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Africa Forum 2009 - An experience in adult learning


By Kara Greenblott

Kara Greenblott lived and worked in Africa and Southeast Asia for 11 years managing a diverse range of humanitarian programmes. She has a Masters degree in Economic and Political Development, and certificates in public health and livelihoods. Since returning to the U.S. four years ago, she has been co-owner and consultant for Nzinga International, a consulting firm working in the areas of HIV, food and nutrition security, livelihoods, orphans and vulnerable children and social protection.

Gwenelyn O'Donnell was responsible for supervising and editing the drafting of this article. She is the Director of Project Concern International (PCI)'s Washington DC office and Technical Officer for Food & Nutrition Security. Gwenelyn has more than ten years of experience working in development in the areas of HIV, food security, nutrition, livelihoods, maternal & child health and child survival. She holds Masters degrees in Public Health and International Economics/Latin American Studies.

This article describes how the principles of adult learning were used to deliver a highly participative and experiential conference, to better prepare each participant to tackle the challenges of HIV, food insecurity and malnutrition in their own context.

Africa Forum 2009 (AF09) brought together humanitarian and development practitioners to present and discuss 'Sharing Integrated Solutions to HIV and Food and Nutrition Insecurity'. This was, however, by no means an ordinary conference. AF09 can be more truly described as a learning experience, which actively engaged each participant's own, self-defined learning processes. The ultimate goal was to improve participants' ability to design and implement integrated HIV, food security and nutrition (FNS) programmes for those infected and affected by HIV and AIDS.

Learning about keyhole gardens

Africa Forum 2009 was organised by Project Concern International (PCI), in collaboration with a host of non-governmental organisation (NGO) and private sector partners (see list at end of article), and was held June 21 to 26, 2009 on the shores of Lake Malawi. Previously, approximately 170 Africans from 18 sub-Saharan African countries travelled to Malawi to advance the goals of the first Africa Forum in 20061 which had taken place in Zambia. Like its predecessor, AF09 aimed to achieve what many conferences fail to even identify as a goal. As a practitioner-led conference, it sought to generate 'shared learning' from within the vast portfolio of expertise and experience of the participants themselves. Applying this unique style of participant-led, interactive learning meant that its participants gained practical, applied skills and knowledge, used and practiced at AF09. This meant they could then apply them to their own HIV and FNS interventions upon return to their countries. Here are some of the ways that this was achieved.

Every participant has something to offer

AF09 raised $53,788 in scholarship funds to ensure that those who were committed to the goals of AF09 would be able to attend. More than one-third of AF09 participants (60) received either a partial or full scholarship. An additional three participants received sponsorship from Irish Aid, four from UNICEF and six from USAID.

There was, however, one caveat for these scholarship recipients, and in fact for each and every participant who attended the conference. Every participant was required to contribute their programmatic expertise to the conference in some manner. They could sit on a discussion panel, run a skill-building session, host a site visit, or be part of a public debate on a controversial issue. AF09 did not bring in outside experts, as with 170 HIV and FNS practitioners attending, there was a plethora of expertise to be shared and cultivated. AF09 strongly contends that HIV and FNS practitioners (at this conference and many others) hold a wealth of untapped knowledge (both codifiable2 and tacit3) and that it is only necessary to provide the forum (a trusting space) and mechanics (adult learning platforms) to tap into and make this knowledge more readily available towards solving our common challenges.

Nothing about us without us

One of the most effective ways to reach adult learners with educational messages is in and through narrative constructions. Storytelling has long been understood to be a powerful medium for connecting new knowledge with lived experience so that meaning can be derived. With this in mind, each morning's plenary began with an emotionally-charged talk by a HIV-positive individual who shared their own experience, strength and hope. Hearing their personal stories served as a daily reminder of the personal nature of our work as practitioners, and kept participants grounded in the realities of living with HIV and AIDS. These 'morning motivationals' also set the tone for each day's work. They reminded participants that a key priority agreed at the previous AF06 was to ensure that decisionmaking about integrated HIV and FNS programming be guided by the voices of those most affected. "Nothing About Us Without Us", the buzz words of the South African movement of people living with HIV (PLHIV), became the rallying cry for AF06. Interestingly, AF09 participants cited these personal testimonies as among their most powerful experiences at the conference (See Box 1 for one example).

