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Three guys under a tree-Lamin, Ousman and Lawrence.  One with a stick, one with a pile of rocks, one with a deck of cards and the lightning hand of a seasoned dealer. Lawrence, the dealer, flicks three cards each to a small group of rough-looking characters. "Don't talk unless you throw down a card first," he warns.

At the edge of the tree canopy, Lamin sketches some lines in the sand with the stick. Ousman keeps his rocks handy. A stringy cat creeps by, unscathed.

Omar, a withered local elder, puts odd objects in a pile at the edge of the sandy grid: some stray playing cards, a rusty key, a pencil, some leaves, a comb, anything that happens to be handy.

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About thirty other men stand around the grid, arguing. Every once in a while they pick up a few of the cards, the bus tickets, a hammer, even my mobile phone and sunglasses, and put them across the top of the grid, or down the left side.  

Trickster, by Eileen Kane - Afterword - www.trickster.ie

We're a participatory research team-Lawrence , Lamin, Ousman and four others-in Mosuru [the name has been changed], a village in The Gambia, west Africa. It's 1994. As in many other countries, a lot of their girls never finish primary school; in fact, some never even start. Various development agencies have invited a team to look at this in a few countries to see why, and to learn what might be done to change things. This is a big problem in Mosuru, but, not their biggest. Our problem is that this is the topic the international agencies who are funding us have focused on, so this is what we will work on here. But we do intend to show the community how to apply what we'll be doing here to their other issues, and help them to plan and to network for improvements.

"Now, this leaf here," Lamin points the stick to a red leaf in the left column. "This stands for a problem some of you were talking about, 'schoolgirls are getting pregnant'.  And here, across the top, are some of your ideas to prevent it.  This comb stands for 'more female teachers' and you said that big key means 'more parental guidance'. The old bus tickets stand for what-okay, the school might start a girls' club to meet and talk?  Now, the next problem you talked about is. . ."

Old Omar sighs. "You know, my son, you're supposed to hand over the stick to one of us. You were trained to do that. We thank you for showing us these things," and he includes me in his slight bow of the head, "but now we can do some of this ourselves."

Sheepishly, Lamin hands over the stick. " Now," Omar says, "the next problem we talked about is. . ."

Lamin and Ousman look at me and wink. Lawrence, crouched down with the card group, grins. Lamin starts doing what he should be doing: writing down the substance of the discussion.

"Now, let us think about whether we want to put any more solutions on the chart," Omar says.

"Solutions to what?" asks a young baseball-capped man who's just jumped off a packed bus.

"To getting more girls into school," one of the group says. "See, what we're doing is talking about why we can't send some of our girls to school. Down this side," he says, pointing to the first column, "is what we think the problems are, and here, across the top, are what we think some of the solutions are. This problem," he says, pointing to the bunch of leaves,  "is 'girls getting pregnant at school'."

"You're lucky I'm here," says the bus passenger, laughing. "I know how that happens."

There's a muttering from the group, most of whom are fathers. "Foolish youth. This is serious. Parents don't trust their girls with men teachers."

Omar hobbles over to Lamin and nods toward me. "When Auntie leaves here and goes to the capital. . . " Lamin hastened to translate this with some relish; the fact that the wizened Omar had called me "Auntie" means he's younger than I am; or thinks he is, which is worse. "When she goes to the capital, she must get it made a crime for teachers to rape the students."

I start to say that it is a crime, but Lamin shoots me a look. "I'll say it to the Alkalo later," he says. The Alkalo, the chief, will tell his brother, and his brother will speak on his behalf to the villagers.

"Ah," says the young man, "that's not a problem. Scratch that out. The problem is that there are no doors on the toilets-my sister won't go to school anymore because of that."

"If you want to talk about this, join the group," an old man grumbles. "We don't need fast answers from someone who just got off a bus. We've been doing this work for an hour. We've made I don't know how many pie charts, and the women are over there near the Alkalo's house making a map of the village."

