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Composing a new song: Stories of empowerment from Africa
Edited by: Hope Chigudu
Published by Weaver Press Ltd, 2002 Distributed by African Books Collective Ltd
October 13, 2005

‘Composing a New Song: Stories of Empowerment from Africa’ sets out to tell the stories of five African non-governmental organizations (NGO) and the processes by which they have been able to successfully empower those communities which they serve. The focus of each organization differs, but all have in common the fact that they work within communities often neglected by mainstream development. These five organizations are using tactics or methods which differ from the conventional – they are taking African principles and values and making them work for those people who need help. They are also very self-aware organizations – each taking into account not only the issues around which their work surrounds, but also the processes by which they endeavour to meet their goals. These organizations have been incredibly reflective, and offer here a view into the realm of NGOs and their management which one does not often get.

The word ‘empowerment’ represents an excellent idea and goal for development - to give power back to the people so that they may control their own development and gain access to their rights. But in many ways it is a term that has been co-opted by large donor agencies and has been tossed around as a guarantee of funding and method of right practice. Taken back into the hands of small, local organizations, some that even shun funding for fear that it may corrupt their work, empowerment can succeed, and as ‘Composing a New Song: Stories of Empowerment from Africa’ demonstrates, the principle does indeed exist in Africa.

Dr Olaseinde Arigbede of Nigeria, founder of the Coalition for Popular Development Initiatives in Nigeria (CODOPIN), writes eloquently of his personal and professional search for an organization unrestrained by the limitations imposed by donors. He also provides an interesting insight into how empowerment can really work with the methodology employed by CODOPIN, premised around the idea that people working for development must not simply be `infallible bringers of uncommon wisdom,’ but both teachers and learners.

Tomson Dube works for Zimbabwe’s Organization of Rural Associations for Progress (ORAP), and is Academic Director of Zenzele College (an institution within ORAP). His essay is an in-depth examination of the processes by which ORAP works. The organization is different from others in that it takes the concept of empowerment extremely seriously, placing in the hands of all members the responsibility to analyse their own particular situations and challenges in order to jointly make plans to meet their needs. This is then undertaken via the philosophy of ORAP, which relies on African principles found in the Ndebele language. Primarily, this is the idea of ‘zenzele,’ which means "do it yourself," and translates into people standing on their own.

Patrick Kiirya, Director of Uganda’s Literacy and Adult Basic Education Organization (LABE), is the only Ugandan NGO to work on issues surrounding literacy. As an organization meant to support other NGOs and community based organizations (CBO), LABE works within all of the realms necessary for them to further their goals - they collaborate with government on issues surrounding policy, offer consultancy and support services for smaller organizations in the same field, and offer participatory courses to those who wish to learn how to read. They take their objectives further in linking literacy to development. They do this practically in the courses they offer, making sure that the course material is not only relevant to the lives of those studying, but also connects the process of teaching people to read to the very issues surrounding development in their community.

Emily Sikazwe is Executive Director of Zambia’s Women for Change (WFC), an organization dedicated to meeting the needs of rural women. Through their belief that one cannot know the needs of a community without living in it, WFC has animators living in the communities in which they work for 2-3 weeks out of every month. The organization has provided a number of income generating opportunities for their communities, and in addition, utilizes the knowledge of those women whom it has trained to subsequently teach other community members. Putting this power back into the hands of the women has instigated them to make further demands, not only on WFC, but on local and national government, demonstrating that with a little assistance, empowering a community to gain the skills and confidence necessary to make positive changes is indeed possible.

Leila Sheikh, Executive Director of the Tanzania Media Women’s Association (TAMWA), represents an organization that has seen incredible shifts in its concentration. Beginning as an organization meant to use the media to sensitize communities on gender issues, and also lobby government for women’s rights, TAMWA, without losing their focus on awareness raising, has also created a Crisis Centre, in order to provide legal aid and counseling services to women and children who have survived violence. Evolving from a small collective that focused on media, the organization transformed into a larger association that works for women’s rights on all levels.

"Composing a New Song: Stories of Empowerment from Africa" is an important book for several reasons. Not only does it document the evolution of these five successful African organizations, it provides potential frameworks for other organizations looking to solidify their roles as organizations that truly wish to empower the communities in which they work. This collection of essays can thus be regarded as a tool for others in the field of African development, sharing many first hand experiences and lessons.

* Reviewed by: Karoline Kemp, Commonwealth of Learning Young Professionals Intern, Fahamu

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