‘Rosa of the Wild Grass’ shows us that progress out of poverty begins with the empowerment of women

Today we are celebrating International Women’s Day with the pre-launch of Rosa of the Wild Grass: The story of a Nicaraguan family. It is the incredible real life story of Rosa, a seemingly normal, everyday peasant woman from La Concha, and her fight not only for survival, but for freedom from oppression, poverty, and injustice through decades of political turbulence in Nicaragua.

Rosa is remarkable for her resilience, her compassion, energy, and sheer willpower to do better for herself, but even more so, for her family, friends, and community as a whole. But she is also remarkable in that she is just one of so many women that have taken a leading role in making real change and improving lives through socialist revolution against oppressive dictatorships in Latin America. Fiona Macintosh retells, from Rosa’s own words, what  life was like for Nicaraguans under the Somoza dictatorship; her work for the Sandinista Revolution; and beyond it, how she found the courage to keep fighting even when the hopes of Nicaraguans for a better future were dashed by the Contra War and the regression of social advances that followed.

11 Rosa

Waving and dancing with hundreds of others ©Fiona Macintosh

Beyond the political turmoil, Rosa overcame many hurdles that are all too common around the world for impoverished women. Rosa was yet another young girl who was denied the right to finish her education because her family couldn’t afford to school daughters as well as sons. But she worked for years to fund her education herself; even when the reward of improved employment opportunities was seemingly not forthcoming. She is yet another woman who became a mother very young because there was no sex or reproductive education given to young girls and boys where she grew up; but she fought to provide for her children and give them the best opportunities she could. She’s another woman who had to deal with a male partner with a drinking problem that put the health and wellbeing of her family at risk; but she was strong and independent enough to decide she could do a better job by herself. Through her whole life she has worked relentlessly; for her living, for social justice, for the malnourished mothers and children that she kept alive and healthy through her community soya kitchen initiative; and ultimately for a better, more dignified, and fairer future for the people of Nicaragua.

Her inspiring story is a reminder to us all that every woman matters. It is a reminder that the real, sustained movement of the world’s poor out of poverty will only be achieved through the active and meaningful participation of ordinary women; women whose roles in making change for the better have historically been marginalised and overlooked.

Now is the time: women like Rosa are already willing, capable, and brave enough to step up. As a global community invested in development and equality, we must simply do all we can to facilitate them in taking this power – and demanding the right to a dignified life – for themselves. Because as Rosa and so many others have shown, when women are empowered to take a leading role for positive change in their communities, everything else follows.

So here’s to you Rosa- and Happy International Women’s Day!


Rosa cover.jpg

Rosa of the Wild Grass will be published in April, and is now available for pre-order here: http://developmentbookshop.com/rosa-of-the-wild-grass

Helen Wishart
Editorial and Production Executive, Practical Action Publishing


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Women’s empowerment: so what?

Source: Women’s empowerment: so what?

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Payment by Results: the deathknell for understanding in development


Friends and colleagues,

Payment-by-results (PBR) is set to become a far more common funding mechanism in development. Justine Greening, Secretary of State for International Development in the UK, has made no secret of her ambition to make PBR a central plank of DFID’s relationship with development ‘suppliers’ (as the strategy makes clear).

And this is a problem for two main reasons: Firstly, this will be the deathknell for much of the best and most effective work that takes place in development, because PBR is based on measuring rather than understanding. And secondly, PBR sounds the deathknell for many good organisations working in development, which simply cannot survive in this environment due to the huge investment that is needed as well as the financial and risk management capacity that is needed in order to engage with PBR contracts.

To take the first problem – what do we understand by ‘good’ development work?…

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Is there still space for gender equality in current narratives of development? Rethinking gender work in the shifting spaces of development policy and practice

Short report of DSA-GADPP Study Group/IGS Workshop, Tues June 2nd 2015

Tina Wallace and Fenella Porter
Co-editors Aid, NGOs and the Realities of Women’s Lives: A perfect storm

This session was attended by a wide range of students from the Women in Politics group at Oxford University, which changed the dynamics and the questions asked and it was a lively and engaging afternoon. Practitioners and academics were among the audience and the room was full. A new paper was added from Saranel Benjamin who is currently with War on Want but spoke from her position as a woman from South Africa and reflected on how the changes and initiatives being discussed by others impact on work and thinking in the south. Increasingly their voices are not being heard and they are not being invited to share in development strategy, planning and setting the parameters for assessing what success looks like. Agendas are imposed and contracts tight, conditions set far away with little room for negotiation.

