Wednesday, 5 July 2017

What would you change about school?

Listen to ThoughtBox Founder Rachel Musson's thoughts on what needs to change about our school systems...

Monday, 26 June 2017

ThoughtBox Thinking at The Festival of Education!

No summer is complete without a trip to The Festival of Education! Well, no summer will be complete from now on, this being our first visit but most definitely not our last!

Held each year in the beautiful grounds of Wellington College, The Festival of Education is a chance for educators from across the country (and indeed further afield) to come together for two days and share inspiration, ideas, workshops, talks and educational aspirations. 

ThoughtBox was delighted to be exhibiting at the Festival, and opened up our space for interactive activities during the two day "Swots Glasto" as coined by Bob Geldof, the ultimate in summer festivals...!
As part of our exhibit, we introduced the Step into Empathy challenge, a simple but effective way to get people thinking about the lives of other people and moving past the stereotypes:

Choose your shoe size...
and step into empathy...
We were pleased at how many of the students took part in the challenge, and were interested to talk with them about their preconceptions of the owner of the shoes and how they felt about them after walking around, literally, in their shoes

During each of the two days, we ran brief ThoughtBox Thinking discussions, inviting members of the public to come and sit together and talk about a particular question, linking to our ThoughtBox topics. Questions such as "Is our help always helpful? (Voluntourism)", "Where do we all call home? (Immigration & Refugees) and "What on earth are we eating? (Food) were just some of the questions posed and the discussions mused by our ThoughtBox thinkers.

As well as talking with educators about ThoughtBox and our range of resources, workshops and training, we also introduced some simple classroom ideas to support empathy building and safe spaces for difficult discussions. One of these ideas is to have a "Wonderwall" in the school (or classroom) - a place for students to write down some of the questions that they wonder, and to look at some of the questions that those around them are also musing...

On a similar thread (if you'll pardon the pun) we introduced the "Line of Thought" - a similar idea to the Wonderwall, but this time something that can be hung in the classroom and students can write questions or thoughts on, which are then pegged onto the line and unpegged to be discussed at various points throughout the day or week. This is a great idea to have in the tutor base, as it allows students to peg up questions that they may have at any time, to be returned to and discussed in a safe space.

Talks ranged from the practical (Making Maths Fun) to the mysterious (What if everything you knew about learning was wrong?) to the insightful (How sausage-machine schools are damaging the teaching profession) to the inspired (Small is Beautiful).  It was a great pleasure to spend two days talking and sharing ideas and energies with teachers and educators and to make so many connections and new partnerships. 

We very much look forward to returning again next year and continuing to spread the pleasures of asking questions and learning how (not what) to think...

Sunday, 26 March 2017

A learning journey in Spain

At the beginning of February, ThoughtBox headed off to Castellon in southern Spain for an annual conference of the Global DEEP Network. DEEP (which stands for Dialogue - Empathic Engagement and Peacebuilding) is a global NGO whose community are currently working across 17 countries to spread the values of positive social interaction through a range of projects, initiatives, education forums and community activities.

The gathering was an opportunity for members (old and new) to meet to share projects, explore new ideas and potential collaborations and work on some of the core DEEP strategies to move the global network forward.

The weekend began with an official DEEP seminar held at Universitat Jaume I in Castellon – a meeting that was open to the wider university community as an opportunity for people to come along and learn more about the DEEP network. Many of the DEEP core members are alumni of the Masters in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies from the UNESCO Chair of Philosophy for Peace taught at the Universitat Jaume I, with a core module delivered by Dr Alberto Gomes, the founder of the DEEP network.

As well as the core DEEP members, the meeting was attended by several curious students from across the campus, as well as the local press, who wrote an article about the gathering for the Castellon newspaper Elperiodic. 

Some of the highlights from the four day gathering included:

  • A screening of a selection of short films called Voices of the Migrant, created and screened by Celia Demoor, Director of DEEP France. Celia spoke about some of the work that she had been doing in what was the ‘Jungle Camp’ in northern Calais and also introduced some of the future projects that she has been given funding to take forward.

