Conference sneak preview, Field Stories

Live and learn: classrooms explore Ethiopia’s utopia

Zumra Nuru, founder of Awra Amba
Zumra Nuru, founder of Awra Amba

His wife left him, his family disowned him and he was labelled mentally ill all for trying to create a new way of life, but Ethiopian farmer Zumra Nuru has since proven that his ideas for equality and justice were the key to reducing poverty and increasing development. Starting from scratch in 1972, Nuru has created a democratic, sustainable community, where women and men live as equals and where most young people go to university. The community, Awra Amba, is a model for development in Ethiopia and beyond. 

Without any aid dependency, Awra Amba fought back from the brink of starvation to form a community that today boats flourishing businesses, and can invest in social services like education and healthcare, which they share with thousands of people in the region.

The remarkable story of this village has inspired an interactive documentary and eLearning resource: The Awra Amba Experience. Developed in partnership with the community, the documentary brings students into the everyday lives of the villagers, in an immersive 360 virtual landscape. It teaches viewers about their unique way of life and explores the most important themes in today’s global development debate. Paulina Tervo, Director, Producer, Story Architect and Impact Strategist of The Awra Amba Experience, and Co-founder of film and digital agency Write This Down Productions, caught up with eLearning Africa Editor Annika Burgess to discuss her Awra Amba experience and the power of interactive storytelling.

How did The Awra Amba Experience come about?

I went to Awra Amba in 2008 and made a 30 minute documentary. As a result of that half-an-hour documentary, we found that whenever we screened it there was so much discussion that went on between the audiences. It was such an enriching experience having been at the screening seeing that even though the documentary only went for half-an-hour, the discussion went on for an hour or two after that. That’s what kind of triggered the idea that this could be a bigger project, that we could bring the audience into the project as active participants rather than passive viewers.

We returned to Awra Amba in 2010 to show them the film and they really liked it. They said they know that the Internet is a powerful tool through which they can reach the world, so we started discussing how we can collaborate to make something that represents the village in the way that they want to be represented and allows them to connect with the outside world. We’ve been in production now with the Awra Amba Experience since 2011.

Screen shot from the Awra Amba Experience - this secondary school was entirely built and financed by the Awra Amba community and services 600 students from the region
Screen shot from the Awra Amba Experience – this secondary school was entirely built and financed by the Awra Amba community and services 600 students from the region

How does the interactive documentary work?

It’s based on a virtual tour of the Awra Amba village – we are using 360 panoramic photography, which is turned into interactive environments that users can explore on a tablet or computer. Inside there are various elements: short documentary films, multimedia articles, photographic slideshows and infographics. All of this different media basically builds the environment of the community and shows their way of life, explains their philosophies, and brings out their voices. Users can design their own journey through the village.

The reason that we didn’t want to do a linear film is because the story couldn’t have been told in a linear film – there are so many aspects to the community so it just made sense to make it in this kind of way.

There are different story lines and different characters, so instead of having one story or two or three, we have more than 10 people telling the story – from the very young to the very old, so it allows for a more democratic view.

Have you been able to test the features on users?

Last year we had the opportunity to show it to some teachers and there was a really excited reaction which actually led us to present it to more teachers, universities and educational companies. Now there is suddenly a huge interest from the education sector – a lot of people see it as a great global learning resource to be used in schools. Firstly, it’s engaging, students can use it themselves on their laptop or tablet and they’re participating in the story, learning snippets here and there. Also lots of lessons plans can be based around the story, because it’s thematic – there are 10 different themes that can be used to form lessons.

Who is your target audience?

Initially we met with teachers in the UK, and there is now a big push from the government for schools to incorporate more global learning in class, so people can learn more about tolerance and globalisation and what it means to their everyday lives. So there’s 20 million pounds invested in this at the moment in the UK – the Global Learning Programme in the UK – and we’re now collaborating with them.

This was the initial target, but there is potential to bring it out in other countries and there has been interest in Finland and Norway. Ideally, it would be something that could be introduced into schools in Africa, but it requires us to think a lot about which partners we would work with in order to bring it out there as there’s not always the same level of technology or even digital skills. For us that would be the next step, as our aim is really to bring it out in Africa and in Ethiopia in particular because it’s an Ethiopian story.

Screen shot from The Awra Amba Experience Gender Equality film
Screen shot from The Awra Amba Experience Gender Equality film

Main challenges and successes?

It has been a challenge to start such a project that has really grown out of lots of conversations between us, the filmmakers, and the community, and the desire to do something collaborate. When we presented it to various broadcasters there was always the same reaction, which was: ‘What’s wrong with this village? What are the bad things?’ Rather than seeing it as a positive example for something that’s coming out of a country where there is often bad news. Also, people were very much interested in our perspective, whereas we didn’t want it to be about our perspective, we wanted it to be about their perspective combined with ours – we wanted to really open it up to a collaborative effort.

But, everything has changed since 2010-2011, and now everyone is interested in interactivity. They realised that young people don’t even watch television and they’re not interested in watching television. But it has taken four years from sitting down and saying ‘there’s not a future for that sort of stuff’, but now everybody wants to make these kinds of documentaries.

Find out more about The Awra Amba Experience and the learning potentials of interactive storytelling from Paulina Tervo at the eLearning Africa Conference, May 20 – 22, 2015, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. 

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