Music sends a message

Music has been referred to as 'storytelling to a tune'. Like telling a story, the use of popular music to educate and advocate for change has long been part of African culture. AF09 celebrated this tradition by hosting a 'musical keynote' to open the event with the awe-inspiring talent of Zimbabwean musician Oliver Mutukudzi. Known as 'Tuku' to his fans, his songs courageously tackle a variety of HIV-related themes, including rape, death, and being faithful to your partner. Recording since the mid-1970's, Tuku is a legend by virtue of his longevity (he is still performing at 57 when most of his contemporaries have died of AIDS), but also because he is a prolific singer/songwriter (more than 40 albums), a gifted guitarist and to date, best selling artist of all time in Zimbabwe (See Box 2).

Box 1: Johnson Barongo's story

Johnson Barongo is a 17 yearold man from Tanzania who lost both his mother and father to AIDS. Johnson learned early on that he had contracted the virus from his mother and at first he had difficulty accepting the news. His stepmother gave him love and encouragement and helped him become wellinformed and empowered about how to live positively. Today, Johnson is healthy, happy and has a lot of friends who know his HIV status.


Box 2: Lyrics from 'MABASA' by Tuku

Oliver Mtukudzi and his son, Sam

Oliver Mutukuzi's 'MABASA' is a highly inspired song mourning the devastating effects of AIDS. Without directly referring to the disease, the song has enough imagery to paint the bleak picture: "Tears run dry. We mourn quietly. Death has now lost meaning (because of its frequency). Funerals no longer have the necessary dignity. Everyone around us is dying. Who will sympathize with whom since each one of us has death in their homesteads daily? Who will mourn whom? Who will bury whom? Who will feed whom since the breadwinners are all dying?"

Communities of Practice

Adult learning is driven by the need for information that will solve personal or work-related problems. Alternatively it may be driven by an understanding of the consequences of not having that information. Furthermore, adult learning is most effective when people learn with others. When they learn together, they share and build on one another's perceptions, hear one another's interpretations, and challenge and modify their own.

AF09 placed a significant emphasis on educating participants on the role of Communities of Practice (CoPs), also known as learning communities, as a medium for generating shared learning and solving personal, work-related, and organisational problems. Participants were provided with the experience of being part of a CoP by participating in a 'Peer Assist' exercise so that they could understand, first hand, the value of using the group to overcome both individual and collective challenges. Throughout the conference, participants were taken through a guided process of creating their own CoP, so that if desired, they would have the skills to do so upon return to their countries.

We are what We Eat!

Adult learning is also motivated by the experience of success. Knowledge of results, and even better, getting a taste of those results, inspires adults to acquire the requisite knowledge/skills for their own use, and towards their own success.

'Practicing what we preach' was the philosophy of AF09 in terms of keeping our bodies strong by eating nutritious meals. Consuming the fruits (or in this case, the vegetables) of a successful venture - the permaculture garden -- had the effect of stimulating interest in permaculture. It gave people the experience of eating tasty meals that were grown and cultivated on site by people who, like themselves, had no previous experience.

The conference menu was designed for anyone (including PLHIV) wanting to eat the healthiest, locally available foods, while protecting and conserving environmental resources. To achieve this goal, GTZ/Malawi (one of the key supporters of AF09) hired a local permaculture expert to train the hotel/restaurant staff on setting up a permaculture garden. This was a primary source of herbs, spices and vegetables for daily lunches and tea breaks. By all accounts, lunches and tea breaks were highly nutritious, diverse and tasty!