Presenters each outlined some of the real issues and tensions for development organisations of working alongside and with the private sector, particularly addressing their huge influence in shaping funding patterns and increasingly accessing development funds through large contracts, often worth multi-millions of pounds, from their own perspective. There is an increasing alignment between corporate funders and the language and practice of the private sector and institutional donors such as DFID and Comic Relief, which have adopted the approaches of the private sector (value for money, results frameworks, quantitative metrics, payment by results, tight contracts and short time lines). While well suited to much private sector activity where the bottom lines are clear and known these methods and concepts are proving very tricky to implement well in the context of dynamic, complex and fast changing arenas of poverty, exclusion and inequality.

Each speaker spoke of some benefits of working with the private sector (which was recognised as being very diverse and bringing different issues to the table) or concepts drawn from them but the dangers were more on their mind. The presentations were all drawn from first hand experience and raised many challenges for the NGO sector that often appears to be adopting these new approaches without question and with a focus on compliance with the new rules and requirements.

As well as the language of corporates creeping in and being promoted the private sector organisations are increasingly moving into providing development, through managing large contracts, evaluating development work and becoming providers of health, education, water and policy frameworks to the UK and other Governments. This shift continues, with NGOs often having to grow significantly in order to compete effectively alongside the consultancy firms and private service providers, while the needs, voices and concerns of those receiving these funds and services are marginalised. There has been a significant shift of power away from the State and citizens towards those with the funding and language to access the large amounts of money and influence now going through Overseas Development Assistance.

The impact goes way beyond the funding environment for NGOs. There are major implications for the work that is done with women, and the relationships that are built with partner organisations. Supporting women’s organisations in the global South, and facilitating their voices and accessing the voices of women themselves is becoming increasingly rare; narratives of gender are changing away from an analysis of why women are marginalised and often poor to a focus on ‘quick wins’ for women and girls . The moves are away from targeting the structural causes of their inequality:

‘Building democracy doesn’t make good photos … and so doesn’t get funded’ (Saranel Benjamin, presenter)

The impact of results, indicators and having to prove impact often mean that women’s realities are increasingly absent from development planning and resource allocation, and there is a real squeeze on activist organisations. One paper presented in January had shifted from an optimistic look at the future focusing on the issues of democracy, ownership and a recognition that the MDGs had not promoted these or accountable aid. The new SDGs stress the need for the poor including women to be part of agenda setting and calling aid agencies to account and this was positive. But the debates rising now around the financing of aid to be discussed soon in Addis Ababa show that ODA will increasingly be used to facilitate the role of the private sector in investment, running projects, managing development. Many have pointed out the core focus on profit and meeting the needs of the poor make very uneasy bedfellows much of the time but this trend is likely to accelerate fast with major implications for UK and global NGOs.

The small group discussions were rich and many issues were fed back. The main elements of the discussions focused on the enormous influence of the private sector now in development, and how this dominance is forcing NGOs to work in different ways that conform to the norms of business and the market. This increasingly puts distance between NGOs and the people they work with in communities on the ground, and undermines much of the real knowledge and experience that exists within NGOs and their partners.

One of the issues that came out very clearly was how the dominance of market-led norms has led to an increasing demand for particular kinds of ‘evidence’, especially quantitative evidence that can show that development work is reaching large numbers of people. There is a real need to reflect on how best to deliver and communicate evidence in development work. Whilst both quantitative and qualitative evidence are important, there are often problems with how this is produced (the skills needed to do this effectively and whether the data that is collected is meaningful). What counts as evidence? What are the meaningful indicators to be used for the work? Can there still be a role for the ‘thoughtful practitioner’ in collecting ‘evidence?

Another issue that came out strongly was the competitive effect of private sector norms, and how this is undermining solidarity between NGOs. Many people within development NGOs are trying to work together and ‘do the right thing’, and personal relationships are still hugely important, but it is becoming increasingly difficult as organisations are forced to compete against each other – as well as against corporate actors who are also bidding for development contracts now. The development sector has become highly professionalised and less value driven, and staff turnover is high making relationships hard to sustain between north and south; these are having a very detrimental impact on how NGOs are able to work together, and work with their partners.

