The Brick Project Story
Karim Ajania, Founder of The Brick Project
This is the story of The Brick Project which was both built and bulldozed by events in Zimbabwe in 2005.
It is not a conventional “success” story. It is a story of enlightened “failure”:
A story of school students and their teachers willing to risk reaching too high in their ideals of world citizenship and global community, thereby setting themselves up for “failure”.
A story of teachers and students willing to give of themselves freely and abundantly, despite the often cruel and cynical nature of African politics. A story of witnessing all you have aspired to and worked toward being trivialized, trampled and brutally bulldozed.
The Soweto uprising was a devastating event for those like myself, who went to school in Africa:
I was at school in Nairobi, Kenya on the day of June 16, 1976. For my own children, the event of 9/11 indelibly defined their childhood. For my generation who attended school in Africa, the day of the Soweto uprising was our 9/11.…We were in shock, but life had to go on and so we went through the motions and we went to school that day and the following day – by which time the news had traversed the entire African continent and the whole world. Nobody was talking much, we were in a muddled daze.…What I recall is entering my geography class at first period, the morning after the day of Soweto and all of us kids just quietly filing in and sitting down. Nobody spoke – we had nothing to say.
Soweto was about many things to many people, but as someone interested in education Soweto – to me personally – was about school curriculum:
These children were protesting because they were being taught Afrikaans when what they wished was to be taught in Bantu. It moved me so profoundly that it was a key decider in my devoting my doctoral research at Harvard to the field of multi-cultural educational curriculum.…
The effort to separate ourselves by race, creed, color, religion, or status is as costly to the separator as it is to those separated.
Melba Beals, Warriors Don’t Cry
“Schooling is what happens inside the wall of the school, some of which is educational. Education happens everywhere, and it happens from the moment a child is born—some say before—until it dies.”
— Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot
Sara was passionate about the way the rich culture of Africa had been “buried” or simply obliterated by the erudite Europeans who wrote the textbooks on Africa.
“What reforms would the Soweto school children have wished to realize within a multi-cultural school curriculum framework?”
In 1981, five years after the Soweto uprising in 1976, I was staff writer and editor for the University of San Francisco college newspaper, the Foghorn. I had penned a Foghorn article entitled Cell Yourselves about the need to build multi-cultural student clusters or “cells”.
I wrote Cell Yourselves in the USF Foghorn staff office on campus.
Twenty years after Soweto, in 1996, the concept of “community cells” had evolved into “educational bricks” – the subject of my doctoral thesis. I was now discussing this concept of “bricks” in that same USF Foghorn staff office with two Nobel Peace Prize recipients.
Breaking Down Cultural Stereotypes
In 1996, I was a volunteer on the USF Alumni Board, working closely with Alfred P. Alessandri (Al), the USF Vice President of Alumni Relations. Al in turn, was working with alumni Ralph Lane Jr. to put together a conference on “World Issues”. The two guest speakers at this conference were Nobel Peace Prize recipients Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Betty Williams.
I opportunistically wrote to the Archbishop before his arrival and requested a 15 minute audience with him and Betty on my Brick Project plans. He and Betty graciously concurred and after the conference Al smuggled us into the Foghorn staff office for a private chat.
In summary, Desmond and Betty both felt that the core value of the Brick Project was in the prospect of breaking down cultural stereotypes:
Betty’s own family had endured much violence due to entrenched cultural stereotyping. Her Protestant grandfather who worked in a shipyard in Belfast, had been thrown into a construction site just because his son was marrying a Catholic. She also had one cousin killed by a Catholic, another by a Protestant.
Desmond Tutu cited the example of the Hutu and the Tutsi in Rwanda – in 1996, we were just 2 years into the genocide in Rwanda. Young Hutu children were being taught to characterize the Tutsi as “cockroaches”.
The true value of the Brick Project in their view, was to break down these stereotypes which can sometimes lead to misunderstandings, sometimes with violent consequences. Moreover, working with middle school aged children (9 to 14 years old) was optimum since it meant that these stereotypes would be broken down in their formative stages.
