Blog: Changing Practice in the Olifants

In late May 2017 the first module of the Olifants Catchment ‘Changing Practice’ course was held in Witbank. The theme of the first module was Investigating context and practice

As with all the previous Changing practice courses, the learning approach and pedagogy is transparent and the course begins with a dialogue about learning, knowledge and education. We shared how the course has been designed as a transformative and even transgressive learning process within an emancipatory pedagogy. Some of the learning experiences that participants shared were painful and demeaning and the conversation soon progressed to considering how learning is not a neutral process but can be designed to be emancipatory or to perpetuate power imbalances and inequality.  If you are interested in learning more about transgressive learning, head over to the T-learning network website here.

From the previous course we realised that participants have often experienced trauma because of the nature of South African society, or specifically in their work as activists. For this course we wanted to consciously acknowledge this and introduce simple processes that could be healing and are, at least, relaxing and centering. We introduced what are known as healing relaxation exercises where participants are encouraged to centre themselves in their bodies and learn to bring themselves back to the present moment. These exercises were very helpful ways to start each day, and to centre ourselves after particularly challenging sessions. The participants were wonderfully open to these exercises, and shared that they found them hugely beneficial.



One such challenging session was a fieldtrip which CULISA and Action Voices organised, called the ‘toxic tour’. This was a shocking experience for all involved. Although extremely difficult to witness, everyone expressed how important it was to have experienced it as it showed them the top of the catchment and the horror of what happens here which should be of deep concern to everyone in the Olifants catchment. We ran a healing relaxation session after the tour as many of us felt overwhelmed by what we had witnessed.

 toxic tour2

The toxic tour

We also ran a gender dialogue, where the question posed was: how does gender impact on your change project? The participants quickly went to the core of how gender inequalities were experienced in their own lives and in their communities as well as how culture and religion exacerbate gender inequalities. The implicit violence that sits within the relations between men and women emerged through the dialogues, leaving us all shaken.  To move the dialogues out of speech and into our bodies we ended off the session by each one of us making an image of how we felt right now. These images were powerful, painful and challenging, which some people expressed as being ‘louder than words’.

Course coordinator and lead facilitator Jane Burt shared these reflections following Module One:

Running this course is a privilege, a painful and joyful privilege because to fully engage in and immerse oneself in a pedagogy for the oppressed means owning up to the oppressor and oppressed internally and externally. This does not only mean the individual oppressor and oppressed but the way in which inequity and injustice is structured into the institutions and organisations of which we are a part, the cultures out of which we emerge and the relationships we engage in and form. It also emerges out of the experience of the non-human and the slow violence that is being inflicted upon the earth and so ourselves. Running this course continually teaches us this and forces us to be constantly alert, to continually read the world and, more importantly, engage in the muddling through that is the journey towards social and environmental justice. One of our co-facilitators sent a thank you note after Module One, in which she shared with us how her mother had met Paulo Freire at a conference once and asked him for some advice on her work. He said he can’t give advice, he could only talk in parables, and one parable that came to mind was that as educators we have to enter the mud together and only once we are all fully covered, can a teacher stand up. 

This post is adapted from Jane Burt's monthly report - read the full version here.

Following a successful two year 'Changing Practice' course with participants from the South African Water Caucus, this year EMG's water and climate change programme, in partnership with Rhodes University's ELRC and AWARD, are running a 'Changing Practice' course with water activists from throughout the Olifants catchment, in Mpumalanga and Limpopo. 

The first module went ahead successfully from the 22nd to the 25th of May, in Emalahleni. What really makes this course exciting is that it brings together activists from throughout a single catchment - the Olifants catchment - and although all of the organisations represented focus on a diverse range of issues, they are deeply connected through the shared river they are all striving to protect. Jane Burt, the course facilitator, describes the group as 'deeply passionate, committed and doing incredible work already'. They have all already been participating in the CSO indabas hosted by AWARD - you can learn more about this initiative on the 'Our Olifants' website

The organisations represented by participants on the course are Action Voices, Come-Act, CULISA, Itumeleng Youth Project, Khulumani Support Group, Mpumalanga Water Caucus, Sekhukhune Environmental Justice Network and South African Young Water Professionals. 

In the coming weeks and months, we will be profiling the different participants and organisations, and the important work they are doing - watch this space!

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