A fresh breath of life

Interview with Beji Benjamin Jibe, Nigeria.

Beji, could you please describe the work you do, including your organisation’s name and vision. 

The Sharing Education and Learning for Life Foundation runs a formative programme called Sharing Education and Learning for Life (SELL) Programme targeting young people.The objective of the SELL Programme is to promote education for life-building skills among young people. SELL is a peace-building and human development programme that uses a very gentle approach to engaging young adults in participatory learning. SELL adopts a participatory approach with a didactic learning structure in the form of Sharing-Reflection-Action planning. This methodology is based on the philosophy of the Brazilian Educationist, Paulo Freire, who believed that education should begin with respect for the dignity of each person, learning should be from shared experiences and that training ought to be for the purpose of transformation. SELL Vision is “A society where people are empowered and live in peace and harmony”.

How long have you been doing this work and why do you think your work is important?

My journey began six years ago when I met Fr. Leo Traynor and his team at the SELL Foundation. Fr. Leo had just moved the programme from another state where the programme had begun and I was among the first set of animators trained to take the learning back to our peers in the community, since it was a peer educators programme. What captivated me right from the start was the training approach of the programme – learning through shared experiences. The processes were in the form of practical exercises which we could easily relate to as things we have experienced or seen happening in our communities. Since joining the team as a member of the resource team four years ago, we have worked with about six thousand young people in communities.

My experience so far is that the approach most organisations have used to get to young people lacks the component that takes seriously their experiences and their capacity to solve their own problems. The young people form a large percentage of the vulnerable in Nigeria and should take the centre stage and drive the process for enduring peace and development in Nigeria. From Boko Haram in the North to militancy in the South, the youth have vented their frustration against the system. There must be a concerted effort to encourage them to use non-violent ways of expressing these deep-seated frustrations. This is where my work becomes very important.

Before your participation in TfT, what were some of the main challenges in your work – personally, professionally or linked to the issues you work with or the methodology you used?

Before my participation in TfT, the main challenge I had was in figuring out how economic self reliance and gender mainstreaming could be fully integrated into my work. Our programme didn’t have any component that addressed people’s primary needs, which in most emergency situations requires attention before peace building. How to incorporate this into the peace building programmes was a challenge and this was a personal drawback for me as one who engaged directly with the young people. At the time Nigeria was ranked the biggest economy in Africa, yet the World Bank reported in that same year that over one hundred million Nigerians were living below one dollar a day.

The lack of a link between politics and people’s economic survival left our trainees not only dependent on the system, but also struggling to understand how they could be experiencing so much lack in the midst of plenty.

In addition, while we had a component on Gender, it was always very controversial to discuss this topic. This was because the process had been designed to concentrate on women, with its key theme being the triple burden of women (the expectation of taking care of the family, formal employment to contribute to family income and binding together members of the wider community). In such sessions one could see how difficult it was for the young men, who struggled to express the burdens that society placed on them. With the benefit of being exposed to the module on Gender Reconciliation at TfT, I am now able to understand in retrospect the difficulty the young men experienced in conveying their own message of their own experience and the extent to which we might not have understood what they were trying to say. Today, key sessions in gender reconciliation look not only at how men’s views and actions have impacted women, but also how women’s views and actions have impacted men and by extension how the society and cultures have significantly impacted both women and men. The outcome is that both young men and women are able to tell their stories and feel listened to. After a session on the “Truth Mandala” where participants are provided a safe space to share their very personal experiences, one of the young women said to a young man: “I am very sorry for what you passed through with your ex-girlfriend. Know that we are not all the same”. Statements such as this are a departure from the usual lack of empathy and the sometimes unapologetic defenses during sessions in the previous gender modules.

How did you hear about TfT? What course did you attend and what memory stands out for you about that course?

My colleague who initiated the SELL programme, Fr. Leo Traynor, was himself inspired by the TfT approach and had been to the Grail Centre to see Anne Hope and Sally Timmel to further entrench the TfT model into the SELL programme. That was how another colleague and I attended the Diploma course. The road to South Africa was very difficult for me because of visa issues. At one point in my frustration I had to withdraw the application and ironically the withdrawal letter earned me a visa. When I look back now, reflecting on my experience, it would have been most unfortunate to deny me this lifetime opportunity.

My immediate reaction when I got an email saying that we would be living in cottages and sharing rooms with people from other countries was a feeling of sadness. My thoughts were: “How can I live in the same room with someone I don’t know? How are we going to tolerate one another?” and many other thoughts. However, the initiative of housing people from different cultures and backgrounds turned out to be the best thing that happened to me. I had the privilege of living with great people from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Kenya, Mozambique, and Indonesia. No lectures could have given me that life changing experience which challenged and completely reversed initial prejudices that I had harboured towards my peers even before meeting them.

As one who deals directly with peace building and reconciling communities, I was reminded at TfT of the importance and value of historical site visits. The field visit to Robben Island is the biggest life experience that one can have in learning what it means to be a peace builder. The impact of that experience can never be obtained from reading books, attending classes or listening to tutors. The reality of that visit spoke for itself and today it lives on in my personal life and work. These practical experiences are the greatest memories that are alive in me and will be there forever. This practical way of learning is the biggest advantage the TfT has over other similar institutions of learning.

How has TfT helped you in the work you do or shifted the way in which you work or approach your challenges?

TfT’s approach is to work with generative themes which are a product of specific needs assessment done in a community. This part was missing in our work. Ours were units developed in six thematic areas and community workshops had to fit in to any of the six units. The old six units were becoming monotonous and the programmes predictable. It felt like we were losing touch with the “realness” of communities. My participation in the course helped me to learn how to develop processes from generative themes that are relevant at a particular time in a particular community. This new learning has injected a fresh breath of life in the relevance and acceptability of our programmes.

I come from a background where culture is very strong and in many ways denigrates the place of women in a man’s life. I unknowingly had been denying my fiancé the respect and decorum that she deserves even if I saw myself as a feminist. The session at TfT on honouring women left a big impact in my life because it showed me how I have not celebrated this woman who was sharing her life with me. I decided that day that I will do that honouring practically – the value was there in me in the first place, I had just never practiced it. The bitter lesson for me was that she had moved on with someone else. These life changing experiences have taught me the importance of practicing what you preach. The risk always is to get so consumed with helping others with knowledge that you yourself do not internalize and act on.

Another impact of TfT on me is the improvement in the quality of my work. Today I serve as the Programmes Coordinator and Team leader of an organisation in which I used to be the Admin officer. Since TfT I have spearheaded the writing of two successful project proposals, which are presently being funded. All this would not have been possible before because I didn’t have the capacity to perform effectively on the new assignment. Indeed, TfT equipped me for the task and I am proud to have been one of the participants.
On the whole it has been great putting into practice the TfT learnings. However, there has been some resistance from higher structures of the organization on programmes and methodology. This at some point has been very frustrating, since the TfT approach is one that challenges the status quo and the old approach to doing things. That makes it even more difficult to get funding on projects such as this because of the difficulty in showing results or impact. The way out in the long run is to mobilize local resources towards achieving this goal. That is the only way our initiatives can stand the test of time.

Interview by Jude Clark