Desmond Tutu advised me to build the first brick with a school and community in Harare, Zimbabwe to highlight what he termed an “economic apartheid” in Zimbabwe.
Specifically, he and I discussed The Brick Project’s objective of working on a solution for hunger in the shantytown of Porte Farm, Zimbabwe. This shantytown had been subjected to economic apartheid by the government: disabled women and children had been shunned and marginalized in Porte Farm. They had been forced to live on subsistence level agriculture and were often hungry and malnourished.
After we discussed all this serious stuff the Archbishop, who is renowned for his impish sense of humor, turns to Betty Williams who is fanning herself and says:
“You know something Betty – I have lots of fans around the world – so unlike you I do not need to carry a fan around with me…” – he then burst into a very delighted hyena-like cackle!
Saki Mafundikwa, Founder of Ziva in Zimbabwe
In 1996, after the advice from Desmond Tutu to build our First Brick with a Zimbabwe corner, I contacted my teacher during my graduate studies at MIT Media Lab – Glorianna Davenport. Glorianna had met a Yale School of Art graduate from Zimbabwe who wanted to start a Media Lab-type school and had recently met with her and Nicholas Negroponte at MIT. His name was Saki.
Saki Mafundikwa found me Arundel school and Porte Farm – he opened wide the gateway to Zimbabwe for The Brick Project. Saki and I first met in 1996 in San Francisco’s Embarcadero Center. It was an instant combustion of productivity.
The Empowerment of Women in Africa
We both cherished the pioneering work of Wangari Maathai and we both aspired to see more women creating policy in Africa. How to begin? How to build the educational support?
The obvious place to begin was a private girls’ school where future policy-makers are groomed. To a Western media mindset this would be counterintuitive:
Western media loved to portray poor Africans – especially children – in a patronizing way. Saki and I – both born in Africa – considered an alternative approach for The Brick Project:
Our intention was to depict smart, savvy, articulate young African women who would be the future doctors, lawyers, engineers, corporate executives and policy makers. Women who can work toward the ideal that Africa can eventually take care of herself and not require hand-outs. Africa needed more women leaders like Wagari Maathai and the future Ellen Sirleaf Johnson.
The Power of African Storytelling
As a visual and oral storyteller himself, Saki was a wealth of knowledge in this vital value of The Brick Project curriculum.
I explained to Saki how one of our advisors, Jeremy Geidt, invited South African playwright Athol Fugard to Yale in 1984, while Jeremy was teaching at the Yale School of Drama. Fugard’s play, Master Harold and the Boys, was banned in Apartheid South Africa and so Yale Rep founders Jeremy Geidt and Robert Brustein invited Fugard to New Haven to stage his banned play. Saki, it turned out, was just completing his Master of Fine Arts degree in graphic design at the Yale School of Art and was in the audience when Fugard’s play was staged!
The Celebration of African History and Culture
A vital component of Brick Project History Curriculum was the celebration of African cultural history. Saki at the time I met him in 1996, was already conducting in-depth research on the subject of Afrikan Alphabets which he would eventually publish to worldwide acclaim.
Paper Making at Porte Farm, Zimbabwe
The Zimbabwe school for the First Brick (with the American, Lithuanian and Indian schools) was Arundel Girls’ School and the headmistress at the time was Gil Alcock. Arundel was a private girls’ school, one of the most competitive schools on the African continent. The empowerment of women and the nurturing of progressive African women leaders was an aspiration that both Desmond Tutu and Betty Williams expressed when I met with them.
Arundel was the kind of school they would have advocated for this purpose.
Together with the Founder/Director of ZIVA (Zimbabwe Institute of Visual Arts), Saki Mafundikwa, Verity, Shepherd and Gil developed the Porte Farm Paper Making.
After we secured the commitment of Arundel school, headmistress Gil Alcock attended a conference in Cape Town with Desmond Tutu and informed him that Arundel students were now working on field projects with Porte Farm. The Archbishop was delighted! He saw Zimbabwe as a pained and divided nation that needed a project like ours to build bridges between haves and have-nots.
