Kids for Kids: Using Technology to Inform and Improve Behavior
by Benjamin Morse (Hawzien 2011–13)
After serving two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Hawzien, I began to reflect on something that will continue to play a pivotal role in the development of countries like Ethiopia: technology. Technology is a fickle thing. We love it or hate it; there is not a lot of room to be impartial about our technological gadgets. Technology 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 songs developed in this project will be distributed in schools and will target the newest generation of Ethiopians as they prepare to take over the reins from the older generation.
How is it possible that we were able to record, produce, film and edit ten music videos while living in rural Ethiopia, a country 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, Abadi Abreha, started this project over four years ago. He was a teacher at the local high school and later became a director at a primary school in rural Hawzien. He was motivated to take on this project having caught numerous students cheating. He wanted to address the problem through music and through creativity rather than looking past it or scolding the children. He believed so much in the project that he paid out of pocket for the first three songs while trying to gain support from NGOs in town and the local government. Despite heroic efforts, he was unsuccessful in getting any additional support for this project, and had to put the project on hold.
As fate would have it, I met Abadi a few years later when I moved to Hawzien. By this time, Abadi was no longer a teacher, but instead worked at the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia. We discussed the project and his interest in focusing on the children of Ethiopia, 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. Here was a man who wanted to focus students on the necessary lifestyle changes needed to improve the quality of life 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 uncertain.
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 conducted 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. I was scouring the Internet for updated material and I was asking other Peace Corps Volunteers, doctors, professors and former employers for assistance.
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 into English and developed an innovative teacher’s guide. This comprehensive 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 paves 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.
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.”
After Abadi records the tune, he writes the lyrics based on the research and earlier discussions. He then records the lyrics on his mobile phone with the music that he created earlier.
With the recordings in mind, he provides training to the singers and discusses each song one by one. The singers then progress to record themselves on their mobile phones and return to Abadi for additional training. Genet, Abadi’s wife and our camera operator and music video editor for the project, records the perfected songs. She converts the songs to a CD and takes it to the recording studio, which is three hours by public transportation.
The studio studies the voice recording and composes it into an actual musical track. The singers, who have rehearsed extensively based on a voice recording come into the studio, record over the new musical track. After making the necessary adjustments, they are ready to return to the studio to lay the final track. Once 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 in Ethiopia for two years I am proud of this technologically-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.
Since I left Ethiopia about two months ago this project has continued to thrive. Abadi has taken it upon his shoulders and is in the process of expanding the distribution locations and even translating the project into Amharic, the national language of Ethiopia. I am very proud of this project because not only was it initiated by an Ethiopian before I came to this country, but is being continued by Abadi and his team after I have left. 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.