We look over to where some women are bent over a large map, about thirty feet square, drawn in the sand.  They're placing colored beads in small clusters, debating, as we are.

"They need a leader, I suppose," the bus passenger says delightedly, starting toward them.

"You are a brave man," the old man laughs. "Leave them to their work. They know what they're doing. They're showing each household and how many boys and girls are in school in not. The women have some things of their own to say." The passenger looks surprised.

"Another reason girls get pregnant is 'sugar daddies', " says a man who is dressed like one.  "Girls want money for lunches and books, and older men hang around the school, ready to give it to them."

"We could give those girls some money-we could raise it," a teen-ager says.

"Easier said than done," says Lamin.

"We could," the boy insists. "We feel it when the girls have to go to sugar daddies.  They shouldn't go with old men. They're our age. We might want to marry them some day." He stares,  disgusted, at a man at the edge of the group, and Lamin scratches something in a notebook.

"Okay, how?"

The boy is stumped for a moment. "Well, we could make special school gardens. The girls could sell what they grow and use the money. And these fellows," the speaker says, waving his hand dismissively at Lawrence's card group, "have nothing to do. They can make some furniture and sell it for their little sisters and daughters."

 "And," says another, "I suppose we could put doors on the toilets. Did you know the toilets didn't have doors?" he asks his neighbor.

The teen-ager adds three new columns: special gardens, making furniture, and putting doors on toilets. He puts down a different leaf, a hammer and a piece of a child's puzzle across the top, beside the old bus tickets.

"Wait," says Ousman-"I need to use these rocks."

The others stand back.

"Which of these problems on the chart is the biggest?"

" 'School fees'," some offer.

" 'School fees' " isn't even on the chart."

"We haven't got there yet. Okay, put it on now," someone says.  "Here's some coins. Put them under the red leaf. "And give it the biggest rock. It's the biggest problem, by far." The group agrees.

An older man, the Alkalo's  brother, Antu, puts the coins in the second row of the first column.

"Okay," Ousman says. To the left of the coins, outside the grid, he places the biggest rock.

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"Let's put the other rocks down, too. What's the second biggest problem, and we'll put the next-sized rock beside it."

"Girls are needed to work at home," says a ragged man who hadn't spoken before. "My wife could not work in the garden without my daughter's help in the house. We need food before education." They place my cell phone below the coins.

The men talk about this, and decide it's a problem that's almost as big as 'school fees.' Ousman puts the next largest rock beside it.

"You know, a new pump would help with that," someone in the back says. "The ladies are carrying water too far."

"Another thing," the ragged man says, getting some momentum, "if we ask to change the school timetable to a little later, the girls could still work and get to school in good time."

"And the school's too far away," says a man from the far side of the village.  "We need to see if we can get a satellite school. I have to pay for transport for my girls, or else they walk and are late because they've been helping my wife with the work in the morning."

 "Okay," says Lamin. "Here's a pencil to stand for  'school being too far away'. And you've mentioned a solution-a satellite school. What do you think?" he asks the group, who agree.

"And don't forget-we have other school costs, besides fees-transport, as my brother said, books, lunches, all kinds of things."

"Here's some glasses for other costs," says the teen-ager, watching me as he puts my sunglasses on the grid. I say nothing and he seems to expand a little.

"That satellite school is a very good idea," says Antu. "If we had a satellite school, the girls wouldn't miss so many classes, we'd save money on transport, and those sugar daddies would have a harder time approaching the girls."

"Yeah," says the teen-ager.

"We'll add another column to the chart, for a new solution," the ragged man says. Here's a toothbrush." 

"Whose is that?" asks Antu, patting his pocket.

"Not mine. " The ragged man shrugs. "Put it beside the piece of puzzle, for a satellite school."

The men settle back. Antu takes the stick. "Now, my friends," he says importantly, "let's go back and talk about some of the problems. We have trouble sending our girls because the fees are so high."