The concept was two-fold:
- That this local shanty community, populated mainly by widows and orphans, would have a sustainable form of income. This was accomplished through making paper at Porte Farm from biodegradable waste products such as water hyacinth, banana leaves and corn husks. The artistic paper was then sold to high-end art stores in the USA which fetched a healthy income for the Porte Farm community.
- By having the privileged private school girl students at Arundel visit with and help out at Porte Farm, these students expanded their knowledge of Art, Ecology and Economics.
It was an excellent example of what could be accomplished through creativity and innovation. The community at Porte Farm made beautiful paper and paper products which sold well in the USA and brought them enough income to feed the community.
The expanding Brick Project community – which eventually grew to 16 schools around the world – all supported and studied the activities at Porte Farm, Zimbabwe.
Breaking Down Curriculum Central Planning
While my team of Brick Builders and I built more bricks with more schools around the world, the Teacher Advisors helped develop new curriculum models.
These teachers were doing pioneering work:
They were knocking down the old paradigm of Curriculum Central Planning. School curriculum is traditionally built centrally by people in America or Europe, usually in an Ivory Tower.
It is no wonder, for example, that History or Art Curriculum rarely mentions one of the great African wonders of the world – The Great Zimbabwe at Masvingo. The European history books on Africa were written with a Western bias, and Curriculum Central Planners robotically regurgitate this into school curriculum without any cultural sensitivity.
The Brick Project Curriculum Builders – Teacher Advisors – were pioneering new models of curriculum for our schools. They created lesson plans on Art, Literature, Ecology and History.
In the USA, Joan Barnett, Joanne Amaru and Josh Stewart were steadfast in their dedication to keeping the lines of communication open with the schools in the Brick Project community. Thereby, they built a global consensus on new ideas for lesson plans and school field trips.
The Brick Project grows to sixteen countries
By 2006, The Brick Project was active in sixteen countries and working with 100’s of schoolchildren.
Art, Ecology and History Curriculum
For History Curriculum, Verity and I made a film on The Great Zimbabwe at Masvingo with Arundel teacher Shepherd Urenje. Verity also made an Art Curriculum documentary film.
This educational documentary was on Zimbabwean Shona Sculpture. Verity featured five renowned Zimbabwean sculptors. The documentary short was narrated by the then Arundel art teacher, Odiolla Varanusara. Arundel students visited the Zimbabwe National Gallery in Harare, as well as the home and outdoor studio of renowned Zimbabwean sculptor, Dominic Benhura.
For Ecology Curriculum in Zimbabwe we made a documentary on biodegradable paper-making at Porte Farm. The paper was made with 100% recyclable waste products.
Porte Farm: The Soul of The Brick Project Community
Porte Farm was the conscience, the heart and the soul of the Brick Project.
Within our global community, these were the people that were most economically marginalized, living in hardship. We all pulled together for Porte Farm, thinking – in our own myopic way – that we were giving them support.
What we learned over and over is that it was the community in Porte Farm, through their sheer pluck and determination, that gave us more strength and hope than we could ever offer them.
They embodied “sustainability”. They were not looking for hand-outs, they were making and selling beautifully crafted paper products at a fair market value.
Porte Farm prompted the question all of our teachers asked all of our students:
What does sustainability mean to you?
The Brutal Bulldozing of Porte Farm, Zimbabwe
Forced evictions and demolitions continue despite UN condemnation
By James Elder
PORTA FARM, Zimbabwe, 27 July 2005 – Twenty-four hours after UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s Special Envoy on human settlements, Anna Tibaijuka, called for an immediate end to demolitions and evictions in Zimbabwe, thousands of people at Porta Farm – a settlement 20 km from Harare – watched helplessly as bulldozers destroyed homes, the second time in a month.