The permaculture expert and her team coached the venue staff on cultivating and maintaining the garden, and if they chose, showed them how to replicate it at home. This initiative, entitled 'We Are What We Eat', began several months prior to the conference, and provided micronutrient dense food choices such as herbal teas, fruits, vegetables, spices, legumes, nuts, herbs, dairy and other such foods listed in the guide, 'Food for People Living with HIV4'. The staff were also taught food preparation methods that conserve nutrients such as steaming, preparing raw food, baking, and avoiding over-cooked (e.g. excessive boiling) and fried foods.

As is standard with permaculture gardens, all types of fertilizers and chemicals to treat plants were avoided, and natural insect repellents (e.g.'Tithonia5') were used. Seeds and seedlings were planted in pumpkin shells to help nurture them, using biodegradable toilet paper rollers for support rather than polythene or other types of tubes. Soil in a permaculture garden does not require tilling, and can be 'prepared' for seeds with compost made from local manure.

Members from the community nearby the venue came out to observe the set-up of the garden. Many initially laughed at the permaculture gardeners, (joking that the compost heaps looked like "earth tomb stones"), but later the same individuals admired and inquired about the vegetables and fruits produced in the garden. The garden was also featured as one of the conference 'site visits' so that all participants had the opportunity for a tour, and to see where their meals were coming from.

Touch and taste

Adult learners absorb new information more readily when they experience that information with multiple senses. In keeping with the spirit of demonstration and hands-on learning, a 'Taste and Touch' session was also organised to introduce local dishes and nutritious foods for PLHIV from various African countries. The session featured recipes from eight different African countries (i.e. Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe), and ranged from natural teas and biscuits, to easy to ingest soya-sorghum rich meals. Facilitators shared the recipes and preparation methods during the session, and participants received a recipe booklet6 containing all of the recipes from that session, as well as select tea breaks and lunches specifically prepared for AF09 participants throughout the week.

Skill-building sessions

For adults, learning is an active and voluntary process. Involvement in topic selection and the opportunity to practice what is learned are crucial to assimilating, testing, accepting and internalizing new knowledge and/or skills. These ideas were put into practice in the form of skills-building workshops on HIV and FNS programming.

Fifteen skills-building workshops, lasting approximately three hours each, took place over the course of the five-day conference. They were interactive, 'hands on' and practical, with topics ranging from constructing a key-hole garden, and designing monitoring and evaluation (M&E) activities for food and nutrition activities to growing, preparing and processing healthy and nutritious foods for PLHIV.

The criteria for offering a session were straight forward:

  • It must be relevant to the overall purpose/ subject of AF09 and the needs of its participants.
  • It must have a hands-on, operational focus/design (vs. theoretical).
  • It should include opportunities for actual skills building (i.e. for practicing the new skill).
  • The knowledge and skills presented must be replicable (i.e. participants should be able to take it home, adapt it and use it in their own setting).
  • It must be logistically feasible and clearly organised.
  • It must be completed in the time allotted (i.e. a maximum three hours).

Multi-level container garden for nutritious vegetables at home

To the extent possible, skills-building sessions took place in communities neighbouring the venue, and involved the members of those communities. This meant that initiatives would be more likely to be sustained beyond the life of the conference. The keyhole and multi-level sack gardens, for example, were developed at a local school, while the fuel-saving stove was constructed (and demonstrated) at a community centre.

Debates on controversial themes

Drama and humour have ways of helping us to personally relate and to remember new ideas and concepts especially where these generate a strong emotional response.

With this in mind, three debates were organized on current controversies around HIV and FNS programming in the global community. The debates were structured like a boxing match, with the adversaries moderated by a talented, though provocative, referee, and with the goal of challenging the assumptions (and conclusions) of participants.

The first debate pitted the generally accepted use of ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTFs) (which has increased dramatically in the context of AIDS-related, severe and moderate acute malnutrition), against the longer-term solution of promoting durable, self-sustaining solutions through a greater focus on urban and rural homestead gardening for healthier diets. The second debate focused on the tension between cash and voucher-based safety nets, and traditional food assistance delivery. And the third challenged the appropriateness and feasibility of social protection in resource-constrained, developing countries.