"The fees are high, yes," Omar says. "And if you have several children, you can't pay, so you pay for one or two of the boys."  He reaches for the stick. The ragged man gently picks it up.

"I can't send any of my children," another man says. "I'm too poor."

"Hah!" crows a old man, perhaps even an "Uncle" in relation to me. You have a cow. Your house has cement walls. You have a tin roof. You have a radio. You have a cousin working for the government in the capital. Don't say 'poor' to me."

There's silence for a moment.  A small man at the back says, "The fees are high, yes, but many of us could pay them. The problem for most is that the fees must be paid at the wrong time, right before the harvest when we have nothing. The hungry season. And if they're not paid then, the children aren't accepted that year. They should change the month when we pay the fees."

"That's right!"  the man off the bus shouts. "That is what I am saying all the time. All the time I am saying. . ."

 "And," says another man, "for those who are really too poor, we can raise some funds from gardens."

"Or from making and selling the furniture."

"Right," Lamin says. "We have some possible solutions we've left off. One is to change the month." He adds another column to the far right of the grid. "We already have 'making special gardens', 'building furniture', and 'parents should guide the boys'. "We also have 'getting a new pump' and 'changing the school timetable'.  We'll get some more things to stand for those."

He holds twenty seeds in his hand. Let's take 'girls getting pregnant'. You said one solution is 'female teachers'."  He points to the leaves.  "We have twenty seeds. How many out of the twenty will we give that as a solution?"

"I want my vote to go for 'doors on toilets'," shouts the man who'd got off the bus.

"This isn't voting," says a man with a baseball cap, who takes the seeds from Lamin's hand.  "If you'd been here when we started, you'd know that. We have twenty seeds for each problem. We look at each solution and decide together how many seeds to give it. If it's a good one for that problem, we give it more. If it's not good it might not get any."

"Okay, 'female teachers'," says one man. "It's a good idea. Let's give it eight."

"I think seven", someone else says. It's a good idea but we can only ask for them, we can't get them ourselves."

"All right," another calls out. "Seven. But we will ask."

"'Doors on toilets'?"

"Girls don't get pregnant because of that. But they do drop out of school when they get older, and that's one of the reasons."

"Give it two, because we have to do something about it. It will get a lot of seeds when we move on to the problem of girls leaving at puberty."

When the work is finished on the ground, Lamin copies the grid and what each of the symbols means. He also copies down the number of seeds that have been placed in each box. His matrix looks like this, using words

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Even more important is the discussion that produced this grid, and Lamin has written that down, as well.

"Now," the bus passenger says, "Let's add these seeds up and see which solution wins."

"They all add up to twenty," a man, quiet until now, says. "We don't need to."

"He means going down-adding them going down," says a young man.

"Why?" the quiet man asks. "You think it would tell you what solutions are best, don't you? It won't. Some of these problems are bigger than others. If you added up going down, solutions to problems at the bottom might win-but they'd only be good solutions for little problems. What we should really do is give more seeds to the biggest problem, and less to each of the rest, depending on the size of their rock."

A cat passed. Ousman threw a stone at it. Lamin nods at me and writes down the quiet man's words-this is a clearer explanation of this methodological issue than any of us on the team has come up with.

Some of the women are working on their map with our female team, Musu, Haddy and Therese. The local headmistress, Mengeh Gomez, has watched what we're doing over the last few days and is now a member of the team, too, A few of the men who'd been working on the grid come over and join them, pointing out things that they think have been left off the map. Most passersby are also able to add some information. "You've left me off the map," one girl says, surprised. "I should be there, in my house, with a red bead, showing I'm not in school."

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"You're not school-age," says a man, her uncle.

"I'm thirteen," she replies. " And Nyima and Aminata are on the map, and they're fourteen."

"Well, aren't you you're getting married in a year or so?" he asks gently. "You can't be getting married and be a schoolgirl."