Overall, there was agreement amongst all participants that the reality for development work is now hugely influenced by the private sector, and that in many ways this is contributing to a fundamental re-shaping of the norms and values that have existed and which many still hold dear. The implications of these shifts are not really being identified or addressed as yet and yet are having a significant impact on issues such as accountable aid, democratic ways of working, partnerships between north and south, and the very nature of development work being provided.

Presentations at the workshop:
Kanwal Ahluwalia, Plan UK – The corporate influence in NGO work – drawing from Plan UK experience
Saranel Benjamin, War on Want Changing narratives of gender in NGOs
Fenella Porter, Birkbeck College/Ruskin College and IGS@LMH- Instrumentalised narratives of gender in PPPs focused on health
Tina Wallace, IGS@LMH – Framing ideas for the future within the post-2015 emerging narratives: looking back and looking forward
Nikki van der Gaag – Chair

A full report is available on the DSA website

Further reading and resources:

A short video about the play ‘With You Always’, inspired by the book Aid, NGOs and the Realities of Women’s Lives: A perfect storm

The Politics of Evidence and Results in International Development, new title from Practical Action Publishing

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Belief in social change – an NGO debate to quench a thirsty development soul

Tina Wallace
Co-editor Aid, NGOs and the Realities of Women’s Lives: A perfect storm

logoBelief – a big word not often heard in current NGO debates, but the theme of the 12th Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship 2015. Not my natural habitat; I entered with trepidation wondering what claims and achievements would be trumpeted.

I had a surprise. For the first time in ages I was immersed in a debate dominated by values, passion, commitment and questioning; the centrality of the power of story telling and humour; the need for hope and creativity; by concepts like risk taking and pushing the boundaries; the importance of who we are as well as what we want to do in the world.

Passion, humour, hope, the celebration of local people’s initiatives… concepts redolent of my first encounter with NGOs some decades ago, now rarely heard in those same circles. That discourse now is more driven by concerns such as proving value for money, demonstrating relevance, optimal models, effectiveness and efficiency, as well as showing that millions in need can be reached on small budgets and within minimal time scales. The work is often characterized by compliance and even fear, a concern to meet donor demands and to complete paper based or computerized frameworks of every imaginable kind even if the narratives become ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as reality in all its complexity is twisted to fit current aid priorities. In these NGO circles many staff with a vision, passion and energy for change often feel thwarted and alienated.  Staff turnover is high and many young people find a very uneasy fit between their aspirations and the grind of current development bureaucracy.

9781853397790Much of what I heard at the opening Plenary of the Skoll World Forum was water for a thirsty soul, increasingly parched and frustrated by the all embracing paradigm of command and control, top down planning, the reliance on systems not people, on paper not relationships, on image over substance. These are trends that have grown and become embedded over many years and I have documented in Practical Action Publishing books, The Aid Chain and Aid, NGOs and the Realities of Women’s Lives.

Of course the speakers were exceptional and among the one thousand plus participants (invitation only) would surely be many I would disagree with and even disapprove of. A speaker at the closing plenary wisely reminded us that the energy and excitement of the conference was not the world in which people have to cope with the daily realities, frustrations, ups and downs of their work.  But there is no denying the positive energy, the sense of possibility and the hope; above all was the focus on who we are as development agents and the critical importance of our values driving the multiple development agendas.

When the role of the relationships and creativity become central to the development story, the questions to be asked and the ways of working to promote positive change can shift.  Rather than boxing development workers in with requirements, conditions and unrealistic demands, the focus of the Plenary was on enabling people to develop their creativity, use their energy to work well with others, and to find new ways of solving problems and addressing challenges.

So what was it about the first Plenary, open to the public, which allowed my spirits to rise? Of course being in the presence of Desmond Tutu was a huge privilege and wonderful experience. A man in his final years was able to command a theatre filled with hundreds of people and connect to each one of us. His depth of experience and understanding, his harsh experiences of cruelty, his relationships with so many around the world and in SA, his humour twinkling and mischievous, his stories of being ‘a nobody’ in apartheid SA, all were so powerful. Here was a man of enormous experience able to make us laugh and cry, feel human and remember that the connections between people both far and near are the heart of humanity and change.

