Knowing and Unknowing
It’s a fantastic opportunity to be back here in Tanzania. It’s now my sixth year working and visiting the country since living out here between 2010-2011. Along the way, I like to think I’ve built up a good understanding of local cultures, ways of working, contacts and networks which have all helped me to develop Bright Green Enterprise; whether it’s getting things done more efficiently, quicker, at lower cost (avoiding ‘tourist prices’!) or exploring new ways and perspectives of doing things.
But it’s taken six years to get to this stage. The knowledge that I’ve built up about the environment I work within (both in the UK and Tanzania) has been an incremental process – it didn’t just ‘happen’. It’s taken time (lots of it), money (lots of it), perseverance (lots of it), patience (definitely lots of it) and a whole lotta love. And over the course of this time I’ve given some of this knowledge to others and gained in return some of their knowledge.
On the first day of my trip, whilst I was waiting for a meeting in Arusha, I overheard a conversation on the table next to me between two people (an English woman and a Tanzanian man). The English woman was organising a school trip for a well-known, expensive private school to go to the Tanzanian coast for a week of camping. The Tanzanian man, an owner of some type of safari / tourist company, was there to iron out the final details and costs of the trip, including food. The discussion was an awkward one to overhear. The English woman, clearly trying to get the best price possible, was arguing quite loudly (in English) about the cost of each item she brought up that she wanted bespoke for the trip: “we need some bottles of water but I want the water bought in large containers and transferred into smaller containers each day”, safari man replies: “no problem, we can do that for 1,500 TSH (approx 40p) per head”. “What!? No way. You shouldn’t be charging for this. You’re just trying to make profit – all the time!”. The conversation went on like this for some time, the woman adding on bespoke requests for the trip (wanting free visits to certain beaches and parks), whilst the safari manager added on his costs of arranging said requests, much to her outrage.
This isn’t of course a very exciting story to tell but it did get me thinking and reminded me of just how precious knowledge can be. Especially when entering a new environment knowledge is a powerful tool, just like the ability to communicate in another language, it can often be the difference between getting something you want and not getting it. And in some cases, avoiding a worst case scenario situation. In the case above, wanting to organise a trip for a group of children to a remote area you know nothing about, inevitably requires the services of another if you’re to do it safely and enjoyably. Knowing that a shop can sell a bottle of water is very different to knowing where a shop that sells water is located and how to communicate in Swahili to get that water, in the quantity you need. Invariably, specialist knowledge like this can have a cost attached; much like the fees charged by her school.
However, knowledge for all its usefullness is often pitted against information. At school we are tasked with remembering lots and lots of information in a relatively short space of time and then being tested on it. Added to this, we must all learn the same thing, in much the same way, for the same period of time. The idea is that we then come out of school with the same information and are graded (scored) on how well we have remembered that information. With so much information transfer it’s often not surprising that there’s little time to develop our own knowledge into how things work. In short during our childhood years, we build up a lot of “know what” rather than “know how” with the expectation that life will select us based on the former. Which, if you’ve paid attention to the moral of this post, is not likely and has meant that each generation undertaking this style of education is lacking the space and nourishment to develop their own unique brand of knowledge.
At Twende, the social innovation centre I’m working with over the next week, they take a different approach to learning. Learning is very much centred around the accumulation of knowledge rather than information. What I admire greatly about Twende is that it recognises the value and expertise of local knowledge in developing pathways for sustainable and useful innovation. It offers space for people, of all ages, no matter their academic backgrounds, the opportunity to develop and transfer their knowledge into technologies for social good.
Of course there’s benefits for Twende as well – the centre has built up a (well deserved) reputation as a local space for grassroots innovation through its various technologies it helps to bring to market; from the bicycle powered maize sheller, to the water irrigation kit, the multi-crop thresher and the manure spreader. All of these technologies have required the sharing of knowledge about users, culture, ecosystems, materials, supply networks and more. None are the product of just one person, rather a network of humans and non-humans that have come together to shape the technology. The more I get to know Twende, the more I get a feel of its ethos towards innovation and local participation. It places knowledge at the centre of its operations, recognising it as a crucial and valuable tool in shaping new pathways for sustainable innovation.
I’m very excited to explore their technologies in more depth over the next few months and will keep Bright Green readers posted on the progress and stories as they evolve. For now, I’ll leave you with this gem of a tale doing the rounds in engineering circles!
A ship engine failed, no one could fix it so they brought in a man with 40 years on the job in the hope he could help. He inspected the engine carefully, top to bottom. After looking things over, the guy reached into his bag and pulled out a small hammer. He gently tapped something. Instantly, the engine lurched into life. The engine was fixed! 7 Days later the owners got his bill for £10,000. “What?!” the owners said “You hardly did anything. Send us an itemized bill”. The itemized bill arrived and simply read: “Tapping with a hammer $2.00. Knowing where to tap? $9,998”.
Don’t Ever Underestimate Experience.