  • Working together within a World Café forum to exchange ideas and create questions about the work that DEEP is doing (and could do in the future) and how we can all support the global network

  • Dr Alberto Gomes talking about the notion of DEEP, and the importance of unlearning our collective behaviours to strip back to the innate values of the human spirit and the strong qualities of humanity

He spoke of what he sees as the Seven Vices of society and how DEEP is working to turn these vices into virtues:

1.Turning Ignorance to Knowledge
2.Hatred to Love
3.Fear to Hope
4.Arrogance to Humility
5.Competition to Cooperation
6.Greed to Generosity
7.Apathy to Empathy

ThoughtBox is working within the German node of the network and our first collaboration is the formation of Youth Café. Find out more about DEEP and this exciting new collaboration on the ThoughtBox Blog or visit the DEEP Deutschland website to learn more.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

DEEP ThoughtBoxes

ThoughtBox is delighted to have teamed up with DEEP Germany to collaborate on educational projects with schools and young change makers across Europe. 

DEEP Germany is a non-profit association which advocates for positive change towards a more sustainable and peaceful world. They do this through a series of projects and activities, all built around the notion of bringing people together, encouraging dialogue and discussion and promoting tolerance and peace.

Explore more of their ideas in the short video entitled 'What is Peace?':

One of DEEP Germany's main areas of focus is Training & Education through which the DEEP team plans, creates and implements project days for schools on the topic of peace and sustainable development. As part of these projects, the DEEP team took over a school in Madrid for three days earlier this year, running consecutive project days based around sustainable development and peace education. Over 800 students and 80 staff worked on four different aspects across the project: Social Inequality, Sustainable Consumption, Migration Crisis and Terrorism. Discussions and debates were then created using the forum of a 'World Cafe' and presentations and exhibitions were given at the end of the workshops. 

DEEP Germany also fosters empathic engagement and critical thinking through a series of Intercultural EncountersWithin this context, the group run a range of projects and gatherings such as theatre, cooking or football events amongst migrants, refugees and local German communities, providing opportunities to gain fresh views on societal problems whilst reflecting upon one's own role and remaining open and active in promoting tolerance and empathy. See their Projects Page for more information. 

DEEP Germany is part of an international N.G.O called Global DEEP NetworkStanding for Dialogue, Empathic Engagement and Peacebuilding, the DEEP network is a global community currently working in 17 countries including Japan, Afghanistan, Australia, Indonesia and Pakistan.

All of the DEEP organisations - or 'nodes' as they are called - are working alongside each other across the world, sharing common values and beliefs and supporting each other's efforts. Each DEEP network is striving to build a nonviolent and ecologically sustainable world where people everywhere are able to live a good life ("Buen Vivir") in peace.

DEEP believes that we all have much to gain and lessons to learn from marginalised communities when dealing with our myriad global problems, be they ecological degradation, violent conflict, racism, inequality or alienation. They firmly believe that peace is the norm in human life and the violence taking place in several parts of the world is the anomaly.

DEEP Germany and ThoughtBox will be working together on a variety of education projects to foster peaceful, active and critical engagement with societal issues of today, all of which will encompass the core aims of ThoughtBox: Critical Thinking, Empathy Building and Unlearning.  One of the first projects of the collaboration will be establishing an interactive cross-cultural sharing platform  - called Youth Café  - to bring young people from a range of different countries and communities together in dialogue (more details to follow soon).

Learn more about the  Global DEEP Network or the German node by visiting the website here or meet some of the core DEEP Germany members below.


Meet some of the DEEP Germany members

Lina Westermann
Lina Westermann is a peace practitioner and advocate of intercultural dialogue. She holds a B.A. in Latin American Studies and Social Sciences from the University of Cologne and a M.A. in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies from the UNESCO Chair of Philosophy for Peace in Castellón, Spain.
She is passionate about connecting people and bridging divides through culinary projects, sports and peace education. With her German-Peruvian background, she has a special research interest in indigenous knowledges and cosmovisions and concepts such as Buen Vivir. She has coordinated and planned several educational projects and social events amongst others the Human Rights Festival in Cologne.