"I won't get married," she mutters. "I want to go to school."  Her uncle is silent.

The girl leaves, crying quietly. No one speaks. Eventually, her uncle puts a red bead down in the spot where her household is.

 "Maybe that wasn't so good," says Musu, who had started copying the map. "She'll be in trouble when she gets home. Her uncle looks foolish now."

Over in the card group, some of the guys are shouting. "We agreed that no one talks unless he has a card," Lawrence says. "Kebba, I gave each person three, and you've already spoken three times. Now you have to let someone else talk." Lawrence, with his strong build and deep base voice, is a great choice for handling this group, all of whom are under twenty-five and drunk. They'd dogged us through all the various stages of the research, upsetting the discussions, shouting down the women, sulking under the tree.

"They have no wives, no farms yet, no money, they're dissatisfied," Lawrence told the team the night before. "No one gives them respect. Now we're here, and they think we're ignoring them, talking so much about girls and their education. We have to talk to them."

Kebba slaps down a card taken from a neighbor. "We want a football field," he shouts.

"Fine," says Lawrence. He hands him a stick. "How will you get one?"

 

Another group, working near the little mosque with Ousman, is making a seasonal calendar.

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It shows that September is the most expensive month for school costs, such as fees; it also shows, as the men's discussion did, too, that this is the time when local people have the least money. Children can't enter school for the year unless their fees are paid then.  It also happens that girls' heaviest workload is in January and February, which is the most demanding period of the school year. Eventually, every village we visit will make a chart just like this: no money when school fees are due.

Each night, we review the day's work and ask ourselves questions: who's being left out, in the village? Who isn't talking, and why? What have we learned so far? What do we do next?

The villagers work on, identifying options, assessing them, and finally, creating a large public action plan. Some of it they can carry out themselves; for other parts they need help. The next steps are to use the process to find out where the help might come from, and how to get it.

 

 

2004

 

They do. A friend in the Ministry of Education tells me, in a mock-vexed tone, that each time the people of Mosuru approach their office, the staff groan because it's hard to refuse their requests. They're too well planned, too well argued, to deny. "Would you rather give help to a village that comes and whines, and you don't know whether the help will end up in someone's pocket, or would you give it to people who know what they want, and are contributing something themselves?" But the Ministry has now helped other villages, too-the government changed the time for paying school fees, for example.

Since this project started, people in Mosuru have taught neighboring communities, and have also developed new methods and applications themselves.  They even taught a World Bank team, drawn from all over Africa. One day Antu said, "Did you know that you could use these methods for agricultural problems? We're doing that now. We just changed them a bit."  Some of the methods originated in agricultural circles in the 1960s, and the people of Mosuru have reinvented and adapted them. Another day I got a message from the chair of a local village association: "We are doing a new piece of participatory research," she wrote. "You don't need to come. Of course, you would be very welcome if you wish to come. But you don't need to."

I went back one last time a few years ago to see my old Gambian friends. At the end of the day, some of us sat under a tree. "Now," said Omar, as Lamin translated.  "Sit here under this tree with us. Come," he called, to a few children who had been hovering on the edge of the little group. "Sit and listen. Learn your culture. I'm going to tell you a story."

He shut his eyes. "Hyena loved to cause trouble. He loved to play tricks on his nephew, Rabbit. He could never outsmart Rabbit, but he could fool him for a while. One day. . ."

It was a good story. When it was finished, Lamin turned to me. "He asks that you tell one now from your people. I'll translate."

I closed my eyes, half asleep in the firelight. Under the banyan tree, three young men were still playing cards.  A thud, and a cat yelped. "Coyote and Wolf were brothers," I began.  One day...."

(for more on participatory research go to the Participatory Research page.

Gambian Research Team - www.trickster.ie

Osman Dibba, Mengeh Gomez, Lamin Fatty, Theresa Cardos and Haddy Sissoho