The debaters took extreme positions and provoked one another to defend their stance. The passionate positioning - both tactical and strategic - of the debaters engaged the audience, who voted for the winning debater with voluminous cheering and laughter. Though all debaters were 'acting' the part, they noted that in the days that followed their debates, conference participants repeatedly approached them to re-engage them in the debate, and to try to convince them of the opposing argument.

Panel discussions

Panel discussions were a key feature at AF09. There were six throughout the week, and they were designed to help the audience explore key issues in HIV and FNS programming across a variety of programmes, models and countries. Having various perspectives represented in a panel format, the moderator's job was to tease out cross-cutting challenges, lessons learned and recommendations for improved programming. The style was informal - a 'talk-show' format - and audience participation, in the form of comments and questions for the panelists, was a crucial aspect of the exercise. Like the debates of the morning plenaries, provocative/challenging contributions were encouraged, and discussions between panelists (and audience members) often became heated.

Site visits

Site visits represented the essence of experiential learning (i.e. learning from direct experience). This was about seeing, touching and feeling integrated HIV and FNS interventions in action, and interviewing project staff and beneficiaries to learn, first hand, about their challenges and secrets to success. Site visit facilitators were encouraged to create lively and interactive outings, where participants would come away with new ideas, along with guidance on how to put them to use. Some of the interventions visited included a youth vocational training project (tailoring, metal smithing, and furniture making), aquaculture (fish farming) for HIV-affected families, and income generating activities for PLHIV and orphans and vulnerable children.

One example of how learning acquired during one of the site visits (aquaculture/fish farming) was put into practice after AF09 appears in Box 3. Malawi Defence Force capitalizes on skill building in fish pond creation.

Box 3: Malawi Defense Force capitalizes on skill building in fish pond creation

Learning first hand about the role of aquaculture

The Malawi Defense Force's (MDF's) Lt. Davie Jones Gondwe was supported by Project Concern International (PCI) Malawi to attend AF09. Selected by his commander at Cobbe Barracks, Lt. Gondwe represented the Umodzi HIV Support Group and their successes in communal gardening and aquaculture. At AF09 Lt. Gondwe reported that the gardens at Cobbe Barracks in Zomba produce sufficient quantities of fruit and vegetables to enhance the food security status of families in the network, while also supporting the salaries of three civilian gardeners and a fourth person to maintain a fish pond. There had been structural problems with the fish pond, however, resulting in the loss of water and fish.

Gondwe is now using skills acquired at AF09 to provide technical assistance for the rejuvenation of the pond and pond maintenance. Gondwe has also worked with Cobbe's Umodzi Support Group to develop a second fish pond, with construction of that pond financed by contributions from the network's membership of PLHIV, with the expectation that they will reap the benefits of imminent fish harvests.

Gondwe was recently recruited by the MDF's HIV Programme Coordinator to showcase the successes of the Cobbe support network to other barracks in the MDF system, sharing lessons learned from his participation at AF09. Two other units have also requested his help and the MDF has agreed to fund Gondwe's travel to these and other units to provide technical support and capacity building towards replicating this effort.

Coaching/mentoring on presentation skills

For many of the participants, AF09 offered an opportunity to speak at an international conference for the first time in their careers. As part of its commitment to building capacity, the AF09 organizing committee worked with those with presentation/facilitation roles who requested mentors, providing one-on-one support and guidance on presentation style, content, and delivery. Active coaching began by phone and email months before AF09, and culminated in a personal 'coaching and prep' day the Saturday before the event.

All panelists, moderators, site visit facilitators, presenters, debaters, morning motivators and others with key presentation/facilitation roles arrived 1-2 days early to work with their mentors and practice their parts. In many cases, coaching continued throughout the week to maximize the self-confidence and presentation/ debating skills of each participant.

Given that didactic or instructive styled presentations are generally ineffective for adult learners, lectures and excessive use of power point slides were avoided at all costs. Presenters (moderators, panelists, etc.) were given specific guidelines and coaching on how to best utilize power point as a support to 'their story' (if they chose to use it at all) (see Box 4).

