By creating an alternative training approach that casts grassroots innovators rather than traditional academics in the role of teacher, Mwalimu Musheshe is changing what it means to be a social development professional.
The New Idea
Mwalimu brings together creative farmers and tradespeople to teach social development professionals everything from farming to medicine. He believes that traditional academic training lacks practicality and context and hence leaves development workers ill-equipped to develop and pursue sustainable solutions to social problems. By bringing creative problem solvers on board as teachers, Mwalimu is building an alternative approach to training social development professionals. His African Rural University will draw students from all socio-economic levels of society and will offer specific programs designed for rural farmers, unemployed young people, students from universities, and policy makers. The curriculum will be highly contextual, and students will master a wide range of skills that will allow them to effectively conduct community development planning.
Mwalimu hopes that the University will provide a means for government resources to assist community development efforts and that it will be a reference point for traditional university development institutes.
Almost nine of every ten Ugandans live in rural areas. In the past fifteen years, there have been sizeable investments by the government and foreign donors in efforts to alleviate the poverty that often accompanies rural life. However, too often the projects don't reach their intended goals, sometimes because the textbook solution doesn't really fit real life. Uganda needs a new kind of understanding for community leaders and development workers about what development means and what methods are best suited to achieve its goals.
Many development workers, while well-intentioned, lack the training and perspective that will allow them to be effective. As formal development education has become more specialized, students have developed narrow perspectives of social and economic development. The current system prepares students to pass exams but not necessarily to harness the environment in a way that facilitates human survival. As a result they see the world of development through a series of artificial benchmarks–houses built, wells dug, numbers of children attending school. To introduce a new perspective, Mwalimu believes that the time is now ripe to establish institutional counterweights to the existing academic system.
Mwalimu assembles creative problem solvers who are committed to rural communities and to teaching, designs a practical and contextual curriculum, seeks the support of key partners and building institutional links, and recruits creative students. During his ten years with the Uganda Rural Development Training Program, Mwalimu came to know people who are creative problem solvers, grounded in a process of collective vision. For instance, the rural area of Kagadi, where the training program is based, is self-sufficient in food production and is even selling surplus for its cash needs. In part, this community owes its success to the efforts of the training program.
Through his work with other rural development organizations, Mwalimu has been able to identify people in other rural areas with the same creativity and commitment to the collective participation of rural communities. It is these people that he proposes to draw together at the African Rural University, which will be located in Kagadi, Kibaale District, in Western Uganda. He wants to organize the learning into a formal curriculum that encompasses forest management, crop rotation, animal husbandry, herbal medicine and microfinance. The students will work directly with the local residents, participating in collective exercises to set priorities and design a plan and timeline for meeting the goals they identify.
To build a wide base of support for his venture, Mwalimu is pulling together a formal working group that includes the Ministry of Agriculture, professors in different fields at one of Uganda's leading universities, district leaders, and representatives of civil society efforts. He will present them with a draft curriculum and program outline, and based on their recommendations, he will recruit students and draw in financial resources to support his initiative. Mwalimu envisions that the University will be a major reference point for mainstream educational institutions, and will allow government reallocation of resources to a grassroots-focused educational program. Mwalimu recruits students for the University mainly through local citizen-led organizations around the country. He looks for creative, trustworthy, unemployed young people. To make his university available to as many people as possible and to be able to tailor the training to the different needs of different regions, Mwalimu plans to develop satellite campuses.
Mwalimu was the last of seven children in a polygamous family. He didn't start school until he was ten and got into trouble because he freed a man who was being held captive and forced to use magic to bring rain. He fled to his uncle's house, an action that caused his father to stop paying his school fees. From that point forward, Mwalimu had to struggle to get through primary and secondary schools.
While a university student during the eighties, he was active in opposing the existing regime, for which he was tortured and imprisoned for a year. In 1984, Mwalimu began working in the south for the Uganda Food and Peace Project. His work developed from there, and over the last decade, he has changed how academics, policy makers, and business people approach rural development issues. He serves on the boards of national development associations, and occasionally lectures at universities. Mwalimu is one of the few people who continuously challenges policy makers to think outside the box in introducing effective measures to combat rural poverty in Uganda.