Marisol Cristina Bock
Marisol Cristina Bock is an advocate of peace and intercultural dialogue. She has lived in 6 different countries and switches between languages and cultures with ease and sensitivity. She has a B.A. in Arts and Culture from Maastricht University and a M.A. in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies at the UNESCO Chair of Philosophy for Peace in Castellón, Spain. Marisol is enthusiastic about interdisciplinary academia and aims to move beyond conventional thinking patterns. This has led her to collaboration with research projects within a wide range of social sciences. In the practical field, Marisol has been involved in co-creating and managing educational projects around peace building, intercultural dialogue, music and martial arts. She has worked with people from diverse origins, generations and social backgrounds in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Israel/Palestine, Egypt and Indonesia. Marisol is passionate about holistic project design, systems thinking and the connections between personal growth and social change.

Mirko Murad Sbeih
Mirko Murad Sbeih is a peace practitioner and social innovator. He holds a B.Sc. in Psychology from the University of Maastricht as well as an International Master’s Degree in Peace, Conflict and Development Studies from the UNESCO Chair of Philosophy for Peace in Castellón, Spain. As a practitioner Mirko is versed in skills related to organizational management, negotiation and leadership. Following his passion for investigation and implementation of structural social change, Mirko has been an active member of several organizations, dealing with intercultural dialogue as well as local capacity building and simple innovative technological solutions for sustainable development. Within the ‘Global DEEP Network’, he links his academic and professional expertise to practical projects in the field of peacebuilding.

Wibke Gehringer
Wibke Gehringer is a peace practitioner and works as a manager and social worker at a refugee shelter of the German Red Cross, where she is part of an intercultural team. She holds a B.A. in Latin American Studies from Cologne University as well as a M.A. in Peace, Conflict, and Development Studies from the UNESCO Chair of Philosophy for Peace in Castellón, Spain. Wibke is passionate about interdisciplinary research in Peace and Conflict Studies and focuses on intercultural identities, immigration, and post- and de-colonialism. She is fluent in English, Spanish and German and has work experience in various projects in Peru, Argentina, Tanzania, Spain and Germany, among others. Since 2015, Wibke has been an active member of the Global DEEP Network and co-founded DEEP Germany. DEEP reflects her philosophy and work promoting a more peaceful and sustainable world.

Janosch Sbeih
Janosch Sbeih is a new economics advocate promoting policies, institutions and organisational structures that are designed to put the well-being of people and planet at their core. After working in Johannesburg, Janosch studied at the University College Maastricht where he approached topics of sustainable development from an interdisciplinary angle. He deepened his passion for alternative organisational models in the M.A. Economics for Transition at Schumacher College, Plymouth University. At the International University College Turin, he pursued his interest in innovative governance institutions for the commons in the LL.M. Comparative Law, Economics and Finance. Janosch worked for the German development cooperation agency GIZ and is currently employed as a research fellow for an ‘EU Horizon 2020’ project investigating social innovation in the maker movement. He is also part of the Spiritual Ecology Fellowship Programme of St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

The Power of Thought

This post was originally published through Project DEFY - an innovative educational model working in Bangalore, India, to support creativity, innovation and unlearning. Explore their website here:

Our education systems are broken. This is not new news, nor is it surprising; many countries have failed to really “update” their education systems at all over the last fifty to one hundred years, instead allowing the world to march merrily on and leave the educational foundations lingering in the era of factory-line production.

Herein lies the issue so many students across the world are facing – their education system is training them to be robots: teaching them to follow a system in which they are trained to follow orders, absorb information and amalgamate amongst the masses.  Critical thinking, individual development and creativity are so often pushed to the side-lines in favour of standardisation, regulation and target-driven quality control.

Asking questions is one of the most powerful tools that we, as individuals, can wield in the world. Questioning what we are told - what is being presented to us as fact - is vital in this ever-changing world, where the microphone is given to anyone with the internet and an opinion, and where “facts” no longer need to be true.  However, so often, learning within a formalised school system isn’t able to give students the time or space to think for themselves and question the world around them. They are certainly not given the time to contemplate what they are learning; what it may mean to them and why it is being taught.

Time is a limiting factor within classroom learning and often reflection is left to the students to do elsewhere. The question “Why?” may well be one of the most important words which we use: it allows us to stop, reflect, consider and respond with meaning and understanding, and yet this is something that our education systems rarely encourage. Head down, absorb and regurgitate – no questions asked – seems to be our current route to pedagogical success.

ThoughtBox has been created to challenge this system. Our education philosophy believes in the importance of critical thinking: challenging students to “unlearn” stereotypes and assumptions and allow new understandings of seemingly familiar issues to emerge.