His daughter brought laughter, warmth and passion into the room as she spoke of her understanding of belief and religion; watching their interaction was both moving and a delight. Ophelia Dahl talked of the magic her father brought into her childhood to build her self-belief. All the panel speakers talked of what influenced them growing up leading on to who they have become, where they now draw strength and inspiration. They discussed the positive and negatives around strong beliefs; the power of religion or ideology to drive and inspire or limit and exclude.  They talked of the need for beliefs and values to be clear yet fluid and open to others in different contexts and facing different challenges.

The essential role of values as the lodestar for what to do and how to do it was the dominant motif in this opening plenary. Something many development people know and yet is often sadly absent in some of the very organisations that were originally built on aspiration, ideas, values and a sense of creative possibility.

The closing Plenary highlighted the rich variety of life-enhancing creativity, essential for change.  These included the power and danger of humour; the role of all the arts in providing new and challenging frames, promoting positive shifts in understanding and challenging abuses of power. Issues such as exclusion, the lack of voice of so many, critiquing current paradigms, the need for community and cohesion were addressed through singing for hope, using pianos placed on street corners and in unexpected places in the USA, photos bringing new perspectives and bearing witness to things often hidden, satire to highlight abuses of power. The power of art, eloquently presented by the Director of Ford Foundation, to educate, to raise awareness, to promote action was explored; the role of laughter in challenging authoritarianism, injustice and cruelty was shared by Bassem Youssef, originally from Egypt but now living away from home. The importance of story telling and the power of stories to promote new thinking and action were highlighted.

Beyond creativity, the panelists advocated the need ‘to dare’, to take risks, to be bold, to accept failure, to ask questions, to trust people, to learn from others, to be humble, to promote dignity and respect, to persevere and keep focused on the purpose. All of these resonated with the audience.

Coming from every speaker was the power of ideas and relationships, of multiple ways of seeing and understanding the world, and the urgent need for connections. The “quick fix” was eschewed by one presenter, the need for imagination and belief encouraged by another, the need to fight fear and repression with laughter by a third.

Using music, photography and video, jokes were promoted as part of the many ways to unlock creativity, ideas and new ways of working.  And conversations – expertly chaired by two inspiring women – were used to draw out a complex and interesting exploration of the role of belief in social change, the multiple approaches needed to find ways to relate and be courageous, to find our joy and compassion, to use our humanity and to bring an awareness of the unmeasurable and unquantifiable into development and social change.

I am often angry, sad, frustrated and highly critical of much I see in the world around me, and in myself, but last week I felt that the narrow world of debate that I find so inappropriate for addressing the realities of marginalisation, poverty and inequality, had been opened out through the sharing of serious and thoughtful analyses as well as deeply personal stories and experiences. Why did it make me feel so much better? Because, it connected me to inspiring people, it talked to issues I care about especially the role of values, relationships and who we are as people in development; above all it brought me enjoyment, laughter, inspiration and hope.

12th Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship 2015

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Theory and practice: from research to field work by Raffaella Bellanca (co-author of Delivering Energy for Development)

Just a few months ago, I was theorizing on delivery models that work for people living in poverty (more about it in this report http://pubs.iied.org/16551IIED.html a joint production of IIED and CAFOD and in this book http://developmentbookshop.com/delivering-energy-for-development by Practical Action Publishing) and the next thing I know I’m in Haiti making and selling charcoal improved cookstoves and crucially trying to follow my own guidelines.

Selling stoves is not an easy task under many respects, but then and again that is precisely why it is so interesting. The stove we produce (I work for International Lifeline Fund (ILF), an American NGO) is called PlopPlop (meaning “fast” in Haitian Creole), and it is the result of ILF’s experience in stove making and extensive market research. In our case, back in 2011, this consisted in a set of complementary activities such as finding out what people traditionally cook, how they cook it, why they do cook it that way. This knowledge tells a lot about the shape and size of the to-be-designed device. There is always a good reason for why people do things the way they do, a set of habits and behaviours that goes under the name of “cultural context”; grasping those reasons can help to propose suited solutions that deliver the required service and even suggest improvements that increase convenience. Taking the local cultural context into account means to actually propose alternatives to current practices that make sense in the local conditions. The step ILF took next was giving out prototypes for people to test, observe how they are used and humbling listen to the feedback. Within a few iterations, The Stove was ready to be introduced on the market; which is ultimately the best test of them all. If you can convince people to buy what you propose, you know for a fact that it is appreciated.

