In Zimbabwe, despite over 60% internet penetration level, the cost of data bundles and quality of connectivity make access to the exciting online platforms cropping up as a response to COVID-19, not as feasible for many here. And yet, important meetings and discussion can’t wait for lockdown to end. That’s why we are inspired by the Gateway Zimbabwe Fellowship cohort in Chiadzwa who are making use of the platforms available to them, and organising weekly Whatsapp “seminars”, in partnership with the Zimbabwe Diamonds and Allied Workers Union (ZIDAWU). 

The virtual dialogue series started when the group realised that the Covid-19 induced lockdown restrictions would prevent them from carrying out their activities. Their work involves a lot of traveling and physical interaction between communities and the lockdown movement restrictions meant that it might come to a complete halt.

Instead of grumbling over losing their usual mobility and physical contact with communities, they asked themselves “What CAN we do? What do we have available to us, where we are?”

Drawing from lessons learnt at Gateway during Nature Observation exercises, like how a plant adapts and responds to changes in the environment for example, they also decided to adapt and explore the available alternatives and possibilities. The decision of using the most popular social media app in Zimbabwe was reached and what has happened since can only be described as PHENOMENAL.

Some of the flyers which have been distributed digitally, inviting community members to join Dialogue Sessions.

The Whatsapp dialogues, where presenters post audio messages – or “voice notes”, followed by question and answer sessions, now have an average attendance of 160 people and the numbers keep rising. Participants include young people, elders, traditional leaders, professionals, community monitors, government officials…all joining in from the comfort of their homes or private offices.

Some of the topics that have been discussed during the dialogue sessions include:

The discussions have been very exciting and engaging, with lively participation from those who follow and attend them. Positive feedback and results have emerged, including a Ministry of Mines official reaching out, wanting to assist groups of women in the community to obtain mining claims.

The popularity of the dialogue sessions has shown the resilience of grassroots communities in a time of isolation and the challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. Their work is very much continuing and it is a wonderful model, inclusive of both urban and rural communities, as most people have access to Whatsapp on their mobile phones. Another advantage of this model is that participants can still access the voice notes and written notes long after the engagement session, if they could not get on at that time because of battery, limited data or network challenges or if they were otherwise occupied. These are some of the challenges of using other virtual seminar platforms that have been cited by rural communities.

The success of this initiative has inspired other Gateway Fellows to take on that model of engagement in a time when we can’t meet physically for modules and check-ins. Vibrant discussions have begun among the Gateway Fellows, who in turn, are adopting the same concept in their local communities as well.

Bravo, Chiadzwa Gateway Fellows!

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