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Gathering of Kindred Folk Re-imagining Higher Education!

Gathering of Kindred Folk Re-imagining Higher Education!

Posted by on Aug 12, 2015 in all posts, on the road | 0 comments

As you may be are aware, there is a knowledge movement slowly building all over the world, an emerging network of lets call them Eco-versities for now – of people and communities reclaiming their local knowledge systems and imaginations to restore and re-envision learning processes that are meaningful and relevant to the call of our times, that cultivate new stories and possibilities, that re-connect and regenerate diverse ecological and cultural ecosystems.

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From the start of our adventures in this landscape of these diverse ecologies of knowledges focusing on Higher Education emerging around the world we dreamt: – what if these places could share their experiences, knowledges, their learning approaches amongst and between themselves and strengthen the beautiful and important work they are all doing?! What even more wondrous and powerful transformations could occur! As we visited places across different countries, as well as writing and making films, we took on ourselves the role of traveling story-tellers – telling stories to people we met of the other places we had visited and what they had been doing. Some links between places started to emerge through this as people and places begun to hear more about each others’ work.

Now that our physical journey to many of these places has come to a rest, as well as carrying on writing and editing the films, we have put our energy into that original dream.

We are really excited to have co-created with Manish Jain from Swaraj University (Udaipur, India) a Gathering of Kindred Folk Re-imagining Higher Education! This ‘Re-Imagining Higher Education’ event will gather more than 50 other leading visionary-doers and thinkers from more than 20 countries at Tamera Peace and Research Centre, an eco-village in southern Portugal this August (from the 20th – 26th).

We are gathering this group from a variety of learning places around the world – to share experiences, wisdom, insights and challenges to learn about how transformative learning is being imagined and enacted in each place. Our primary focus is to bring together people who are hosting or who are deeply involved with ‘alternative’ or ‘post-traditional’ places of higher education, or who are somehow re-imagining higher education in their work. Many of these have emerged from different social movements, ecological movements and indigenous communities.

During the six days we will spend together in Portugal we will host an interactive process through a structured un-conference format where there will be a lot of time for sharing and co-creating with self-organizing sessions and open-spaces. Our intention is to co-create a gathering that can propel this movement forward, where stories are shared, creative sparks fly, and friendships and alliances are woven. We hope to be able to explore common emerging themes such as sustainability and social justice; unlearning and decolonizing; indigenous ways of knowing; healing; gift culture; re-engaging community, nature and the built environment; local media; literacies; the question of certification; mentoring; rites of passage; right livelihood and social/eco entrepreneurship, and many others. We will keep you posted on how the event goes on our Facebook and Twitter page. We will also let you know how you can participate in this emerging network.

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Artisans of Meaning

Artisans of Meaning

Posted by on Aug 13, 2014 in all posts, on the road | 1 comment

So… we decided to write from the present and share the journey of what it has been like to transform the materials from our year of visiting all of these amazing innovative places of higher education around the world into a series of films. We plan to continue writing about places further on in our trip that we still have not blogged about – to write about them as we are finishing drafts of films.

This ‘making of’ has been quite a ride in itself because of the breadth and amount of material: we recorded over 140 hours of film, with over 80 interviews, visited 21 places in 10 countries. But… it has also been an adventure because rather than editing this material just from our perspective we wanted to involve friends and kindred folk in the making of the films. We also really wanted creative input from people we visited and met along the way, to bounce off our experiences and interpretation of the places visited against the views and experience of those who founded them and of the young people who had gone through them.

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We also want in this project to learn and experiment with a different way of creating knowledge and a story — together — that is collective, rather than so individually-focused. We felt that co-creating would mirror the learning that is occurring in each of the places to be represented in each film. We want to embody in the making of films some of the principles we learnt along our journey: mainly the power of openness, serendipity, co-creation and gift culture. We want to tap into the synergy of having diverse minds and hearts and eyes crafting together stories which are about learning and living and sharing in a different way.

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We are now in rural southern Oregon, a dry region of high desert. It is the height of summer and a thunderstorm has just rolled by and breathed some cool air into the valley giving us some rest from the wildfire-induced smoky air. I look out of the window onto the garden where we have been growing some vegetables and herbs since we arrived. The garden keeps us connected to rhythms of nature’s growth and the life of plants are a nice reminder of the living things that are all around us — providing much –needed breaks from the screen and computer that are the tools of an editor.

Our intention is to make these films within a community of friends.

Nothing substitutes the power of face-to-face interaction when we make things together. We were lucky to have experienced this on numerous occasions during our journey – the intensity of being in the same place and intimately sharing ideas, feelings and intuitions, drawing and sketching ideas, building models and mindmaps, moving pieces of paper around, pointing at a screen or photo, sticking notes on a wall, going for walks, cooking and eating together.

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Enlivened Learning Map by Manuela Pereira

But we ended up in a small rural town where Kelly was born, slowing down with the birth of our first baby —- the friends we met or re-encountered along the way are scattered around the globe.

So we devised another way of maintaining a creative community that would nourish each other and participate in the making of these films. Experimenting with various online tools and platforms we are navigating places of co-creation. Our friends from India, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, USA, Canada, UK and France have been participating in this co-creative process. A syncretic mix of emails, online meeting groups, Skype group chats, a vimeo page to host our interviews and work in progress and a website where we share transcripts, ideas and conversations – provides the architecture where we meet and work.

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This has meant adapting a working environment and editing workflow so as to make it available online and distributed across people, places and timezones. It has also meant opening up the making process out of the ‘editing room’ so that others are watching, transcribing and annotating the interviews, and discussing early drafts of the films together. Beyond this, we have also become a creative community, making maps and images, animations and posters all which are further enlivening the stories we are telling.

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Enlivened Learning Logo Animation made with Madhur Anand

Thinking about this process of editing and finding the threads significance across the range of materials – interviews, action sequences, shots of places, people, events, photographs and sound recordings – we came up with the name of the group as ‘Artisans of Meaning’. This name emerged because we are crafting and weaving the meaning of each film through the strands which stand out for each of us, which move us and which we all find significant. The films then emerge as a tapestry of this process.

We also see and have experienced the group as a way to learn together through the materials. Again we took on board a lesson from our journey of the importance of creating situations whereby we can learn together whilst connecting this learning to real issues happening in our lives. We saw the wonderful opportunity of learning together around the making of a film, as well as learning of the topics that the film covers.

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Enlivened Learning Poster
created by Ali Hodgson

For Kelly and I this community has been invaluable. It has been a tremendous source of nourishment — rather than a typical editing process that is often quite lonely and isolating as editors, writers, filmmakers and many others with a ‘making craft’ may recognize. But much more than that, co-creation has often opened up many wonderful new avenues and perspectives on these stories we are telling, helping us to shape them in a way that is more clearly expressed and relevant.

Now we have been some 10 months into this process. We are about to finish a draft of our fourth short(ish) film. We still have some way to go, we plan 6 films of 6 of the places visited before tackling the feature film which will be a story of the whole journey. And this is before the second stage of editing next year which will be on films of the places we visited that are focused on arts and cultural expression.

I think back to something I wrote some months ago under the title ‘Meeting Hospitality and Friendship on the Road’ (http://enlivenedlearning.com/2013/01/06/). This post was an expression of gratitude for the generosity, hospitality and friendship we met along the journey. I also described here an experiment of the open sharing of ideas amongst academic friends whilst living in the UK, in the ‘amateur academic adventurers club’. Amateur because we were engaged in something we loved and enjoyed, as the Latin roots of the word imply, an adventure’s club because it sounded fun and suggested that the pursuit of ideas and social inquiry can have the quality of an active running forth, an investigation and act of discovery. As I also wrote, the group was an attempt to create a place outside the atmosphere of institutional and often interpersonal toxicity that haunts the walls of the academy, to cultivate the opposite, an environment of hospitality, friendship and the nurturance of ideas. Something that would enrich our own enquiries and enliven our sense of possibility of making, relating and thinking. The Artisans of Meaning has also been an extension of this beyond the world of film-making. It has been an exploration of a way of making a film beyond an industrial model of filmmaking to one whereby the making is also an opportunity for learning together and cultivating relationships as a priority, rather than a by-product. As a friend once put it ‘making is connecting’.

