A Small World: the U.K.-Ghana Connection

by Ruth Newman and Sam Greene

New technology has made the world a much smaller, more accessible place, allowing humans to see with real accuracy the lives of those living in distant lands. Despite the huge leaps of mankind, the unfortunate reality is that some stereotypes about the developing world are proving difficult to shake off. With news articles focusing on war and poverty as well as endless “sponsor a child” advertisements dominating the airwaves, how is the next generation supposed to engage – both here and in the developing world – with a more positive, collaborative approach to development?

Tzedek – the UK Jewish community’s response to global poverty – has gone back to the basics. Lomdim B’Yachad (Learning Together) aims to use shared school experiences to help children from the UK and Ghana to understand their connection to the wider world and each other, furthering the goal of engaging the developing world as a partner in this process. By drawing on friendship, reciprocity, and mutual learning, it is creating a cross-continental partnership between schools with both sides feeling included and integral to the process.

Of course, it is no small task to engage both sides equally in the quest for authentic partnership. Rather than going the route of playing to the current fads and trends of young people on both sides, Tzedek has decided to focus on people, not their possessions. The first step, according to its approach, is to break down stereotypes.

Stereotypes will not help – and often hurt – the developing world. How can there be progress when the public perceives the developing world as our poor, underprivileged neighbours from the wrong side of the tracks? Conversely, how can British students hope to join the fight against poverty when all they see are stereotypes on TV?

Tzedek’s partners in this project consists of six schools from London, encompassing North London’s densely populated Jewish areas, branching out to the smaller Jewish neighborhoods in the east of the city. While the majority of these schools are suburban, one is located in the green fields of the British countryside – giving a very different perspective of school life. Classes vary between 20-30 pupils. On the Ghanaian side are six schools from Tamale in North Ghana. These schools are found mostly in the “peri-urban” area (bridging urban and rural districts)of Tamale. Class sizes vary between 20-50 pupils. Given these differences alone, what could it be that these schools have to bond over, and how could they share their experiences?

The first step to building a bond between the students is not through giving money or sending boxes of clothes, but through shared learning. By completing Tzedek-made lessons by hand and mailing them – showing that the technological revolution is not the only way to build a meaningful connection – the schools enter into the partnership on equal footing, learning and communicating in the same way. The lessons ask for descriptions of UK and Ghanaian neighborhoods, views from students’ window, potential weekend activities, and playground games and encourage interaction by providing a space to ask questions. Not surprisingly, the questions asked are not about poverty, but about normal, childhood passions and hobbies. “Did you watch the World Cup semi-finals when Luis Suarez handballed the ball?!” reads one, “What games do you play?” reads another. At the end of the lesson, all the work is sent via Tzedek to the partner school.

Now in its second year, Lomdim B’Yachad has started to generate real results. Teachers write hand-written letters to one another, wishing each other “heartfelt greetings” and seasonal wishes. One teacher commented on how pupils “were excited to write letters in response and have drawn pictures to reflect impressions of life in England.”

However, there have inevitably been challenges. Stereotypes on both sides have demonstrated the sensitive nature of this kind of project. For example, one British poem highlighted the “dirty and dusty” classrooms in Ghana, while on the other side there is a perception that life in Britain is a constant battle against the cold, wind and snow! In response to this, teachers have been encouraged to watch out for these generalizations and to try and learn from them by opening discussions focusing on where these preconceived ideas originated.

But these challenges only show us that Lomdim B’Yachad really matters. Dissolving stereotypes through fun and educational lessons, with an emphasis on connecting as human beings rather than as statistics, highlights what development work should be about. Making the schools microcosms of international partnership and co-operation sets an example to the pupils that real difference can be made through simple but effective means. Try making an app for that – we bet you can’t.

Ruth Newman studied Hebrew and Jewish studies at the University of Manchester, Dublin-born Ruth Newman was the Director of Education for BBYO. This was followed by an internship in the Jewish Museum’s education department before joining the Tzedek team as Education Officer.

Sam Greene studied Philosophy at the University of Nottingham before working as a movement worker for Habonim Dror. He is now working for six months on fundraising and community outreach projects in the UK, followed by six months with Tzedek partner projects in Ghana.

This post is from the just-released PresenTense Jewish Social Action Now issue; you can also subscribe to PresenTense Magazine and receive this, and future issues, delivered directly to you.