Developing a series of weekly lessons focusing on global topics - with students
encouraged to ask questions, rather than learn answers - ThoughtBox is an online curriculum with a vision to encourage critical thinking, empathy and global tolerance; a product of one teacher’s frustrations at the limitations of the education system in which she was working.

The fundamental importance to us all, as individuals, to be able to think for ourselves and to question the world around us is built into all of the curricular - designed without a rigid end goal; simply as a tool to engage students’ minds. Being able to look at an issue and pause, reflect and consider a range of views is a tremendously valuable skill. Understanding that there is often no “right way” to see something is part of empathy building and a way for us to learn to tolerate difference in opinion and belief.

Learning in formal lessons often has an end goal; a “right answer” or a correct way of seeing things. Yet in reality, life just isn’t like that. Every day there are a hundred thousand answers to our potential questions; each of us channelling our own thoughts about what is right, what is wrong, which way is up, which way down. ThoughtBox allows students to see the world through different eyes; to challenge feelings of empathy and to encourage new ways of thinking. Building empathy is a vital skill for a globalised world; being able to live harmoniously within our ever-globalising environment being crucial to a successful future.

An innovative thinker once said: “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”
Unlearning is a skill that we all need to practise. This style of learning is one of the most crucial ways for us all to live, grow and adapt successfully with the rapidly changing world. There is no shame in changing your mind: no negative in casting aside old knowledge when it needs to be ‘updated’; no failure in re-learning how to see the world. In fact, in many ways it is a sign of wisdom to be able to have the courage to re-think and change our thoughts. After all, there is no finality when it comes to thinking and learning.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Stop, look and listen

Although a non-partisan organisation, ThoughtBox is supportive of an initiative called The Labour Campaign to End Homelessness. ThoughtBox Director Rachel Musson was recently asked to write a short article for their campaign page exploring empathy-in-action when it comes to dealing with homelessness.

What do you do when you walk past someone on the street? Pretend they’re not there? Give them money or offer a friendly smile? Wonder how they ended up there?

Homelessness is not a choice, and understanding that it could happen to any of us at any time is just one step in trying to support the ever growing numbers of homeless communities across the world. As economic pressures continue to bite; as welfare systems struggle to support the most vulnerable; as climate change and natural disasters rob people of their homes and civil wars force people to flee their lands, more and more people are finding themselves homeless and displaced…through no choice of their own.

However, there is a judgemental stigma attached to homelessness that is hard to shake off – and the negative way we collectively think and feel about homeless people in our communities across the world is unfortunately a large part of the problem. By reducing people down in our judgements, we are failing to see how suddenly and easily people can (and do) become homeless, and how we are all just a couple of steps away from being on the street ourselves.

Understanding how to support homeless communities does not start and end on the street - it begins much further back by trying to understand some of the root causes of homelessness and work to prevent them in the first place. The circumstances leading to homelessness are many: loss of employment, domestic abuse, relationship breakdowns, mental health issues, lack of affordable housing...the list goes on and does not take into account external forces causing high numbers of global displacement.

Whilst living for a while in Pokhara, Nepal, I was stuck by the large numbers of street children living rough on the banks of the Phewa Lake. Family break-down, poverty; urbanisation and overcrowding; dislocation through migration and civil war; child labour, loss of family members; exploitation by adults; emotional abuse or neglect, the rising number of street children remains a significant problem across Nepal. Hand-outs might be keeping these children alive, but when listening to some of the stories of why these children ended up where they were, it seemed clear how this level of hand-out charity was merely perpetuating the problem and supporting a negative cycle: the problems of homelessness were being soothed rather than solved.  

If you choose to listen, you will hear the same stories from homeless people everywhere. I have heard them told time and again as I have travelled around the world: in Lima, Peru; in Arusha, Tanzania; in London, UK; in Kampala, Uganda. Esther Kidden, a refugee from Sudan, found herself fleeing from civil war to Kampala when she was nine years old to seek refuge with her mother’s sister, but consequently ended up on the streets following systematic abuse by this same aunt. A lack of social support and governmental aid meant that Esther’s choices were bleak. However, by sharing her story with people who stopped to listen, she was given a hand up (through a place at SINA, a social-innovation academy) and is now working on developing a street-kids rehabilitation centre, using her own experiences to support others. By listening, rather than judging, we are taking one very large step towards tackling the root causes of homelessness.

