The Uniservitate Africa Hub, 2nd Annual Africa Conference on Service Learning was organized by the Tangaza University College in Nairobi (Kenya) on May 18th and 19th. Prior to the conference there was a week full of regional meetings and students/alumni project visits that strengthened the cooperative and global spirit that potrays the uniqueness of this Program in Africa.
Delegations of representatives from six universities and the Argentinian team from Uniservitate started their activities with a visit to the home of the Vice Rector of Tangaza University College, Apollinaire Chishugi[BB1] , who is recovering from a health problem. Chishugi has a strong commitment to Service-Learning. He will be followed by the Rev. Dr. Leo Simon, Ag. (VC Designate), who is also very enthusiastic about the same pedagogical approach. Their enthusiasm was evident during the meeting with university authorities and María Rosa Tapia, Candelaria Ferrara and Alejandra Herrero (Uniservitate) and this was evident during the conference.
The delegation had the opportunity to affirm that students trained in educational contexts that offer service-learning in their curricula could be agents of change. This was done through visiting three enterprises led by former Tangaza University College students. They are developing successful training projects in diverse skills like music, computing, business, and production of organic crops. These enterprises are Mirror of hope, Friends of Love, and the Edmund Rice Centre; each of them active in different areas of Kibera, a vulnerable neighbourhood in Nairobi. Kibera has two million people in 2.5 Km2; most of whom are without basic services such as potable water and sewerage services.
In the Conference, entitled: “Service Learning and Life in its Fullness: Promoting Care for Creation and Fraternity in Higher Education” participating universities from the Africa Hub (University of Loyola, Congo; Mwenge Catholic University, Tanzania, and University of Kisubi, Uganda). The Catholic University of Central Africa, from Cameroon, participated on-line. The host institution, the Tangaza University College, had numerous students and professors in attendance. In addition, Beatrix Bouwman (North-West University, South Africa) from the Uniservitate Board, was accompanied by her colleague Lester Mpolokeng. Finally, also attending the Conference on-line were: the Education Ministry of Kenya, whose public servants were enthusiastic about the proposed agenda; the Eichstätt-Ingolstadt University, from Germany; and the Assam Don Bosco University, from India.
The presentations during the meetings reflected the diversity of approaches and types of service-learning projects. While some had an approach to the service-learning from the engineering point of view, others worked from the educational view and proposed initiatives linked with civil rights, such as preserving the safety of children or less advantaged people. “To know this experience allows us to go deeper in the topics in which they are working on and to think of other articulation possibilities with topics from other latitudes”, said Maria Rosa Tapia, Higher Education Coordinator and Uniservitate Project Coordinator at CLAYSS.
During the Conference, it was possible to confirm that there is service-learning known by other denominations, like community engagement, for example. “It is what we have been doing for a long time but with a different name”, declared a few participants after Tapia presented the characteristics that define service-learning and the theoretical framework. Other delegates said that they already knew the concept but were enriched by new facets and perspectives. “It was very positive to put the cards on the table, and beyond the label or the name that each could put, to share the depth of the pedagogical proposal”, said Tapia.
One of the topics that drew attention was the linkage with the Sustainable Development Goals and environmental issues. Surprisingly, there were matching perspectives between the General Director form the National Science, Technology and Innovation Commission, Walter Ottawa and Alejandra Herrero, from CLAYSS-Uniservitate, during a panel discussion on “Promoting care for creation and Fraternity in higher education.” The presenters were on the same page in relation to the dangers that are hurting the environment, stressing the urgency of critical perspectives guiding the decisions that are being made due to these issues. Herrero, also provided examples of universities that, though service-learning projects, are working on some of these issues.
Both the expositions and the workshops were attended by leaders from the social organizations who are developing service-learning projects, and others interested in the topic. The dialogue with such referents strengthened the need that “community partners” from the universities have a fundamental understanding of the pedagogical concept in order to find solutions without losing sight of all the respective possibilities and objectives.
Within the context of the Conference emerged the idea of a new service-learning project. Representatives from an organization from Nairobi working with people with auditory impairment attended the event looking for new ways of inclusion. Inspired by the presentations they proposed new ways to diffuse the use of sign language, and that sign language courses could be given by empowered deaf students. The proposals were enthusiastically considered and perhaps incorporated into projects to be reviewed by the professors and the service-learning representatives of Tangaza University College.
Another example of close bond between university and community was the testimony of students from the Diploma in Civic and Development Education (DCDE) which is taught by Tangaza College in Hurama, a vulnerable neighbourhood from Nairobi. This is one of the projects awarded by Uniservitate in 2022. Students from DCDE, who participated in a panel about leadership and innovation, described the service-learning modality and the impact in the community in which they live. Monthly meetings with Hurama residents, who related their needs and answers to these problems, civic participation and the number of projects with the civic authorities increased, resulting in improved well-being and community development. Other projects registered the number of older adults and people with disabilities from the neighbourhood. This information was presented at the town hall to achieve an agreement with the civil servants to provide improved sanitary conditions. One of the students declared that what they were doing was a non-traditional protest because they do not throw stones or light fires but to pursue improvements in the social structure, to speak with all stakeholders, thereby finding peaceful solutions.
An expression that was repeated constantly while talking was “pole, pole”, which in the Swahili means “step-by-step” of each process. Both in the session and workshops from the Conference and in the previous meeting between the universities from the Africa Hub, recognised that service-learning institutionalization as a process that does not happen overnight. It implies moving forward, while respecting the rhythm of each of the contexts, the resources, and circumstances of respective communities and universities.
By sharing the monitoring and evaluation results of the institutionalization processes, conducted by Uniservitate last year, it was possible to appreciate the particularities and the possibilities within a global perspective. According to the progress evaluation, different universities created their own, context-relevant, teams to diffuse and promote service-learning among faculty and students.
The participants of the Conference considered the presentation of Candelaria Ferrara as important and relevant to all initiatives of the Uniservitate programme in all countries. This highlighted the regional perspectives included in a global programme.
It was emphasized, also, the need to strengthen research, based on the articulation between theory and practice. Also, it was indicated that service-learning offers the possibility of going deeper into the spirituality and faith experience in Catholic universities that also have many students from other denominations and religions.
A recurrent topic among the university representatives was the need of following of alumni in order to monitor the articulation between the academic environment and the society and to continue offering support to their potential works in the community.
Porticus’ presence was truly relevant, with the participation of Christine Bodewes and Rita Anyumba. They supported each one of the proposed activities and evaluated, with representatives from Uniservitate, the first stage of this program which finished in 2022.
Judith Pete´s teamwork was highlighted during the Conference. Judith, as the Africa Hub Coordinator with a strong team support from Tangaza University, was in charge of all communications and the streaming of the Conference and kept all the social media followers connected and informed.
At the closure of the event, Maria Rosa Tapia highlighted the importance of reflections and dialogues during the Conference and the importance of the relationship with and between students, professors, social organizations, community members, and policy makers. Tapia also added that shared experiences made evident what this popular African saying: “if you want to go faster, go alone; if you want to go far, go together”.