The 25-Kilometer Change

Text published on “Innovacion Para El Empoderamiento Ciudadano Atraves de las TIC”

In an effort to document the work of non-governmental organizations dedicated to humanitarian, social and environmental causes, I recently traveled through sixteen different countries during a period of eight months. From South America to Europe, Africa to Asia, the constant cultural and economical changes faced along the journey determined the always evolving content of the independent and volunteer project, properly titled People of Change.

The core mission of People of Change regards the creation of short-documentaries for selected organizations, which ultimately strive for the betterment of their communities through positive changes; and have yet to obtain a global voice and recognition. In such connected modern world, online media plays a determining role in the diffusion of these efforts. The viral distribution of the videos permits increased visibility – essential to the survival of any nonprofit struggle since it brings funding, volunteers and eventual growth. People of Change focuses on the constructive use of new technologies to propagate and inspire other people to advocate similar work. Newspapers, magazines and television are often filled with pessimistic ideas of our current global situation. The reasons behind this thrust were indeed rooted in our current perception of the world; or rather, our current perception of the world constructed by mainstream media. We need inspiration, and not desolation.

The experiences and most importantly, the people encountered along the journey were enough inspiration to continue the quest despite all difficulties. These were people who embrace change wholeheartedly, people of change. Amidst so many of them, it became impossible to remain unaltered. I know I have changed in several positive ways; but as far as making a change and changing other people’s lives, that is a bit more complex. In one side of the spectrum we have those (including myself) who enjoy the benefits of our modern world; on the other side, we encounter those who stand motionless waiting for their change. In between, a 25-kilometer walk

The Burundi Experience
Filming in remote places has uncountable benefits; yet, the experience also presents significant challenges. Burundi, also known as the “heart of Africa,” was one of these countries. Commonly listed as one of the poorest countries in the world, such classification comes with a reason; indeed, the lack of basic infrastructure is evident from the moment of arrival. I was there to document the work of eight nuns living in the remote village of Masango. They have been receiving monetary aid from an Italian Rotary branch to continue their work and within ten years of continuous efforts they have already built a hospital and an orphanage, which currently houses 40 children. To simplify challenges, I will focus solely on the technological factor.

Most of the older local population is rather suspicious of any foreigner, especially one carrying a video camera. They are not accustomed to the technology; hence, devious eyes and angry shouting are some of the reactions obtained. Obviously, boundaries should not be crossed and their wishes (although never fully expressed) further respected. An opposite reaction developed within the younger population – curiosity. As I walked through the village carrying the equipment, a group of children and teens would march right behind me, hoping and wishing to be filmed. In fact, they would run out of their classrooms (causing their teachers to yell at me) just so they could be in close proximity to the equipment. The community had never been acquainted with a video camera; thus, kids often surrounded the perimeters of the tripod, transforming any movement into a challenge.

The only way to gain their trust was to transfer power onto their hands. I could not afford the risk of allowing an entire village to experience an expensive piece of equipment, but I did have a spare camera that could be shared. As a result, a photography workshop was provided within the first few days. Aloys, the local English teacher, greatly helped me translating my words and finding 15 teenagers and young adults to participate. The sign up sheet filled rather quickly, although the people seemed rather uninterested in photography. I could not discern expectations and prospects.

The day after, there were over 40 people waiting outside the classroom – and refusal was not an option. Several of these students came expecting to receive some sort of material or monetary reward; yet, even after clarifying the true intentions, people still lingered.

The workshop started with an introduction to photography, followed by a basic introduction to the theory of photography: zoom, lenses, color scheme and so on. It wasn’t until the practical segment started that I realized I had forgotten to teach the most basic thing: how to hold a camera. No one had ever touched one before and their shaky hands gave away signs of excitement and anxiety. For most of us, the technological expertise just comes naturally from the surroundings; for the people of Masango, it remains a distant reality.

The differences between Burundi and other developed nations are great. The population struggles on a daily basis only to live for the next day in the hopes of achieving progress and change. In providing such training, certain issues arise. If a film camera were to be awarded to the community, there would be further costs in buying photographic film and developing the pictures. A digital camera however, would require a computer – and only one person owns a computer in the entire village: the priest. Such instruction would inevitably become obsolete within a short period. As a firm believer that knowledge is power, a digital camera was donated and the only people allowed to use it were the ones who attended the workshop; thus, the acquired knowledge provided an advantage over the entire community – and further allowed me to gain their trust.

The Lengthy Walk
After the workshop, a young sympathetic adult, who seemed to be impatient throughout the entire workshop, approached and asked me for a favor. In my mind, I thought I had been clear from the start there was only so much I could provide. However, he wanted me to record some of his songs and put into a CD so he could listen to his music at home. He did not own a stereo but someone else did. Fair enough. His artistic name was John Bolstone and as soon as he grabbed his guitar and started playing, I couldn’t refuse. He was definitely talented and as the others began chanting along, I experienced one moment of true change.

We ended up recording 8 of his songs in the course of three days. During my entire stay in the village I was housed at the convent, centrally located in Masango. The population would often walk long miles to reach its close proximities, which included the public schools, the hospital and the church. John Bolstone was one of them: his house was located 10-kilometers away, and he would cover that distance on a daily basis in the hopes that I would have some spare time to continue recording his songs. At the end of everyday, I would find him sitting with his guitar, along with his followers, by the convent’s entrance.

Except for DVDs, I didn’t carry any other form of discs with me. I tried to explain that DVDs would not play on that stereo but he didn’t seem to understand the difference between a DVD and a CD. After burning him the disc, I wrote the word “computer” on top of it. Next day, he came back realizing that the disc would not play on the stereo. He did eventually realize that he needed a computer to play the DVD, and he asked if I could help. This time around, I had to refuse. Soon after, one of his friends said he knew someone who owned a computer and had Internet as well. Only problem, the person lived 25-kilometers away; and in Masango, transportation is a two-legged word.

Before I left, I gave him my card with my email address and also promised to post his videos online so people could listen to his music. Having checked my emails on a daily basis, I never thought I would ever hear back from him. All my email accounts are forwarded to one main account – the only one I regularly check. Recently, I decided to go through the other accounts to organize and delete some old emails. As I was going through one of them, I found an email from John Bolstone, sent over six months ago. For some unknown reason, it wasn’t forwarded to my other account, and like an empty thought it just lingered there. My first reaction, “25 kilometers.” He wanted to know if anyone had heard his music and what people thought of it. I felt guilty for not taking the time to go through my other accounts, located 5 mouse clicks and a few characters away. I immediately replied and explained that as promised, his videos were online and everybody loved his performance.

All in all, that lengthy walk represents the actual challenge of change; it’s extensive, arduous and slow. While the developed world continues to pursue new technologies at a fast and growing pace, the remaining countries stay behind. It would be nonsense after all, to expect from the people of Masango to have easy access to a computer or even Internet, when they barely have food, electricity or any other basic commodity. It does show however, that similarly to John’s attitude, change requires time, persistence and inspiration.

25 kilometers: the gap between two contrasting realities. And as we stand on the other side of the cliff, I anxiously wait for John Bolstone’s reply.