Although there are many organisations working in communities across the world to help displaced people to get back on their feet, many are still focusing on treating the symptoms of homelessness, rather than the cause. Understandable – these are not easy-fix issues, and offering material support (food, clothing, shelter) to someone rough-sleeping is a very positive first step in care. But it is not the only thing we should be doing and all of us have the chance to offer our support beyond this – without spending a penny.

“A hand up not a hand out” is a maxim used by many organisations supporting homeless communities; working to get people back on their feet and finding a new pathway in life. Moving beyond this, it is positive to see governments now recognising that many of the ripple effects leading to a rise in homelessness on our streets are pieces in the same jigsaw puzzle.

We as individuals can now help by working to remove the stigma associated with rough sleeping. Seeing the homeless, I mean really seeing them as fellow human beings; understanding that their story is just one or two moves away from our own, is a tremendous first step in offering support. Stopping, looking and listening to people’s stories goes a long way in supporting people on the streets, helping us to better understand where we need to channel our attentions in the wider community to try to prevent these stories from perpetually being re-told.

Treating the homeless as the problem is the problem, and so by listening and learning to empathise with some of their struggles - without judgement - we can begin to remove the negative stigma and come together to work on treating the causes (not just the symptoms) of homelessness.

This article was originally published on the news page for The Labour Campaign to End Homeless website. Click on the link to visit the page:

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Unlearning in Uganda

Last week, I took a little trip to Uganda. Being separated across the shores of Lake Victoria, Uganda is just a stone’s throw from Tanzania in relative terms, and fairly easy to get to. Having been in contact with an innovative education project called SINA (nestled up in the mountains of Mpigi, a few hours’ drive from the capital Kampala) I decided to pay them a visit whilst still living out here in East Africa.

SINA (Social Innovation Academy) is a unique learning environment empowering youth to become job creators by nurturing innovative project ideas into social enterprises. The Social Innovation Academy (SINA) is turning around life stories of suffering into positive catalysts of social change.

The goal of SINA is to bring Ugandan youth from marginalised backgrounds to the point where they can be self-sustainable by starting and leading their own projects in the form of social businesses (with positive impact on the environment and positive impact on society).

Education is given through coaching, mentoring and training, with students learning to take responsibility, unlearning limiting beliefs and receiving assistance with start-up businesses and social entrepreneurship. The education project is transcending the country’s rigid educational model through a unique “free-sponsible” educational approach: there is no governance in the school, no rules and ultimately no restrictions.

Where did the need for SINA come from?

Watch this video to learn more about the thinking behind the school: 

Free-sponsible Education

One of the first things that struck me upon arrival at SINA was the lack of hierarchy and management. There are no rules, there are no people “in charge” as it were; instead the academy is run through a series of learning groups. each group taking responsibility for a different area of the school. The academy consists of scholars and facilitators (the equivalent of students and teachers) however the scholars run the academy together with the facilitators in autonomous task and responsibility groups. They can make independent decisions in their areas, a concept which empowers the scholars from the beginning to take on responsibilities and grow with them constantly. The goal is that a scholar will successfully lead a social enterprise when they leave the academy, and for that to happen, he or she needs to be able to make important decisions, structure time and set priorities. SINA lets the scholars run its academy to allow empowerment to be learned from within. 

The five learning groups are:

1.  Sustainability
2. A-Team
3. Communications
4. Foundation

5. Community Learning

Group meetings to discuss some of the week's issues.
Each group meets twice a week to discuss some of the core matters arising (e.g. budget for the week’s food, accommodation issues, waste problems, social unrest etc.) and they try to end each meeting with a resolution of what they can do. If they are unable to solve these problems alone, they are then carried over to the weekly “Hub” meeting, wherein a representative from each of the five groups meets together with a facilitator to try to make plans to tackle any unresolved issues. I sat in on several of these meetings during my visit and was interested to observe a range of approaches to running a meeting and to conflict resolution.

