Technology: Kids for Kids
I have been living and working in Ethiopia as a Peace Corps Volunteer for the past two years and as my service crescendos into its apex, I must reflect on something that we are all familiar with, something that we as humans are obligated to use, something that has changed the face of this earth and something that will continue to play a pivotal role in the development of countries like Ethiopia: technology.
Technology is a fickle thing. We usually love it or hate it; there is not a lot of room to be partial about our technological gadgets because it will either be the most remarkable tool we have ever used and it will improve our lives ten-fold or it will be an extreme disappointment and make us never want to invest in technology again.
Kids for Kids is an innovative educational project that combines community-prioritized topics with creativity and the paradox of using advanced technology in rural Ethiopia. This project is comprised of ten songs on the various topics of: HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, Hand-washing, Exercise, Environment, Nutrition, School Pride, Cheating on Exams, Gender Equality and People Living with Disabilities. The title of this project, Kids for Kids, is an oversimplification of our project, but it is also a great summary of what the project means for the future of Ethiopia. This project will be distributed in schools and will target the newest generation of Ethiopians as they prepare to take the reins from the older generations.
You might be wondering how we were able to record, produce, film and edit ten music videos while living in rural Ethiopia. This country is constantly plagued with power outages, loss of cell phone network, water shortages and an overall harsh environment for electronic items. Over the past two years we were able to persevere and overcome these difficulties to finish this project on time and produce high-quality music videos.
My counterpart and best friend here in Ethiopia, Abadi Abreha, started this project over four years ago. He was a teacher at the local high school and he became a director at a primary school in rural Hawzien. He was motivated to take on a project like this because he caught numerous students cheating and he wanted to address it through music and through creativity rather than looking past it or scolding the children. He paid out of pocket for the first three songs and tried to gain support from NGOs in town and the local government. He was unsuccessful in getting any additional support for this project, so he was discouraged and he stopped working on it.
A few years later I moved to Hawzien as the first Peace Corps Volunteer in town where I was eventually introduced to Abadi. By this time Abadi had stopped his work as a teacher and a school director and now worked at the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia. He told me about this project and he told me how he wanted to focus on the children of Ethiopia because they were the future of his country. I remember watching the hand washing song with my jaw on the floor and butterflies in my stomach. This was exactly the project that any Peace Corps Volunteer would kill to have. This was a community-owned, innovative educational project that focused on high-priority topics and pressing issues tailored to rural Ethiopia. Here was a man who put his own money into the project. Here was a man who worked six days a week at the bank and still found time to focus on education and prioritize the future of his country. Here was a man who wanted to teach kids behavior changing messages and wanted to focus on students to evoke the necessary lifestyle changes to improve the quality of life here in Hawzien. Needless to say, I jumped on the chance and started contemplating which grant I would apply for to fund this project.
In the beginning stages of the project everything was enigmatic to me. I didn’t know how we were going to develop the messages. I didn’t know where or how we would be recording these songs or who would be filming the videos and editing the songs. I didn’t know who the singers would be or how we planned on training them. I didn’t know how expensive this project would be or if it was even eligible for grant money. It was an exciting time, but our future was opaque.
We started with the grant proposal and that seemed to reduce the ambiguity of the project as we broke down the numerous barriers that stood in our way. We developed the project for months before we submitted the proposal. We met with various local organizations and associations in order to develop community buy-in and support. After a long process we submitted the grant and started to plan the next stages of the project.
Abadi and I gathered materials and did a lot of research in order to develop the messages and content for the ten songs. He was reading books that were written in Tigrinya and produced by USAID about ten years ago. I was scouring the Internet for updated material and I was asking other Peace Corps Volunteers, doctors, professors and former employers for assistance. I missed having unlimited wireless Internet access during this process, but the Internet that we have in Hawzien is pretty good considering that we live in rural Ethiopia and we get the Internet through the cell phone towers. Research is definitely more convenient on a college campus that is wired with fast Internet and a plethora of additional resources and abstruse knowledge.
