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An Alternative to Literacy
Is it possible for community video and radio to play this role?
a small experiment by the Deccan Development Society, Hyderabad, India
 

Literacy has become a Holy Grail in the world of development. Development groups working in rural areas suffer from a feeling of inadequacy if they are not pursuing literacy programmes. They maybe doing excellent work through harnessing people's knowledge in the fields of forestry, fisheries, natural farming, land development, natural resource management whatever. But literacy programmes haunt them. The irony is that in most of these activities literacy has very little to offer. People's knowledge and peoples science in all these areas are so strong that they need very little external help in the form of technology. But still the feeling of inadequacy prevails very strong among non-literacy groups.

Time has come to question this exaggerated importance given to literacy in development. I would not like to be misunderstood as an anti-literacy person. I value literacy very much. What I am pointing to is in valuing literacy we should not devalue other capabilities and skills present in non-literate people. By doing so, we might kill all the self-confidence in these people. I am itching to tell a story which I had heard in my childhood. I still cherish it for the message it gives:

Three scholars decided to cross a river. They asked a boatman to help them cross the river. The boatman was glad to oblige them. As the boat sailed out, one scholar asked the boatman: Have you read Vedas. The boatman humbly replied "No Sir". He felt very ashamed. The scholar rubbed it in. "A quarter of your life is wasted". After they sailed a little further, the second scholar asked: "Have you read Upanishads?" The boatman felt further small. "No Sir". The scholar said contemptuously: "Half your life is wasted". They sailed halfway into the river. The third scholar asked, "At least have you read Puranas?" The boatman felt totally humiliated. "No sir, not even that". "Then three quarter of your life is a waste". By then they hit a whirlpool. The boat started sinking. The boatman, for the first time, asked the scholars: "Sir, do you people know how to swim?" All the scholars said "No" in total panic. "All your lives are a waste now sir", said the boatman and leapt out of the boat.

What I am trying to say is that in our part of the world there is a generation of women and men, people who are in their thirties and above who are not literate. But they have deep reserves of knowledge in farming, forestry, ecology, natural resource management -- areas where survival knowledge, which is paramount for the human race, eludes us the literates. Why should we discount this rich knowledge and skills with which they survive in the harshest of environments and push literacy towards them as THE SKILL ? This has been one of the key questions that bothers my mind in my work with disadvantaged rural women in Medak District of Andhra Pradesh.

Historical background of DDS

DDS started in this environment as the commitment of a group of professionals to the people in the Zaheerabad region to continue a rural development project abandoned by an industrial house due to its own compulsions. The earliest objectives of DDS was to combine ecological and employment parameters to regenerate the livelihoods of the people in the area through a string of activities:

  • Ensure 100 days of employment per year per person
  • Use these employment days to work on their lands to enhance the productivity of their soils through bunding, trenching, top soil addition etc.
  • Galvanise communities of women to lease in lands from large farmers and work on it collectively.
  • Green the area through planting in the village commons.

An associated objective was to transfer people-oriented technology. This included housing technologies, use of solar energy, permaculture way of organic farming etc. Gradually all these efforts have moved in a reverse direction. Today we recognise that people have more knowledge than us, more appropriate technologies than we can think of. Therefore our programmes have evolved into three principles:

  • gender justice
  • environmental-soundness and
  • people's knowledge

Education at all levels was a very strong component in this string of efforts. Education, for DDS, encompasses a range of activities starting with balwadies to provide a creative learning environment for young children to Pachasaale, a unique school for working children which takes formal learning and life skills under one umbrella and redefines education into an area of relevance for rural children. Within this range are fitted intensive workshops for adult women, village night schools for out of school children etc.



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Central to these attempts is the relocation of people's knowledge in the areas of health (through revitalising the traditional healthcare systems), agriculture (understanding, documenting and promoting people's knowledge of farming systems and practices) etc.

New forms of expression

When the commitment of an organisation is to value peoples knowledge and build its work on their confidence, the need to explore various tools of expression with which people can communicate with the outside world. Because the outside world is a reality and their necessity to communicate with it is also a reality.

In this effort, literacy was not the only choice. We felt literacy can actually become a constraint for non-literate people whose aural and visual narratives are so powerful. So what else can one think of ? For me the possibility of providing video and audio technologies as a means of expression for the disadvantaged rural women was an exciting idea. So I have made efforts to equip a group of ten women with the skills to handle this media.

Communicating through video

I began a series of video workshops from January this year. Each workshop was for a duration of four days. Spread over eight months these workshops have trained a total of seven women of whom four are non-literate. Of these seven women, two are students and the four are farm labour and one is a DDS worker. All of them are dalits in an age group of 16-35 years. The workshops started with a total of eleven persons, ten women and one man. But of them four dropped out during various phases of the workshops and seven have made it to all the workshops.

The women chose to learn video production for various reasons. Their own reasons
are as follows:

  • We would like to let our issues known outside(Ippapally Mallamma)
  • Our news must go outside (Zaheerabad Punyamma)
  • We are working on the Gene Bank in our village. Several times you people come to shoot our work. But there are seasons when it is very important to shoot. At that time you people may not be available. Therefore when you people do not come, we can do our own recording and give it to you. (Humnapur Laxmi)
  • So that we can communicate with people in other sanghams. Whenever some events take place in our sanghams, you people come to video it. When you don't come, we have to wait for you. Instead we can do the recording ourselves and take it out.(Pastapur Narsamma)
  • To photograph; marriages etc.(Bopanpalli Nagamma)
  • When big government people come to our village, we would like to record what they tell us. That becomes a document for us. (Eedulapalle Manjula)

 



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Their expectations from the workshops were also varied.

  • How can we tell about the work we are doing?
  • To know whether it (the video) can record what we talk and say
  • To understand what parts it (the video) has
  • To know whether it records from a distance; how to make pictures big and small; how to make sound big and small;

The training objective was to familiarise the participants with the grammar of television, with the operation of video cameras and in editing their shoots and make their own stories. These workshops were conducted by three of us:

  • P V Satheesh, a television Producer/Director (who incidentally is Director, Deccan Development Society and is an experienced producer and trainer and familiar with the rural ethos).
  • Vijendra Patil, a Cameraman- producer who has a variety of experiences in
    training and production.
  • Yesu, an 18-year old rural boy, who had recently apprenticed with a video production house and who was being simultaneously trained on video operations and editing.

The training was done with one DV Camera and two VHS video cameras and a makeshift editing set up.


Methodology

The trainings were conducted using the following methods:

  • Group discussion on what the motivation of each person was to come for the training.
  • Visual explanation with the use of drawings on the blackboard of the various concepts and terms.
  • Creation of a new technical vocabulary in the local dialect using the women's words and their experiences. This became an exercise in participatory glossary formation in the local language.
  • Creation of learning games to bring home the concepts. For eg. hopscotch was a game used to teach the principles of varying the image sizes, camera distances, heights and angles when shooting a given object for successive shots.
  • Hands on training in using the camera and editing the pictures
  • Group analysis of each other's work to facilitate a group learning process

Through these processes the women learnt the following :

  • Parts of a video camcorder and how to operate each of them
  • Use of a camera tripod
  • Shots and image sizes
  • Camera frame and simple principles of picture composition
  • Camera distance, camera angle and camera movement
  • Simple microphones and simple techniques of sound recording.
  • Shot breakdown for a simple shoot
  • Plotting camera positions for a simple shoot
  • Logging the shoot and finding editing points
  • Executing an edit on a VHS system

Outputs and linkages

The training cum learning processes involved have been videoed and have been through a rough edit. After learning video skills for 30 days, the women have filmed one aspect of their sangham work namely pre-schools for their children and their significance to their lives. Together these two films highlight the capacities, experiences and communication skills of the village women.

In October there was unprecedented rain in our area and crops in the field were severely damaged. The women decided to tell their story on video. The group discussed their ideas and planned the story. Ms.Narasamma, a 25 year old non literate farm worker was selected as the reporter. The group also wanted to highlight in the story, that this video was being shot by the rural women themselves. Two cameras were taken to the field and the reporter stood in ankle deep water and gave her piece to the camera, briefly but passionately telling the facts regarding the destruction of bajra and jowar and the black future of the farmer and the women.