Box 4: Guidelines for panel discussions

  1. The content should be operational in focus (i.e. practical/usable rather than theoretical), reflecting the 'voice of experience'.
  2. The content should profile best practices, innovative approaches or solutions, and where possible, provide evidence that profiled interventions actually work.
  3. The mix of panelists should provide content that is complementary in nature, in order to provide the 'big picture'. Panelists can 'play off' each other through the content they present, even disagree at points, but overall must facilitate and encourage discussion.
  4. Audience involvement should be actively sought, not only through questions and answers but through any other creative means! Work with your coach for ideas.


Box 5: Sponsors of AF09

There were a total of 17 financial sponsors of AF09 who contributed in total more than US$298,000. The majority of these organisations also contributed their time and expertise to the organising of the event. AF09 sponsors included: Catholic Relief Services (CRS); Concern Worldwide; Farmers World; Friends of WFP; German Technical Cooperation (GTZ); Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN); International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT); Irish Aid; Land O'Lakes; PATH IYCN Project; PCI; Save the Children; Small Foundation; Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Co-operation (CTA); Gem Foundation; World Food Programme (WFP); and World Initiative for Soy in Human Health (WISHH). Those organisations that provided in-kind support to AF09 included: USAID, FANTA-2, UNICEF, Sunbird Hotels/Resorts, and Zain Telcom Network. Air Malawi and Kenya Airlines also provided discount flight tickets for AF09 participants.

Though each panelist had a brief opportunity to provide programmatic context in the form of a presentation, the focus was primarily on interaction with the audience and creating an active learning environment.

M&E - learning trees and listening posts

A learning tree

Individual differences among adult learners increase with age and experience, and adults have a deep need to be self-directing, i.e. to identify and opt-in to learning activities that most appeal to their individual learning styles. While site visits were ideal for some participants (in terms of absorbing and experiencing new concepts and information), others preferred more conventional models, such as the panel discussions and debates. AF09 offered a diverse portfolio of learning opportunities so that each and every participant could find an approach that resonated best with their own learning style.

Any conference that is truly dedicated to positive adult learning outcomes ensures that strategies and methodologies used are monitored for success. A learning tree (see picture) and listening posts were used (among other techniques) to elicit ongoing feedback throughout the conference. While the tree captured participants' perceptions of their most significant learning, the listening posts - situated throughout the venue - monitored more general attitudes around what was working and what needed to be improved.

In sum, AF09 offers future conference organisers a unique way to elicit and transmit learning. With a focus on the practitioners/participants themselves, AF09 advocates that 'the answers are within', and that we need only provide the space and platform to generate the relevant knowledge (and skills) that will overcome both our individual and collective challenges.

For more information about PCI and Africa Forum 2009, contact Ms. O'Donnell at godonnell@projectconcern.org

Details on AF09, including photos and content of all sessions can be found on PCI's website at http://www.projectconcern.org/site/PageServer?pagename=Africa_Forum_2009

1The theme for AF06 was 'An Integrated Response to the Dual Epidemics of HIV/AIDS and Food Insecurity'

2Codifiable knowledge is easily transferable information.

3Tacit knowledge (as opposed to formal or explicit knowledge) is knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it.

4Food for people living with HIV. Network of African People Living with HIV (NAP+). Luanne Epstein 1995. Published by Hope Productions, Cape Town. Developed originally with a grant from UNDP for a Regional project on HIV and Development, Dakar Senegal. Reproduced by JSI-STAFH Project (Support to AIDS and Family Health) for NAPHAM, The National Association for people living with HIV in Malawi, Lilongwe 1997

5An orange flower also known as tree marigold, Mexican tournesol, Mexican sunflower or Nitobe chrysanthemum (Tithonia diversifolia)

6The recipe booklet can be downloaded at http://www.projectconcern.org/site/DocServer?docID=1941

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