This type of exercise can be very useful to rapidly indicate what is the need to address, if any, and successively understand whether you have a product or not. For example, such scrutiny applied to solar cookers would most probably suggest their limited suitability for households where breakfast requires coffee and happens before noon; saving much investment and effort for their diffusion in those circumstances. And yet, it is dismaying to see how many projects have aimed at promoting solar technology for cooking in the unverified and unquestioned assumption that it is good and practical in all cases. Surprisingly (for the initiators) these projects fail. Failure is often attributed to a presumed cultural background and resistance to innovation from the target group. What it really means is that people won’t give up drinking their coffee at 7:00 in the morning.

The culture context is made of many aspects and each one needs taking into consideration; some are more palatable than others; charcoal for example. The large majority of the Haitian population uses charcoal to cook. Charcoal making is the principal cause of deforestation in the country; cooking with charcoal and firewood kills 4 million people around the world per year (yes, not a typo, 4 million, more than malaria and AIDS); charcoal is very expensive and cooking takes up a good proportion of families’ income. However, people rarely have a choice. The reality is that in Haiti just a small part of the population can afford LPG, electricity is unreliable, there isn’t currently an ethanol nor plant oil value chain in place, and for any of these alternatives to become common practice it will take time; charcoal on the other hand, is being used every day by most. Biomass briquettes are emerging as a viable possibility too; they can be used in the same appliances as charcoal. While other solutions come to maturity, a device that optimizes charcoal (or briquettes) use and reduces harmful emissions is better than nothing and has the potential to have a greater impact on lives than an ideal solution… that stays on paper.

The PlopPlop is a sturdy stove model that can accommodate a large enough pot to prepare rice and beans for an average family of 5. We also make a smaller stove which is ideal to cook sauce. The two combined, cover most of the cooking needs of the local population. I can proudly say that people do like it.

And this is where the fun starts. The technical solution is actually not the focal and ultimate point of a project/business. Having a product to sell, leaves you with a business case to be proven and a value chain to be put in place. The product needs producing, distributing, commercializing and, chiefly, it needs to be bought by the end user. Good luck with that.

A business case should prove that it is possible to deliver the energy solution at a price which is acceptable to the consumer. If the project’s target group is made of people who have very limited budgets, this is challenging but in many cases still doable. As in any other domain, there are tricks and tips. People in Port au Prince usually buy traditional stoves for a price which is approximately a third of what an improved cookstove would cost. However, these traditional stoves are made with scrap metal and have shorter lifetimes than improved ones. Moreover, the difference in price between traditional and PlopPlop is paid back by charcoal savings in less than one month. The business case is clearly there. Unfortunately, people are not acquainted with the advantages of improved cookstoves and just appreciate the difference in price. Even when told of the incredible benefits, they still need to believe the teller. Moreover, spending more today to save tomorrow comes as a difficult practice to humans in general and more so for the ones with little means, who face every day difficult expenditure prioritization choices.

The trick and tips for stove sellers are about conceiving ways to communicate the product’s added value in a convincing manner and address the upfront cost barrier. A product is convincing if it is desirable. Sometimes development projects seem to be designed to serve an idealized category of people who does not actually exist: The Poor. According to projects of this kind, “The Poor” should get cheap stuff that serves a development purpose, ideally for free. Truth is, in my opinion, that people with low purchasing power are, as everybody else, interested in what is, or seems to be, good value for money (“for free” does not fall in this category) and, where possible, makes you look fancier than your neighbour. To test this rather disrupting hypothesis, we are about to introduce a line of immensely cute stove branded auxiliary products, from aprons to plates, to clearly state that our stove is something of a “must have”. We are preparing our Ikea-like start-up package not for “The Poor” but for those who cannot afford much right now. To increase affordability we try to grant credit in those situations in which we are confident that the loan will be repaid; in schools, churches, communities, wherever a leader figure can act as testimonial, manage the loans for us and has a direct relationship with the end user. We are also working with those organizations that enable the Haitian diaspora from US to purchase goods for their relatives in Haiti.