An introduction to unlearning and innovation

Students are encouraged to “unlearn” the methodologies of rote and reaction from their formal schooling, unleashing their full potential through intrinsic motivation rather than punishments and rewards. They work through a series of learning stages, choosing themselves when they are ready to graduate to the next stage. 

The seven learning stages that all scholars move through are:

  1. Orientation
  2. Confusion
  3. Skill Development
  4. Imagine
  5. Concentration
  6. Linking
  7. Graduation

The model of learning has been crafted using a range of educational ideas, including NVC (Non-Violent Communication),  Self-Organisation, Active Listening, Design Thinking, Ideation Workshops, Conflict Transformation and Team Building (learn more here). After the introduction stage, students spend time in “confusion”. 

Scholar Julie wearing one of her designs.
I talked with one of the scholars, Julie (co-founder of fashion start-up Smart-Up), about this stage and she explained, “It is a period where you spend time trying to forget the habits from school, trying to understand that you can be the master of your own fate and you don’t have to follow everybody else”. 

Speaking with the scholars during my stay, it seems that “Confusion” is the most challenging stage for most of the community. It is a time wherein they have to get used to being in a school with no rules, structure, discipline or order and have to learn that they are the boss of themselves. As Julie said “if I want to spend all day every day sleeping, I can do. But I soon realised that it was only me that was going to make my life a success, and so I soon learned to motivate myself and find my inner ambitions.”

 During stage 3 (Skill Development), students are introduced to a range of skilled projects happening within the community. SINA focuses on community, empowerment and sustainability, modelling the concept of upcycling within the village itself. All of the learning spaces are built out of old plastic bottles filled with soil and turned into “bottle-bricks”.

The bottle huts - with a selection of sustainable roof options.
The constructions of the classrooms form part of the project-based learning approach and training curriculum, with facilitators and scholars working together in the academy to create their learning spaces. Through this, a sense of ownership and motivation is created and scholars are empowered to think beyond the conventional and to come up with their own creative solutions to some of Uganda’s challenges.

It took just one month to build this - using 18,000 waste plastic bottles!

Bottles are carefully placed into the walls to create unique designs.
Watch this short video to find out more about the building, design and development process: 

The bottle construction runs as a social business for some of the scholars (as does the interlocking brick business – an innovative design using a third of the resources and manual labour as it cuts out the need for cement and burning of bricks). 

Clever use of interlocking bricks to cut
 down on labour, materials and time.
Another social business that has become a success is Sengozi - an innovative Ugandan company founded in November 2014 producing the world’s first Terrazzo and Epoxy Floorings out of plastic bags 
A beautiful floor - made of eggs and plastic bags!
and egg shells. The organisation uses plastic waste from the local area and the wasted egg shells from a nearby poultry factory to turn into durable and long-lasting flooring and tiles for houses.

The SINA cockerel - a survivor with ambition!
One of the scholars introduced the rather feisty resident cockerel to me, a refugee of another sort as he was found inside one of the waste shells one day, and was thus raised and nurtured by the SINA community to become the strong, wise cockerel he is today!

As well as the three core business models, there are a range of income generating skills that the students can choose to learn during their stay. These include:

1. Craft making
2. Book making
3. Agriculture
4. Sweater knitting
5. Chakula Bora (a canteen)
6. SINA Village (an accommodation area for tourists and visitors)

A stay in SINA Village

Traditional mud-huts in SINA village
During my visit to SINA I stayed up at the academy, sleeping in SINA village. This is a short walk from the main learning area and has been constructed as a traditional East African village, with five basic mud huts containing a bed and mosquito net... and that's about it. 
My room!

The accommodation has been deliberately built to be basic, to give visiting tourists or friends a chance to experience living in an old-style traditional East African village made from natural materials available on the surrounding mountainside.

Simple sleeping - all you need!
Sleeping in the hut was a beautiful, peaceful experience and a really interesting return to simplicity. The bio-gas 
All materials for the hut construction 
are found on the hillside.
toilet and bucket shower also allow tourists to explore sustainability within the village itself, whilst the nearby smallholding grows much of the food served at the academy and enhances the sense of sustainable living within the village and wider community.

The Scholars
Part of the focus of SINA is to offer marginalised youth an opportunity to support their own futures. As such, many of the scholars have been recruited from one of the largest refugee camps in Uganda, Kyangwali refugee settlement located in Hoima District South West Uganda and home to over 20,000 refugees.

