The more I travel, the more I realize how much life in Cairo is not what I want. Every time I leave it I feel relieved and every time I return I have to get into a fight with some Cairene asshole on the street – which is all of us in our normal day when we have not just returned from a relaxing trip. We just need to admit Egyptians living outside of Cairo are usually more beautiful beings.
A few weeks ago I went to Minya to hang with the ‘Mashroo3 el Mareekh’ crew. A few days by the nile, why not? Mashroo3 el Mareekh started first as an open mic initiative called ‘Project Yourself’. The idea of the project came to Mariam Quessny after she returned to Cairo, upon finishing studying interior architecture for a few years in New York.
The idea was to give individuals 10 minutes to have the mic and the attention of the audience to do whatever they feel like. For the past year and a half Project Yourself was an outlet for many Egyptian youth to express their ideas, thoughts, feelings and just about anything through music, poetry, story telling or speech. Out of the belief that “there is a definite hunger for self- expression among Egyptian young people, and frustration is staring us in the face every day.” As Mariam explains in one of her interviews. When Project Yourself decided to go national Mashrou3 El Mareekh was born to create the medium where individuals around Egypt could express themselves too.
The most recent event was taking place in Minya, and I knew it would be a great idea to tag along. We arrived to the small town of Abu Gherier in Minya just in time for the show. Minya, for those who don’t know is one of the governorates with an almost equal number of Muslims to Christians. The crowd was gathered in front of the church to witness this weird event organized by the “foreign” people, and that was just about it for them. Since it was all in the context of a strange experience, adults didn’t find it as an attractive opportunity. The children on the other hand were jubilant about us being there and what we were doing. They shared religious songs (Muslim and Christian), random songs (w darabt 7agareen 3al sheesha. 3a sheesha, 3a sheesha) and a guy rapping to what sounded like English/Indian rap, which was probably the most entertaining piece of the open mic.
The second day was the highlight of the trip for me. Other than swimming in the Nile for the first time, the open mic was just an extraordinary experience. The night was full of creative surprises. Too many to be mentioned here! I had attended many open mics in Cairo, where people got comfortable with the environment and their creativity flourished. Although it was the first time something like that happened in Minya, the shows creativity level was higher than a lot of the open mics I attended in Cairo, although open mics environment is not of a competitive nature. But it was a positive indicator about the cultural and intellectual depth of the youth and children in Minya .
Talking development, these two days and some extra effort to give the youth their to organize open mics events on their own is more effective than months worth conventional projects being implemented by some NGOs. Both, having creative outlets and bringing like-minded people and artists together is one step towards creating a healthy artistic and engaged community. A creative and engaged community could benefit it self more than a dozen traditional projects. I believe the main outcomes of the trip was:
- Introducing the idea of self-expression in public places;
- Creating an environment for individuals to express themselves freely;
- Connecting like minded people and artists from Cairo and Minya together and to each other; and
- Inspiring individuals to volunteer and carry out similar events in their community
If we say that community development is simply to change the behavior of individuals, thus the community, to a more productive and proactive one. Then this behavioral change will not happen by distributing flyers and organizing a workshop on the importance to be engaged, or a certain topic. I believe for behavioral change to occur, one needs to reach the conclusion themselves not to be fed the idea. In other words the same propaganda methodology to make people consum
e one product should not be used. I’ll be quoting Paulo Freire who is a brazilian thinker and educator in the coming sentence but applying it to development, its from his book ‘pedagogy of the oppressed’ so ill start the sentence differently: Many NGOs “ended up using the ‘educational’ methods employed by the oppressor (in our case it’s the government or companies). They deny pedagogical action in the liberation process, but they use propaganda to convince.”
I have some problems with current structure of development projects. Mainly while developing a project one stresses more on quantitative results rather than qualitative as its easier to monitor and evaluate. Of course donors are mainly the ones to blame for this. But the problem with putting more load on the quantitative is that automatically we put our indicators while developing the projects in that sense too. After developing and implementing a project NGOs are bothered to proof to the donor that their money is well spent, and inevitably focus less on the actual impact of their projects which is usually to change the attitudes of the community. As these values and attitudes cannot be packaged and sold, but should be up to the participants to reach this conclusion on their own, through the environment we create. thus its harder for project developers and practitioners to work within the indicators donors expect to see in the proposal.
Open mics is also a great reflection of the community. It could be a great tool for needs assessment, again when needs assessment is more than just a survey and is more interactive. This could be a great activity to get a deeper look into the community, whether from the interaction of people there with each other, the topics and problems mentioned in their acts, openness and creativity of performances, the effectiveness and reach of the partners you are implementing the assessment (or project) with.
When we were setting up the place right by the Nile, in front of Dahabia – if you are familiar with Minya. A kid passed by and asks whats happening, Moe (the project coordinator) telling the kid to sing a song at 7 pm. The kid walked away saying he won’t “ya 3am walla 7a3’any sab3a walla tamanya” with an alpha male attitude. To my surprise we found the same kid beyetsa7ab asking more about the event. Him and his brother were some of the highlights of my trip, these small incidents, momentary organic connections are more valuable than a facilitated cultural exchange workshop.
I wanted to film the event. However, the battery died just when the open mic started, why? Mostafa didn’t stop filming and taking pictures. The time Mostafa filmed and took photos, he discovered a new talent and a new passion. This event aims for the same thing. People expressing and discovering their passion. And knowing that every one of us has one way or another of expressing yourself. He ended up singing a song, and his brother said a joke or two.
Finally I believe open mics are a brilliant idea. And that it has many uses either as a stand alone event, or as a part of a larger project or as a needs assessment. Sadly we don’t see more of these ideas in conventional projects as donors create the boxes that NGOs work in. Lastly if we aim for behavioral changes NGOs should stop using propaganda as printing flyers and arranging awareness workshops. But rather put the participants in an environment to reach the conclusions on their own.