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Re-learning Hope

Re-learning Hope

Posted by on Feb 26, 2014 in all posts, on the road | 0 comments

I have been thinking a lot about hope these days. Reflecting on the places we visited on this journey and the people we have met, one of the most noticeable qualities we encountered along the way has been the experience and expression of hope.

Despite the adversity encountered by First Nations peoples’ in Canada or indigenous communities in Mexico who suffered the violence of colonialism, dispossession of their lands, repression of their culture and way of life or else by favela residents in Rio de Janeiro facing prejudice on a daily basis on top of the challenges of poverty and inequality, we met hopeful people and places.

People who were creatively engaging with the challenges imposed by the conditions they faced in the present and the legacies of the past by building and living alternatives. This in stark contrast to the discernible absence of hope we seem to be submerged in through the dominant mass media that inundates us, and the academic and institutional environments we are educated in.

I have been reflecting on a quote Gustavo Esteva, founder of Unitierra in Oaxaca, Mexico, related to us during one of our conversations. Quoting Czech novelist, dissident and former president Vaclav Havel, Gustavo described the notion of hope Unitierra was using. This notion of hope, I believe, gave coherence to their autonomous and collective forms of learning and engagement with the challenges faced by urban and indigenous communities in the Oaxaca region. I recently traced the source of the quote by Havel:

Hope is not a prognostication — it’s an orientation of the spirit.. […] Each of us must find real, fundamental hope within himself. You can’t delegate that to anyone else.

Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed. Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.

It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now. In the face of this absurdity, life is too precious a thing to permit its devaluation by living pointlessly, emptily, without meaning, without love, and, finally, without hope.

(The quote comes from an article he published in Esquire magazine in 1983 – available online – and is also found in Havel’s 1991 book. Disturbing the Peace.)

This existential, embodied and non-future oriented understanding and experience of hope appears honest, empowering and appealing to me. It also resonates with the practices of Unitierra, as well as other places we visited, and the attitude they are living by.

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‘Crocheting a new world’ – painted mural on Zapatista house in Oventic. photo by Kelly

By contrast ‘hope’ is not a word you often hear in the corridors of educational institutions. In my 20 + years in such places of higher education I do not remember ever having really encountered it, either as a topic of learning or a focus of discussion. No doubt it has similar ‘fuzzy’ connotations as ‘love’, ‘compassion’, things seldomly considered as worthy subjects of inquiry or conversation in institutions concerned with ‘knowledge’.

Instead these institutional learning spaces have excelled at developing and imparting the very useful (and valued) skills of empirical inquiry, analytical thinking, and – though some would argue decreasingly so – critical thinking.

In the social sciences in general (and I am not even speaking here of the humanities and natural sciences too, where this also applies, but that is another story), the tools of critical thinking and empirical enquiry have been sharpened for generations, with methodological developments and morphing theoretical paradigms. But the conditions within which such developments take place are rarely examined in any depth, let alone challenged. Can critical thinking apply itself to itself?

This question has haunted me for years, as has the sense that there is a largely unarticulated and un-criticized set of assumptions, habits of thinking, practice, belief and social organization, that are a part of disciplinary ethos and institutional life. Beyond that still, there is an unquestioned and unchallenged set of assumptions, practices, values, beliefs and social organizational norms surrounding our system of higher education (or more broadly education). If these disciplinary, institutional and educational systems where to be considered a society and culture of their own, social scientists would be investigating them, also challenging claims to universality and so forth.

My restlessness and increasing unease within the academic contexts I taught and researched in then came from this sense that the conditions within which I was working, thinking, researching, teaching in, where shaping my practices, values, beliefs and how I related to others and to the place I lived in, but in ways that were both taming and at the same time part of a larger and deeper logic I did not fully understand.