During my time at SINA, four new scholars arrived from the camp (coming from Sudan, Congo and Burundi) and I spent time with Beatrice, a Congolese refugee and aspiring artist.
Beatrice left her home five years ago and had been living in the camp with her surviving family. During that time she harnessed her passion for art, working on a series of political cartoons to start putting together a portfolio. With a clear talent for drawing combined with a strong voice advocating for change, Beatrice told me how she hopes one day to use her work to inspire movements across the world.

Smart-up fashion (plus a view of the bottle hut wall on the inside)
I also met with Julie and Derrick, founders of Smart-Up, a clothing and accessories business and Edgar, a phenomenally talented painter whose business idea is to turn treasured photographs of memories into pieces of art. His business is called Walyendo Edgar and he has reached the Graduation stage of the SINA learning process and is already selling his artwork across the region and in Europe:

Edgar the artist finishing one of his pieces
SINA start-ups
Having now run for almost two years, SINA has seen several of its scholars graduate and start up their own businesses. One of the biggest success stories is Ruth Nabembezi, the founder of 'Ask Without Shame', a mobile app providing emergency sex education and advice. 

Ruth's App Start-up
Speaking about sex in Uganda is considered a taboo, and many youth have little or no access to vital information they need about their own sexual health. Ruth grew up in an orphanage because both of her parents died of HIV. Her sister also contracted the illness but when she fell sick, she was taken to a witch doctor because the neighbours in the village thought she was being possessed, rather than sick. Sadly she also passed away. Ruth knew that if she had been diagnosed and treated by medical experts, she could still be alive. As a reaction to her own tragedies, she founded the startup Ask Without Shame to provide a much needed free and confidential service to her fellow Ugandans. 

Finding inspiration from personal history, tragedy and experience is part of what drives many of the scholars within their start-up ideas and I was fortunate to meet with an incredible number of inspired and inspiring youth who are working to promote positive change in their communities.

I had been interested in SINA for a while and was keen to visit to be able to learn more about their unique educational model. The concept of unlearning and finding knowledge from within is a core focus for ThoughtBox and I was keen to link up with the SINA community to share ideas and to learn more. There were many positive things happening within the community, but there were also many challenges which an organic learning community such as this is perhaps bound to have.

Because no-one is in charge, there were times when certain elements which could have been addressed were not being thought about - such as providing visitors with information about where to wash, eat, find water and how to find their way in the dark to the village...information that would have been rather useful to myself but were discovered in the end - much active learning was had (and a fair few tumbles in the dark!)

I also felt that the learning groups, although positive in their self-sustained model, were sometimes passing the problem from one group to another, with no-one perhaps taking charge and choosing to face the issue. Another element that really struck me about the place was a lack of communal space for all of the scholars and facilitators to come together - students ate in their rooms or scattered around the mountainside, and apart from a morning meeting which many didn't come to, there were no occasions (or opportunities) for the community to come together which I felt was a shame in such an isolated area. However, as is the nature of organic learning models, these are all elements that over time will be explored and adapted and learned from within.

And finally

My trip home was one of the highlights of my East African travel thus far. On the way up to the village, it took six hours of public transport as the main road had been closed because of a presidential visit (not a highlight!) so it was back roads on the matatu (the local mini-bus) for a long, dusty and bumpy journey:

Beautiful red-dirt roads of the Kampala countryside

Coming back I decided to take the "short cut" which would be a two hour journey as oppose to six - a much better idea. It was a little more adventurous but a great deal more fun. It began with an hour long piki piki ride (motorbike taxi) along some incredible red-earth roads, passing through lush jungle and beautiful countryside. The video gives a little snapshot, though apologies for the rather poor one-handed back-of-a-motorbike video skills!

I then took a rather random ferry (with a somewhat perilous amount of trucks filled with sand piled onto the deck) across the lake: 

How many cars can you put on a little ferry 
shuttle and still stay afloat...?

..quite a lot it seems!

and then another matatu, another piki piki and a lovely serene walk along the shores of Lake Victoria before heading back to Arusha.

All in all, it was a random, remarkable and inspiring visit and I look forward to following the progress of the scholars as they move through their learning journeys.

For more information on SINA visit their website: