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THIS TIME, IT’S PERSONAL: Why a project visit to Kenya with Amref proved transformational

Recently, our agency was genuinely thrilled to bits to win a pitch for pan-African health charity, Amref. It’s fair to say we all put our hearts and souls into this pitch, because health and humanity is our collective passion. And Amref’s mission to combat health inequity across a continent, by training people to transform healthcare access in their communities, and devising innovative solutions based on cultural knowledge, inspired us all.

To kick off the relationship, my colleague Helen Hamilton and I were immensely privileged to be invited to join an international conference in Nairobi with Amref’s own communications and fundraising teams from many countries (who were inspiring, clever, passionate and fabulous). We knew the experience, which involved several intensive workshops, plus a day of project visits, would be life-changing… and so it proved.

Here is a genuine diary entry; I wanted to express why project visits are so important and valuable if you’re a creative fundraiser.

“I’ve just written this while feeling jeep-sick on a Land Cruiser, coming back from a 14-hour trip to meet three Masai communities, after about 3 hours’ sleep! I wanted to capture the difference between rationally being briefed on something, and actually experiencing it on a project visit. So please forgive any linguistic infelicities!

Once you actually visit a project, you don’t just intellectually ‘know’ something you’ve been briefed on; you begin to truly understand it. The well-worn rhetoric – ‘climate change is happening now, in real time’ – becomes visceral reality as you drive through dried-up river beds, see bony cattle grazing by the carcasses of others, and hear a Masai community explaining that their animals are dead, their nomadic pastoral lifestyle is no longer sustainable and ‘this could be the end.’

It's one thing to write about ‘empowering communities’ and another to meet a village proudly handing around the medicinal products they produce, and showing off the market gardens they now cultivate thanks to the borehole project they manage, that supplies 3,000 people with clean water. And not meeting a single child, because they are all in school.

It's easy to write that FGM is harmful to young girls – but nothing compares to the harrowing, silencing reality of seeing a young educationalist demonstrating what is actually done to these adolescent girls, both immediately and long-term, via the 3D models she uses in schools. Or hearing a man whose community has eliminated FGM state that ‘we have rescued our girls from the monster.’ Or sitting next to a very beautiful, very old lady, adorned with jewellery, who has swapped her considerable social status as a traditional birth attendant and ‘cutter’ to become an advocate for ending FGM.

It's equally inspiring to see the solutions to these challenges and the use of technology to innovate and connect. With FGM, for example, Amref are now tracking the adolescent girls they’ve helped protect from FGM to ensure they are thriving, able to continue their educations and not sucked into early marriages. With nomadic communities, whose babies traditionally miss out on vital vaccinations, they’ve developed mobile immunisation units which meet people on their migratory routes: not hi-tech, but utterly transformative. Some of these solutions involved technological innovation which would appeal to more rational, male audiences – often a problem for charities to recruit and retain.

We also realised, from the voices of people in local communities, how interconnected are the barriers to ending poverty. So Amref could not begin to eradicate FGM without tackling more fundamental needs like access to clean water. This is a narrative we need to tell. We also saw that ‘need’ and ‘agency’ are not two conflicting tensions when telling a story, but a perfectly natural balance.

In short, to hear people’s stories from their own mouths, to be welcomed into their homes and share a meal with them, is a privilege for anyone involved in creating fundraising campaigns. Because this time, we are the ones empowered – to bring authentic stories to a world that needs to hear them.

Not every creative worker, or project manager, can get to visit the projects they’re raising money or awareness for. But we can, and must, find more ways of bridging the gap between the creative agency and the people whose stories it is telling. How about mobile phone film footage or video diaries from charity staff on location, for starters?

It’s so worthwhile - because when we truly connect with people, we can make sure others do, too.

Jax Lynch, Head of Copy at 11 London


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