Sixty-four year-old Marume, his wife and their five grandchildren spent three weeks in Caledonia Farm, before it was abruptly closed. He then brought his family back to the ruins of Porta Farm where he started to rebuild. Forty-eight hours later the bulldozers returned.
“What am I now supposed to do?” asks Marume.
“I have five grandchildren to care for [Marume’s daughter died in 1998], and men half my age can’t get work. I am desperate…
The Destruction of Porte Farm, Zimbabwe
Brick Project Student Letters to Newspaper Editors
Children are a wonderful gift.
They have an extraordinary capacity to see into the heart of things and to expose sham and humbug for what they are.
— Desmond Tutu, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize
To: Mr. Byron E. Calame, The Editor
The New York Times
Dear Mr. Calame,
My school, Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School, is devastated by the news that our dear friends in the Porte Farm community in Zimbabwe have been evicted from their homes. Also, their homes have been flattened and then burned so they cannot go back to them. We have been working with these Zimbabweans for the past year through the Brick Project. They are our friends.
Can you please send a reporter over there and find out what is going on? Please? I have been looking through the newspapers today and most of them are more interested in Jennifer Lopez than what is going on in Zimbabwe.
How can young people like me learn about the world if all the newspapers do is write about Jennifer Lopez?
This is urgent! Please send a reporter to Zimbabwe to find our friends who got thrown out of Porte Farm.
(Seventh Grader, Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School, Orleans, Massachusetts, USA)
I don’t think I’m yet peaceful.
I have to struggle every day within myself when I see the suffering of the people of the world, the women and the children.
— Betty Williams, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize
To: Ms Bachi Karkaria, Editor
The Times of India
Dear Ms Karkaria
We are students at Doon School in Dehra Dun hill station. We are part of The Brick Project global community of schools which includes a project with an impoverished village in Zimbabwe.
This village is called Porte Farm, and the inhabitants therein have had their homes bulldozed and burned. This is a travesty of the highest order. We urge you to send a TOI reporter to the site of this atrocious violation which has been predicated by the Zimbabwean police and army – the very same people who have been entrusted to maintain law and order in Zimbabwe.
For further questions kindly contact deputy headmaster Mr. Jayant Hari Har Lal.
(First Form Student, The Doon School, Dehra Dun, India)
The Boston Globe sends a reporter to Zimbabwe
Verity Norman, Brick Project Global Co-ordinator, asked all the students how they would like to respond to the brutal, barbaric, bullying human rights violation in Porte Farm. The students elected to write to national newspapers and urge editors to send a journalist into Zimbabwe.
This was an intelligent and innovative response by the Brick Project students to a global crisis.
“Respond intelligently – even to unintelligent treatment.”
— Lao Tzu, 道德經 (Tao Te Ching), Zhao Dynasty, 6th Century BC
One of the newspapers to respond swiftly was The Boston Globe. They sent their South African correspondent John Donnelly undercover to Zimbabwe to find out what had happened.
Here are excerpts from John Donnelly’s article for the Globe (source: CCLCS website)…
In Zimbabwe, hope survives destruction
Women rebuild a business, with aid from Massachusetts
By John Donnelly, Globe Staff | September 25, 2005
HARARE, Zimbabwe — Against great odds in this disintegrating country, six poor women pulled themselves out of poverty. A Cape Cod store sold their bookmarks and greeting cards made from cardboard and banana leaves.
And two schools — one in Harare, the other in Orleans, Mass. — followed their progress keenly and offered support.
Then, the government bulldozed the women’s homes, along with those of 1,500 other families, in the settlement of Porta Farm outside the capital, while targeting what it called illegal shantytowns. Nationwide, the demolitions have left 700,000 people homeless.
The women scattered. Their work stopped. Students in Massachusetts and Zimbabwe, crestfallen, felt all had been lost. But, not all was — especially not the women’s spirit. Unknown to the students until a few days ago, the women managed to save their equipment and supplies and to stick together, moving to another dusty plot outside Harare.
The Cape Cod middle school became involved through a Cambridge-based school-learning program called the Brick Project, which through the Internet linked the Massachusetts middle- schoolers with those from Zimbabwe, Lithuania, and India. Students in Harare’s Arundel School had learned about the women during visits to Porta Farm, and their shared information motivated the Cape Cod students to help.
“I was very, very upset because the women were finally getting on a better track, and now they would have to start from scratch,” Rachel Lake, 11, a seventh-grader, said in an interview from the Orleans school earlier this month, before the Zimbabwe women were located.
Added Andrew Smith, 13, an eighth-grader from Barnstable: “I wonder how they are feeling.”
The Cape Cod students, cheered on Friday to learn that the women were safe, are talking about a new fund-raiser for them.
“Instead of giving up, they are looking forward to the future,” said Lake, the seventh-grader.
© Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.
Learning and Teaching
- As seen from the above Boston Globe article the teachers learned the depth of concern 7th graders like Rachel Lake and 8th graders like Andrew Smith held for Porte Farm.
- In Harare, Zimbabwe, we learned that several of the Arundel girls experienced shifts in their perspective and aspirations. Samia, 13, had aspirations to become a corporate lawyer in America. After visits to Porte Farm she said she was switching to human rights law. Another Arundel student now wanted to work for Doctors Without Borders.
“A path is made by walking on it.”
— Chuang Tzu, 莊子 — 4th Century BC
- We learned that school curriculum around the world has a systemic challenge: it is often archaic or myopic; the Brick Project Teacher Advisor’s pioneering work in developing multi-cultural curriculum engaged students and made learning dynamic and alive.
- We learned that technology is a valuable tool for building global school communities as long as it enhances a shared set of core community values amongst the stakeholders.
If you have built castles in the air your work need not be lost. That is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
— Henry David Thoreau
Teaching and Learning
The most important lesson I learned is that a global “community” is authentic to the extent that it is inclusive of those that are economically marginalized and politically violated or displaced.
Although I had built a robust model with the Brick Project, it was not strong enough to withstand the blowback of the tragic events in Porte Farm. The girders used to construct the model needed to withstand and respond to the gusts of social injustice and human rights violations as they pertained to people such as the Porte Farm community we all embraced.
So now it is back to the drawing board to build a stronger and deeper foundation.
When the Zimbabwe police bulldozed and burned and buried the homes of our friends in Porte Farm they also did bulldoze the morale of all the Brick Project students around the world – they turned our school bricks into rubble as well.
The students did not know how to handle this trauma and they did not know how to rediscover and regenerate their enthusiasm for sustainability initiatives like this one in Zimbabwe. The experience was so very harsh for them because they had so much affection for the people in Porte Farm.
— Virginja Kanapinskiene, Brick Project Teacher Advisor, Lithuania
The Archbishop is not Amused
The pain the Brick Project felt for the people in Zimbabwe paled in comparison to what Desmond Tutu must have felt. He had seen South Africa live through violent atrocities, gain gritty hard-won freedom and then go all soft and mushy in the middle. The archbishop was not amused.
“We Africans should hang our heads in shame.
How can what is happening in Zimbabwe elicit hardly a word of concern let alone condemnation from us leaders of Africa? After the horrible things done to hapless people in Harare, has come the recent crackdown on members of the opposition … what more has to happen before we who are leaders… of our mother Africa are moved to cry out ‘Enough is enough?”— Desmond Tutu, recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2006
Back to the Classroom with Joanne and Joan
In 2006, in the aftermath of the devastation of Porte Farm, I was sitting in the Brick Project classroom in Cape Cod with Joanne Amaru and Joan Barnatt during our lunch break. I had a backlog of emails I was sifting through when I recognized a familiar – but infrequent – name of an email correspondent from South Africa.
I opened the email to find that he was requesting I share a message with Brick Project “friends” of Porte Farm – our worldwide teacher and student community:
Dear Brick Project Friends,
Thank you for demonstrating that we live in a moral universe where goodness prevails despite its ghastly counterpart.
— Desmond Tutu