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The quality of shooting with the play of light, close up of the blackened jowar was made more poignant as it was these women's fields that we were looking at. The story has gone on air on the regional Doordarshan network and on ETV, a commercial channel. This gave us confidence that the group can make short videos of broadcast quality. It was evident that the group had confidence in themselves and was beginning to handle their ideas, equipments and find space on air.

This gave us an idea and we have negotiated for a regular chunk on their channels both with the Doordarshan and with the ETV channel. Both have agreed to provide them space. Doordarshan has said that it is interested in giving them space on their Women's programme while ETV has in principle agreed provide a five minute slot per month for stories on organic farming.

Findings

  • Video can be a very effective tool for use by non-literate rural people to express themselves to the outside world
  • Being non literate is no barrier in learning video as a mode of expression. Therefore instead of literacy being pushed down the throats of adult rural women and men, new media of expressions can be found.
  • Non literate women can turn into excellent videographers. Their traditional narrative and pictorial understanding of the world around them can find wonderful expression in the videos made by them.
  • The trainers in these workshops who have long experiences in training professional television practitioners in the Afro Asian region, were struck with the ease and quickness with which non literate women were able to learn and use video. In many cases they started wondering whether literacy is after all a barrier in learning new media of expression.
  • In their ability to understand and express through video the non literate women were not even a slight shade inferior to their urban counterparts who come to media education with formidable academic backgrounds.

Recommendations

  • Video has a great potential for use in rural communities as a mode of exchange of ideas and thoughts. This must be recognised and the use of simple video by the rural communities in developmental communication must be supported and encoraged.
  • Non literate communities can handle video extraordinarily well to express themselves and communicate with the outside world. Therefore as a tool for direct communication between communities and governments, policy makers, funders and international development organisations, video should be explored more widely. The burden of being non-literate gets lifted if video can substitute communication through literacy. With such and effort, non literate communities can regain their confidence for expression with outside world.
  • Women in traditional communities are normally kept out of the realm of communicating with the external world. Interpersonal communication with outsiders, written communication and participation in large groups to express themselves normally becomes very difficult for thesse women. As a first stage of helping them find their own expression video can be used as a very effecive tool..
  • Civil Society groups should be helped to establish and run Community Media Centres which include video and audio communication facilities. This prevents them from seeking literacy as the only tool of expression for their rural client groups. This also releases the latent energy among their communites whose confidences are normally shattered wit the existing heavy emphasis on literacy.
  • This is not to suggest that efforts towards literacy must be stopped. On the contrary. What is being suggested is that we must recognise that to be effectively literate is a generational effort. In the meanwhile people of the middle generation who are past their teens should not be made to feel subhumans because they are not literate. If they are given other tools of expression their confidences can be rebuilt and literacy can follow as they start effectively communicating with the outside world with the new found tools. Video can be one such tool which they can easily master and handle.

The video training has tremendous value as it comes at a time when women are required to communicate more widely, their experiences and expertise in permaculture, empowerment and leadership training. Handling the camera also gives visibility in the community and empowers the women to document the stories of the community.

Overall, the women have demonstrated the potential of becoming a rich independent, human resource for region in communicating indigenous development practises.

Community F M Radio

The other medium we are trying to explore with the non-literate rural women is Radio. Annexure A gives in detail their own expectations from a radio of their own. Their arguments are extraordinarily original and are unmatched for their logic. For the women who are equipped with extraordinary oral narrative skills radio is a natural medium. We feel very excited with the possibilities of using it.

We have built a low cost radio station which is 90% complete and will be operationalised by January 1999. It is designed as an FM station capable of working on audio cassette technology. It has a 100 watts transmitter which can reach a radius of 30 kms.

The station is part of the Women Speak to Women programme of UNESCO, which has supported us in this venture. Once the station is in operation dalit women from 75 villages will own and operate it. They will bring their form and content into it and make it a tool for their horizontal communication with their communities and to reach out to the outside world.



Recording a programme
at the Radio Station

As the women get equipped with the capacities to express their thoughts, their knowledge and their vision for their future through pictures and sounds, we feel, we have made a major breakthrough in providing a technology for the education of deprived rural communities. And for the education of the outside world about what these communities are capable of.