After we had all of our content for the songs, Abadi and his brother, Yirga, wrote the Tigrinya songs based on the research we conducted. We then translated the songs back into English and developed an innovative teacher’s guide. This comprehensive teacher’s guide is over 50 pages and has the lyrics in English and in Tigrinya as well as a participatory discussion outline for each song. There are pre-video and post-video discussion questions and there is also an advocacy component to the book. This book is designed to inspire students to take charge in their local community and to advocate for the messages from the songs. This project focuses on behavior change and more importantly it will pave the way for the future of innovative education in Ethiopia.
One of the most amazing discoveries I made during this project was how Abadi created the music for the songs. This process shows the ingenuity of Ethiopians and the technological barriers and advances that make this resourceful mindset possible.
When I asked Abadi how he created the music for the project, I was surprised at his response. Not once have I seen Abadi play a musical instrument. Not once have I seen him write musical notes or convey to notion that he was capable producing music, but he is one of the most naturally talented musicians I have ever met and I am going to tell you why.
His process begins with leaving the chaos of the town and heading out into rural Ethiopia with one essential tool: a fully charged mobile phone.
He first thinks about the content of the song and asks himself: Does the topic need a fast or a slow tempo? Does this song need to cause excitement or serenade listeners and hone in on the message? Will this song need a Tigrinya beat? (Which sounds like a heartbeat.) Will this song need a progressive reggae beat? After he decides on the genre of each song he “sings the music with (his) mouth and records it on (his) mobile.”
Stop reading this blog and take a moment to imagine a simple tune, a simple song. The catch is that it has to be original, it can’t be Katy Perry or Lil Wayne, it can’t be Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd; it must be created by yourself. Okay, go!
Were you able to think of an original song or did one of your favorite tunes come screaming back into your head? I know I had some difficulty in doing this.
After Abadi records the tune off the top of his head, he goes home and listens to it and writes the lyrics based on the research and discussions we had. He then records the lyrics on his mobile phone with the music that he created earlier.
After Abadi has the music and the lyrics together on his mobile phone he provides the training to the singers and discusses each song one by one. First the singers take Abadi’s original recording home and listen to it. They then progress to record themselves on their mobile phones and return to Abadi for some additional training and follow-up. After the singer’s mobile recordings and in-person training sessions are up to par, they are recorded by Genet’s camera. Genet is Abadi’s wife and our camera operator and music video editor for the project. She converts the songs to a CD and brings it to the recording studio, which is three hours by public transportation.
The studio listens to the music and makes it into an actual track. This is an amazing skill as well, to be able to compose music based on someone’s voice. The singers come into the studio and listen to the music that originated as Abadi’s voice and has now developed into an actual recorded track. They then record on top of the new music and this gives the singers a sample. They once again take this sample on their mobile phones and listen to it over and over again. They make the necessary adjustments until they are ready to return to the studio to lay the final track. After the final track is recorded, our team is ready to move on to the music video recording!
What a process! This is something that is unique to a developing country and it is something that is unique to Hawzien. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I have seen a lot of Ethiopian ingenuity, but this was one of the more impressing examples of an Ethiopian genius at work.
Technology brings us together and at the same time, it is what separates worlds. There are some fundamental differences that separate countries like the United States from countries like Ethiopia that are directly linked with technological advancement. After living here for two years I am proud of this technological-based project and I am impressed with my Ethiopian counterparts who have taught me to think outside of the box with the technological tools that I have on hand. This project has bridged the gap of two cultures and meshed it into one collaborative effort to educate the children of Ethiopia.
I am set to finish my service in just a few weeks and I will go back to America. I am very proud of this project because not only was it initiated by an Ethiopian before I came to this country, but it will be continued by Abadi and his team after I leave. Peace Corps Volunteers always talk about sustainability, but it is something that is extremely hard to achieve for numerous reasons. I am proud to say that Kids for Kids will persevere and will continue to touch the lives of thousands of Ethiopian children for many years to come. Thank you to those of you who donated and supported this project throughout its development and a gigantic thank you to Abadi Abreha who has been my best friend, my project partner and who is now my brother. He exemplifies what an Ethiopian counterpart should be and he showcases raw talent and incredible ingenuity that the beautiful country of Ethiopia possesses with his achievements.
I will be compiling media to make a highlight video that will show you parts of all ten songs and will give you more insight into this project. I am collecting the media right now and I plan on finishing before I leave this country! I will post to Youtube.
Thank you for reading.