We had sound. We had picture. But only for a minute. When we played the movie through the phone, the sound cut out.  By this time, I was ready to throw in the towel, but African ingenuity doesn’t quit. While the movie played with subtitles and no sound, Uche kept working.  He put his copy of the movie on his computer and watched it until it lined up with what was on the screen.  He connected it to the speaker with his Bluetooth.  We had sound and picture, even though the sound was not all in English, even though it was two different versions of the movie, we still could make out the story and what was happening.  It was a great success, but it was exhausting to be that inventive and it wasn’t even me who was doing it!

The things the refugees do in the camp are similar.  Things we just do with the flick of a switch or push of a button take major effort for them. I do not fully appreciate how easy things are for me until I am sitting here trying to figure out all the steps it takes just to do the simplest things.  The resilience required just to survive day to day here fascinates me. It is born out of hardship. Resourcefulness has to be a way of life if they are to stand a chance. The word resourceful is defined as having the ability to find quick and clever ways to overcome difficulties. Next to the word in the dictionary should be a picture of an African person.  As a teacher, I consider myself a pretty resourceful person.  I have collected toilet paper rolls, and baby food jars for years.  This kind of behavior is birthed out of necessity, when there is no money to buy what you need. You make do.  Teachers do it all the time.  In the refugee camp, this is taken to the next level because of the extreme environment.

I got to thinking today about the word resource which means…a supply of items that can be drawn on by someone in order to function effectively. What are the resources here in the camp?  Everything you see can be used in some way, but I don’t think the greatest resource is assets or materials.  I think the minds that think of these clever ways to use what is available are the true resources.  Resilience is a resource. Each thought and creative idea is another one, and the people here have used their ideas to become ‘full of resource’ or resourceful.

For the teachers we are working with, it is a matter of taking the ability to overcome with creative ideas in order to survive, and applying the same determination to academics and literacy.  Food and shelter take precedence, of course. Once those have been taken care of, many refugees sit and wait for the unknown return home, or for someone to come and rescue them. However, if the teachers we train can capture that same drive and ingenuity, but focus it towards teaching and learning, the whole community can be affected.  Going home as literate vs. illiterate will be a game changer for their country.

I admire the resilience, resourcefulness, and ingenuity in the camps. They are the resources of the resourceful. When the talk at home is of how our kids’ generation is lacking these things, it is in stark contrast to what I see here.  Hardship breathes these resources into the lives of those it touches. War is terrible.  Being displaced, separated, and hungry is not something to desire, yet, despite those things and maybe even because of them, strength is being built into the people here. They will not return home the same people who left. It is our hope to teach them literacy, but also to learn from them the secret of being full of resource.

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