I could also sense how this taming, reproducing a logic, set of values, ways of relating, acting and believing was also affecting students. Students, like all of us, are bombarded with the negativity and sense of hopelessness of the mass media. But their capacity for critical thinking is also, hopefully, sharpened through the course of their studies.

Across the social sciences students learn about countless injustices in the world today and in the past, and to critically engage with various modern institutions from a perspective that also points out the adverse effects of these: government, corporations, the economy, development, technology and so forth.

This is a hugely important part of a modern education, the capacity to also understand the horrors of the world and carefully consider the causes of these. At the same time, given the triumphalism of neo-liberalists across the political classes, business and academia, there is also the sense that we are at the end of the road for any further experimentation – that the battle of big ideas and for the organization of society is over. Whether fully conscious of this or not, this has bred a cynicism in the corridors of academia, a cynicism and sense of hopelessness that is also transmitted to students.

This has made me wonder how academic institutions reproduce hopelessness by the taming of imagination, thought and learning, which at the same time devalues and delegitimizes other aspects of our human experience and capacity to learn. Aspects which have to do with the other ways by which we are in and learn in the world not only by critical thinking, empirical enquiry, analysis, but by feeling, doing, valuing, relating to others and place.

This journey has been for us in a large way about re-learning hopefulness, in the sense quoted above by Havel, learning that what we are doing can make sense even when other things in the world (media, political, corporate and academic consensus and its legitimized cannons of knowledge) appear to point in the opposite direction.

It has also been a learning and unlearning journey, in the deepest sense, with both happening simultaneously. Unlearning in as much as layers of habits, beliefs, ways of thinking, relating, valuing are brought into consciousness and, at least to an extent, let go of in the face of new possibilities.

I have always liked (Deleuze and Guattari’s) expression of how thinking, or rather new thoughts, emerge from a situation of shock with the world, when something new is brought to awareness, provoking us to try to make sense of it in a different way. Instead of falling back to habits when faced with the new, or taming it into an academic logic, through this journey we sought to embrace this shock of the new, explore it, open ourselves to it. In many cases the new happens to be really very old!

Unpeeling an ingrained logic and habit of thinking and the emotional tone of hopelessness is not easy. I think for us it has been gradual and is ongoing.

At this point of the journey – and looking back at what we have written up in these posts since October 2012, we can see some contours of what we have been learning and some key ideas and experiences that have crystalized, configuring what might be described as enlivened learning. That is, a learning that is not tamed, reduced or reductive, abstracted or detached…. Rather, a learning that takes place from our whole being and within our network of relationships with others, humans, non-human beings and things.

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Visiting a Sociable Movement, the MST

Visiting a Sociable Movement, the MST

Posted by on Sep 2, 2013 in all posts, Brazil, ENFF | 0 comments

In the next few posts we pick up our journey once again in South America…

The bus from Rio dropped us off on the highway 70km before arriving in São Paulo. The highway passes through small towns, farms and factories. Getting our bags before heading down the small country lane we are greeted by a large sign with colourful dancing M & Ms in front of the chocolate factory across the highway, the banner reads: ‘A diversão começa aqui’, ‘The fun begins here’.

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, outer wall mural. photo by Udi

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, outer wall mural. photo by Udi

We did not know what to expect as we came to visit the Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes ENFF, the Florestan Fernandes National School, named after an eminent Brazilian sociologist and activist. This place of higher education (they do call themselves a university), is a flagship and central learning space of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra, Landless Movement of Rural Workers, (or also known as the acronym, MST).

Founded in 2005 through the collective effort of the MST and funds from eminent supporters like photographer Sebastião Salgado, musician Chico Buarque and many others, the ENFF has been created to act as a central learning hub for the MST and other like-minded social and ecological movements in Brazil and Latin America.

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, arial photo of school. photo by Udi

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, arial photo of school. photo by Udi

Our communication with the coordination team of ENFF had been sporadic and brief so we did not know how we would be received and if people really understood what we were doing. We also were not sure what, if anything would be happening at the school as courses do not run all year round but happen in blocks at certain times of the year or else in one-off events. Any unease we had about being here soon dissipated as we are warmly received and shown to our accommodation by our friendly hosts who were in charge of organising this place.

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Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Still from film. photo by Udi

Landless Rural Workers, like other marginalised social groups, such as those from the favelas which we wrote about in the last posts, tend not to be fairly represented in the mainstream media in Brazil. The MST in particular, because of their struggle for an overhaul of the country’s intensely unfair land ownership system and the proposal for a socialist and redistributive state, tend to receive a particularly negative representation from the right-wing leaning printed press, such as Veja magazine and from Brazil’s largest media conglomerate, the Rede Globo Network.

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Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Poster. photo by Udi

Against this hostile media background the movement has also always suffered from violent attacks and threats by landowners. The most notorious of such episodes was the massacre of 19 MST activists in El Dorado dos Carajas in the state of Pará by military police in 1996. During our days visiting the School, a regional MST leader, active in promoting more environmentally sound agriculture, was murdered in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Many at the school knew him and on hearing the news an emotional celebration of his life took place.

With threats, the actuality of violence or death and the symbolic violence of the media, it is no wonder that the MST can be guarded to outsiders. But it did not take long, as has been our experience in all the places we have visited, to feel warmly welcomed by those we met: people coordinating, running, teaching and learning at the school.

During our time in the School we were shown around and talked to coordinators and activists from the MST, a couple of university lecturers who were teaching classes here, a group of teachers working in schools across the country who also came here on a course on Education, Literature and Music and Rural Education. We also talked to younger MST members who were studying at public universities across Brazil in courses designed in partnership with ENFF. We will talk more about what we learned from them and from being there in the next post.

Whilst here we also talked to people like Cléia who had a degree in agriculture and was working in the gardens demonstrating various aspects of cultivation and who was especially keen on bringing more ecological principles into the movement (which has historically used a more chemical-based and industrial approach to farming and food processing so as to make production more commercially viable). Agro-ecology is taking over as an important agricultural view and practice in the Movement.

Sao Paulo, MST, garden

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Garden. photo by Udi

We learned about the international dimension of the Movement talking to Leo, who was here at the School waiting for the rest of his team from the MST who were going on a two or three year posting to Haiti to work with local partners on a water capture, storage and irrigation project in communities affected by the 2010 earthquake. Leo, from the northeast of Brazil, had already been to Haiti on this project for two years and spoke Creole, he loved his time there and was keen to go back. He was here to also teach others from his team Creole and about the project.

We learned about the experience of children in Movement from two delightful guides, five and eight years old, sons of families who were living here at the School. They showed us around the place: where the pre-school children organised themselves to have a camp night, away from their parents in the premises of the school; the large cafeteria where people ate all meals together; a frog swimming in the swimming pool. We loved their curiosity, confidence and ease at engaging with grown ups. The MST also has its own children’s groups and events, the Sem Terrinha, or Little Landless People, at each camp and settlement which also has its own publication.

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Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, The feet of our guides. photo by Udi

(This experience we had elsewhere in our journey when we met children who were being raised within a learning environment that gives young people more autonomy, encourages their own initiative and curiosity in defining what they want to learn. We want to write about this in later posts).

Combined with the warmth of the people we talked to, their optimism and deep motivation and commitment for a better world what moved me the most whilst visiting the School was something more subtle which I had not read or heard described elsewhere about the MST. This has to do with the strong affect between members of the movement, their care and warmth for each other and the ties of solidarity that bound them.

The stereotype about people who are highly politically committed, especially those subscribing to a particular ideology, is that there is a kind of hardness, a righteous anger, a future orientation and single-mindedness that is incompatible with tenderness and a gentle cultivation of interpersonal relationships. But here at the School the deeply political and gently interpersonal were interwoven. There was a beautiful softness between people along with playful laughter in between the discussions of politics.

Perhaps this is the result of the physical proximity through which many in the Movement must have at some point in their lives lived through with other activists in the temporary camps where they occupy unused and unproductive land across Brazil. Living in a camp means living close together and cooperating across all aspects of life so as to ensure survival, like nomadic bands do in so many parts of the world.

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Teachers Play Performance, photo by Udi

Maybe these bonds of affect and solidarity are also the result of the cultivation of a deeply democratic culture within the movement. Decision-making across various aspects of day to day life and about the direction of the movement are taken through constant deliberation, debate and voting. This democratic ethos is promoted across levels of the Movement, from camps to regional and national secretariats, from pre-school children to university study groups. The aspiration for a participative culture is infused in the movements’ very pedagogy, the way they practice and understand the role of teaching and learning. I will write about this in a following post.

Sao Paulo, MST, dinning room

Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Dinning Room. photo by Udi

But beyond the living in close proximity and cooperating in camps and settlements and the democratic ethos of the movement there is another important catalyst that weaves the ties of affectivity and solidarity. This is the mística.

Mística can be translated as the ‘mystic’ or maybe more faithfully the ‘mystery’. This is the ceremony that members of the MST are involved in daily, often early in the morning, and at specific events. Though the MST is deeply influenced by Liberation Theology, the popular movement that swept Latin America’s large Catholic community from the 1960s and interpreted Jesus’ message through the lens of social justice and Marxism, mística is not a Christian ceremony. In fact, in the ceremonies we attended whilst we were there, no Christian symbols were seen. Instead the ceremony is a celebration and evocation of a living thread of those who have struggled for freedom and justice across history.

In one of the místicas we attended, for instance, the images of Zumbi dos Palmares, the 17th century African prince and runway slave who led a colony of former slaves in their battle against the Portuguese crown in Brazil, was placed. This picture, surrounded by flowers and candles, sat along that of Steve Biko, the South African activist and intellectual who fought against apartheid and who was murdered by the police in the 1980s. The mística also involved singing and poetry and even some dancing.

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Escola Nacional Florestan Fernandes, São Paulo, MST, Classroom with Biko and Via Campesina flags. photo by Udi

Like other ceremonies we have taken part along this journey (see Quechua post) we enter them shy, awkward, self-conscious of the theatricality of the performance, yet keen to participate with an open heart and mind. We try to soothe the over-analytical and distancing mind and feeling academic training and irony-loving post-modern culture has cultivated. Instead we try to join in song and dance and the spirit of the event, opening ourselves to the experience. Soon a warm feeling of solidarity emerges amongst us in the group and a sense historical continuity with others also striving for a better world. This thread in the mística is probably not far from what Gandhi called Satyagraha, truth or soul-force, a spiritual strength that overcomes injustice in the world seeking to show the true nature of things.

My experiences here, where I have spoken of the strong affectivity, warmth and solidarity at the ENFF are not necessarily reflective of the Movement as a whole, a very broad and diverse collection that includes hundreds of thousands of families spanning the continental scale of Brazil and its many local cultures. But at least here in this place of learning these qualities of friendship and solidarity, so often absent or repressed in more traditional academic spaces, where very much present.

These are qualities we have also been experiencing in other learning places we have visited, teaching us a great deal about a whole sphere of being in the world and being together (of emotional, social and spiritual intelligence to put it crudely) that is painfully lacking in conventional higher education spaces. Experiencing how learning spaces can accommodate and nurture these dimensions of our being, as we have tasted along this journey, has been inspirational for us showing that there are some powerful ways of re-imagining higher education.

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How to build (and use) a cacajón (literally a poo-box) according to a cacologist

How to build (and use) a cacajón (literally a poo-box) according to a cacologist

Posted by on Jan 20, 2013 in all posts, Mexico, Universidad de la Tierra | 1 comment

My first, major (and classy) blog entry

My first post was supposed to be a reflection on why I am here and some of the first things I have learnt. This post will eventually come, but for now I will be writing literally about how to bring your shit to life, or even better said, how to enliven your shit.

The reason why the plans were changed was because although I became part of the project just a few weeks ago, when Kelly and Udi were already in Brazil, there was some footage in Spanish from Mexico they were finding hard to comprehend in detail. Kelly was writing the post The autonomy of Poo and asked me if I could help her understand the whole process of building the poo box. I found that César Añorve’s explanation was so informative and humorous at the same time, that it deserved to be shared in its own post:

César explaining the first steps of the process. Photo by Udi

Although César calls it a poo box, it is also more formally referred to as an ecological dry toilet, precisely because it does not require the use of water and, in that way, it does not pollute rivers, seas and oceans. All this can be better understood by reading about how it is built and how it works:

Elements: (“The simplest elements in the world”)

For the poo:

  • 1 plastic bucket
  • Dry dirt
  • “dry leaves that we might find near our house”
  • “charcoal powder, which you can get for a very low price; it is the leftovers of the coalyards, here we call it cisco.” Or, one can put olotes (the corn’s cobs) in the fire and wait until they are carbonized. In this way, you can make your own coal.
  • Optional ingredients: marble or steel powder, which are sold in construction shops, very fine sand, lime.

As César said: “It is like life: the more diversity the better.”

For the pee:

  • Plastic recipient, “so that the pee does not stink while being stored”
  • Hose
  • Funnel
  • Bowl.

To place on top:

Wooden box with 3 holes:

  • One big hole on one of the sides of the box, through which the bucket is introduced and taken out.
  • A small hole on the opposite side, not too big, but big enough for a hand and an arm to be introduced through it.
  • Hole on the top of the box, where one will sit.

Sticking the sides of the wooden box together. Photo by Udi.

How to build it:

1)      Take the bucket and throw in the dirt, the dried leaves and the coal. Add the other elements if you were able to get them.

2)      Add a small piece of flat wood inside the box, under the smallest side hole.

3)      Place the box over the bucket.

4)      Put the bowl on the small piece of wood you have added under the small side hole.

¡So simple!

There is a slightly more complex option in which instead of the wooden box, one can build a whole chamber with a door through which the bucket can be placed and removed. In this model, the pee bowl or container is already connected to the recipient through the hose, so one does not need to empty the bowl every time the toilet is used.

All the elements of the dry toilet put together. In this case, using the chamber instead of the wooden box. Picture taken from César’s book “The ABC’s of Ecological Sanitation”

Proper use of the dry toilet:

1)      When sitting on the toilet make sure that the feces fall into the bucket and the urine into the bowl or separator. This separation is the key to the toilet’s proper functioning: it avoids humidity and bad odors. “This separation of pee and poo is pretty easy for men. Women can manipulate the bowl”, introducing their hand through the smaller hole. “Women’s perspective has been taken into account for every design of the poo-box.” It has been tried before by many of César’s friends who were then consulted about the position in which they preferred the bowl to be (higher, lower, the distance it should keep from the bucket, etc)

2)      If you have built the more complex version of the dry toilet, the urine will go directly to the recipient though the hose. If you have the simpler version with the bowl, before throwing it into the recipient using the hose and the funnel, you can take a small sip, the size of a full spoon. Urine is very good for the health.

3)      After every use of the toilet, cover the excrement in the bucket with a mixture of fine dry soil and lime and/or dry leaves. This dries the surface, avoiding bad odors and the proliferation of insects.

4)      After doing this, always cover the bucket.

What happens with the poo and the pee once they have left our bodies?

Urine as fertilizer

Urine contains a high concentration of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Also, it contains urea, which after a time turns into ammonia, the fertilizer most used in agriculture. Therefore, the urine stored in the container can be mixed with water and used as a fertilizer for garden plants. The proportion should be one part urine, ten parts water. By doing this, a family of six people can produce more than five thousand liters of fertilizer every year. Options for the use of the urine:

  • Apply directly to the base of the plants.
  • Spray it on plants and fruit trees using a hose.
  • Add to the compost.

Excrement as compost

When you see that the bucket is full:

1)      Remove it from the box or chamber and replace it with another bucket. The bucket that has been removed needs to sit for enough time until it dries completely.

2)      After this period, open it. You will be able to see that the dried leaves are covered with a white thing. This will be because of the transformation carried out by the microorganisms. The excrement has dried out and has been converted into an “odorless granular dust”.

3)      You can use this rich compost to fertilize a garden or fruit trees just by throwing it to the earth, or you can take a big flower pot and throw the content of the bucket into the pot. (By doing this, the same family of six can produce 500 litres of organic compost each year.)

The result: the odorless compost. Photo by Udi

If you chose the latter,

1)      Add food leftovers and earthworms to the compost in the pot

2)      Add a little bit more dried leaves on top of everything.

3)      Compact the mixture inside the pot.

4)      Repeat the whole procedure as many times as you need until you have filled the whole pot. You will be able to appreciate how the content of the pot reduces constantly. These are the microorganisms doing their work.

5)      After a few days, start observing the content of the pot attentively: you will be able to appreciate how a plant starts growing. “In my case, I got and aguacate and a chilli”.

 

The process that has taken place here is amazing. Our waste, which we thought dead, which we thought of as that, as waste, has been literally transformed into a living being, into a plant. When I heard Cesar’s explanation for the first time I could not believe this had happened. This got me thinking, and although the post has been written in a slightly “funny” tone, truth is I felt this knowledge had to be shared, since the idea of the dry toilet is so innovative and interesting to me on so many levels:

In the first place, there is the most obvious question of pollution. By using a dry toilet, we are not polluting the water we drink. This is a big issue in many places in the world: many diseases are generated by drinking water which has been polluted with excrements. “When we avoid using water to transport excrement, this is a radical action which can contribute to returning the sacred character that water may have had before the era of sewage systems”. At the same time, from a more practical point of view, there is the question of the re-using. Our excrements and urine are not waste but are re-used. This represents and economic advantage, because we save on fertilizers and are able to produce more vegetables and fruit. What is being created here, homemade, is a natural storage of nutrients.

This last point is also very interesting. By using a dry toilet we are making ourselves responsible for our own waste and, at the same time, generating our own compost and fertilizers. We are being self-sufficient. This relates to the idea of autonomy Udi and Kelly developed in one of their posts (Learning Autonomy). Before reading it, I had never thought of autonomy in this way, a collective autonomy through which a community is capable of generating its own resources and becoming self-sufficient. At the same time, the process of autonomy also means to become conscious of our own dependencies and interdependencies and reflect and recognize them. As Kelly points out, only by considering and exploring other options we will be able to perceive and act on our dependencies. The dry toilet is one of these options. Before being introduced to it, I had not really considered the possibility of other options for my poo and pee. I had not deeply reflected on what happened to them after they left my body and I had not thought about the traditional toilet system as one of my dependencies.

Finally, in relation to recognizing our interdependencies, the toilet made me reflect not only on how we depend on the State´s sewage system but also of other interdependencies: the interdependencies within nature. The dry toilet shows very clearly and explicitly the idea of the cycle of life: the food we eat, is transformed into energy and feces and urine, which then serve as fertilizer to grow more food. It is an example of the transformations that take place in nature. And for these cycles and transformations to take place, each being needs of other beings: the soil needs the excrements to become compost, the seed needs this compost to become a plant. And also, as César explained, the earth in the pot needs the plant to continue its transformation process. Therefore, what are we, humans, if not just a part in this cycle of life? And as such, we should be taking something from the world but also giving something to it, just as with the dry toilette, through which the food we have taken is given back to the earth as compost.

Picture from César’s book “The ABC’s of Ecological Sanitation”

 

I know that probably most of the people that read this post will not actually build a dry toilet in their homes (It would be great, however, if you do it and you can find more information about it at the bottom of the page). Regardless, I wanted to share my reflections about what the idea of the dry toilet generated for me. It is only when we know that other options are possible, that other ways of understanding something exists, that we will be able to reconsider and re-think about our own ways.

From César’s book

* All quotes are either what César said during his class in Unitierra or direct quotes from his book The ABC’s of Ecological Sanitation.(2004, Centre for Innovation in Alternative Technology A.C., Mexico)

Cover of César’s book

**For more information write to César:

Centro de Innovación en Tecnología Alternativa A.C.

Av. San Diego No. 501,

Col. Vista Hermosa

CP 62290 Cuernavaca, Morelos, México

acua@terra.com.mx

www.laneta.apc.org/esac/citaesp.htm

www.zoomzap.com/ses.php

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