While selling remains the main challenge, building a value chain is surely a complex operation as well. Start-ups in “developed” countries have a fairly low rate of survival. We should not expect this to be different in places where the environment in which the business needs to operate presents extra challenges. And yet some times, project managers sent to implement development projects, are inexperienced and alien to the local settings. Not a good start.

The procurement of goods that elsewhere would take an email here requires knowledge, skills and a whole lot of patience. The most basilar objects are inconsistently available or, most commonly, not found at all. I have been waiting for a heat resistant can of paint for the last couple of months; it was shipped to Haiti in early August but it remained seasoning at the harbour until yesterday, 29th of September. Services are also hard to source and the quality level is set fairly low. This means that some parts of the value chain are missing and need to be built by the business itself even where they do not belong to the core value proposition.

Truly skilled and trusted local people are very expensive. If there is one role for the international community to stimulate development it is that of providing these supporting services, helping to build stronger surrounding conditions for the business.

Enterprising greatly benefit from a favourable enabling environment too. This is made of numerous factors including a transport infrastructure of roads and harbours that keeps logistics costs at bay. In Port-au-Prince, roads are few and crowed, often unpaved. Reaching delivery destination is costly (vehicles must be off-road, better if four-wheel-drive) and takes long time.

In addition, hugely important is to be able to count on a clear and simple set of rules and regulations and business friendly institutions that make it easier and cheaper to set up a company, import and export and operate. Uniquely, internet banking in Haiti is often provided for non-negligible fees (i.e. in the case of our bank). Consequently, any transaction, such as payments of staff, goods and invoices are all done through checks or cash (but that is dangerous, people have been assaulted and even killed for the cash they were carrying). Considering that any operation at the bank counter takes literarily hours in a queue, this results in precious resources being wasted in mere inefficiency.

Favourable tax regimes, a low rate of corruption and transparency are also desirable features. The PlopPlop is made of metal that we buy locally. This accounts for more than half of our production cost since raw material, as all other imported goods, is very expensive on the island and makes our product uncompetitive. While direct import has the potentiality to result in lower prices, this implies clearing custom with unpredictable outcomes in terms of waiting time and imposed taxes.

With so many factors to consider, designing the perfect project becomes an idealistic if legitimate aspiration. Nothing can guarantee that the project will be a success, however, I feel that the recent efforts by IIED, CAFOD and Practical Action to provide insights and guidelines can help to give it a good try (further reading: http://pubs.iied.org/16551IIED.html and http://developmentbookshop.com/delivering-energy-for-development).


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Understanding Organizational Sustainability through African Proverbs


This practical yet profound new book by Chiku Malunga, the first and leading indigenous wisdom based organizational development writer, together with Charles Banda, offers a thought provoking and fresh perspective on communicating organizational change and improvement. In a language people will immediately understand, anyone involved or simply interested in organizational and community development will learn from these insights into African culture and traditional wisdom. This book not only suggests how this can be creatively applied to improve organizational performance but is relative also to modern life in general.

Divided into six chapters, the authors discuss the natural growth phases that every organization goes through as it develops from its beginnings into a mature and sustainable system; financial and organizational sustainability as a key unresolved issue facing many organizations; the concepts of organizational culture and identity; the importance of leadership in organizational effectiveness and sustainability; insights on how consultants facilitating change in organizations can improve their own performance so that they can serve organizations better; and argues that organizational assessments are the starting point for organizational improvement efforts. The appendices contain accessible and useful assessment tools based on the proverbs used throughout the book, with detailed descriptions of how they can be used.

At the outset, the authors draw attention, almost apologetically to the possibility that the proverbs may speak louder than their explanations, yet proverbs make communication so instantly possible, irrespective of differences in geographic origin and cultural backgrounds, a whispered explanation may well be is all that is needed. But as one particular proverb suggests ‘there are no shortcuts to the top of a palm tree’ perhaps you should simply read this fascinating book, and hear first-hand, the wisdom and loud voices of the authors’ African ancestors.

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