Post written by Andy Muranda, module facilitator for the Introduction to Sustainable Development course for masters’ students from the University of Zambia (UNZA)
It was a Monday and we had just exited the COVID-19 second wave. I was preparing to facilitate a module in Sustainable Development (SD) for masters’ students from the University of Zambia (UNZA), when I got the call confirming that the module would be online. I knew immediately that it would not be a regular class and it would require additional levels of preparedness. It did not make it any easier that Dr. Masinja, coordinator of the UNZA – Education for Sustainable Development in Africa (ESDA) Programme, was requesting the same level of engagement. He wanted it with all the practical characteristics of the SD curriculum offered at the Sustainability Institute (SI) – neatly packaged and rolled into one online course. All the academic razzmatazz and tidbits of face-to-face contact, except, without the actual physical togetherness.
Although, I had a bit of time to weather the “sudden” shift from the comforts of the lecture room, when it finally happened, I still harboured feelings of being ill-equipped and skittish. It was like having an exam the following day and being completely unprepared. Perhaps, it was this feeling of being suspended in a state of unpreparedness that helped my system into a state of enhanced function – stress rechanneled. The next six weeks were an academic suite of pre-recorded content, on-and-offline contact, marking assignments and practical learning activities. The latter feeling more exploratory.
It wasn’t until a few weeks after the module, that I started getting wind of its impact from some students. Judging from their comments about how they were missing the SD classes and the effects on their learning journey, I began to feel that the module may have turned out to be a smash-hit – at least from their perspectives. I think part of the answer lay in the practical learning aspects of the module and the conversations that revolved around them. The gauntlet had been thrown down by Masinja and we had successfully run it.
Part of the curriculum at the SI involves some learning that tends to be less instructional by leaning towards practical, experiential community engagements. This often takes the form of cultural appreciation, communal gatherings and work duties that serve the immediate community. The key takeaway here is community. The function of togetherness – whether in serving together or solely acting in solidarity. The latter referring to ways of serving community or the environment for the greater good, even as an individual. The social and the environmental benefits are tremendous. These and other ‘pro bono’ (for good) investments go a long way in re-enforcing, stabilizing and making our world more resilient and a better place. Beyond the institutionalized altruism, such activities serve a far more personal and deeply profound rejuvenation of the soul. They are all together, educational (beyond the cognitive) enlightening, edifying and enriching. In essence, this was what Masinja was asking us to recreate, except we had to do it without the communal gardens, the youth centre, the woodlands, the wetlands, the recycling depot or any of the SI amenities.
The online environment is vastly different from the face-to-face learning environment. Achieving conventional methods of pedagogy is already Herculean without the added demands of translating it to online platforms, let alone incorporating Bohemian, ‘off the wall’ almost intangible soulful restorations. How was this to be done? Then it struck me like a déjà vu moment. Trade the SI environment for the vast communities, where students work, live and play. We urged them to perform set practical activities in their own communities. Some activities involved indigenous tree planting exercises, as part of an ‘embodied education’ that connects them to place. On a different occasion students had to explore traditional ethics by engaging ‘traditional ecological knowledge’ which helped to motivate sustainable behaviour and debunk notions of an inferior African heritage. The exercise also helped transform abstract western ideas of sustainability into concrete realities. One of my personal favourites was the sensory scavenger hunt, which encouraged reflections about nature, by heightening students’ sense of perceptiveness to their natural surroundings. Through this exercise our hope was that they would rekindle a connection to nature that we now take for granted, much to the detriment of our environment and humanity. There were numerous other activities that include volunteering at various community programmes by “paying it forward”, as well as the ‘lifestyle project’, which I will introduce at the end.
Each week during our tutorials, the students had to give feedback regarding their practical adventures for the week. We allowed presentations to be made using videos, audio, images and elaborate PowerPoint displays. Every week we heard spirited reports about cleaning up neighbourhoods and parks. There were deeply personal reflections about life choices, impacts, noticing aspects about our world – which were in plain sight all along, but somehow had been lost in the noise and ‘rat-race’. There were pains, there were joys and there was even ridicule. Two students shared about community members, who approach them during their respective activities in the different parts of Zambia, where they each live. They were both asked, ‘if they had lost their minds’. The two had shunned the status quo of social indifference to pollution and leaned into ‘unpopularity’ by cleaning their community. The price to pay for sustainability.
|The shots of scenery are near the confluence of the Luangwa & Lunsemfwa rivers in the eastern province of Zambia. Deogratias Bwalya spent some time reflecting during his sensory/nature scavenger hunt. Again the objective was about connecting with nature, where we encouraged reflections about nature.||
Portipher Mwiinga doing some treeplanting in his community. The activity was about connection to place in converse to abstract concepts.
|The young lady is Mulenga Chinkuli picking up litter in her community. “Litter picking as an activity I have never tried before”.|
True learning and change require far more than just standardized spaces and curricula. My fear had been – what if we couldn’t translate Masinja’s request satisfactorily, or if the students thought it too childish based on their own notions of tertiary study. I even wondered if they would take it seriously and not just snub the exercise. The enthusiasm by which the students engaged and their informal feedback long after the module, more than spoke for itself. From my perspective, students only stand to gain if we are willing to seek out Bohemian approaches that dovetail different learning concepts, which are applicable to their real world and allow them to reflect. These are the things we cannot teach, yet the added value surpasses anything we could ever do in any face-to-face or online lecture. As you contemplate your Bohemian soulful contributions to environmental and social equity, I invite you to join our ongoing lifestyle project…
Objective – take practical action for the benefit of the environment and/or your community and reflect. This practical “re-learning” exercise is for life. Make a commitment to evaluate and adjust some of your habits for the good of the environment and/or society, e.g., you might start car-pooling, eat less or no meat, opt for organic, use less or no packaging, conserve water and energy, take regular eco-sabbaticals, etc. The sustainability task must be attainable and a challenge. It needs to be something you can do daily or weekly and reflect upon it. Reflect on its overall impact and why this is important.
All the best, your every victory is our incremental step towards sustainable living.