Ubunifu, which means “creativity” or “innovation” in Swahili, refers to all forms of creative expression. “It can be reciting a poem or making a car from a tin can,” says Emily Morris, who recently returned to the United States after five years in Tanzania and Zanzibar.
In Tanzania, creativity and the arts “are not just performances on a stage,” explains Morris. “They are a part of culture and everyday activities. They coexist: music, poems, theater, and dance can be used to tell a single story. The arts are also a tool for educating, a means of community development.”
The concept of ubunifu—that creativity is alive and part of life—resonates deeply with Morris, who combines her background in dance and theater with her work in international development and education.
Ubunifu was also critical to the development of the audio and video programs created under the Radio Instruction to Strengthen Education (RISE) and Zanzibar Teacher Upgrading by Radio (ZTUR) projects in Tanzania. Morris led both of these USAID-funded projects, which used interactive radio and video instruction (IRI/IVI) to bring teacher advancement and student learning to remote communities.
“Creativity and artistic expression gives young people an outlet for commenting on their environment, and feeling connected to what they are learning,” says Morris. “At the same time, they help teachers be playful and allow students to take risks.”
What originally drew you to the arts?
I was a kid that needed to learn through doing, and I really struggled to stay engaged and interested in school. The arts taught me how to channel my energy in a positive direction. I was very lucky to attend a state high school for the arts where I specialized in dance and learned all my academics through an arts lens.
When did you first work overseas?
When I was 20, I received a fellowship that funded my first trip to Africa to pursue a certificate in grassroots development and NGO management in Zimbabwe. I interned with a nongovernmental organization (NGO) working on youth and women’s issues and land/resource conflicts. Because of the deteriorating political situation in 1997, I left Zimbabwe after six months to finish my studies and research in Zanzibar, an archipelago in Tanzania. Tanzania changed me, and I returned the following year to do research and work with out-of-school and street youth who were making a living as performers, and educating others in the process.
After two years in Zimbabwe and Tanzania, I stepped away from development for awhile. I returned to Minnesota and worked in arts education with the state in research, assessment, curriculum, and school partnerships. I was also a teaching artist for a public elementary and high school, which put me back working with youth, many of whom had, coincidentally, newly emigrated from East Africa. I was totally blown away by the stories and work created in our classes, and it was amazing to share it with others in our community. Once again, I saw how the arts can be a powerful platform for young people to express their experiences, whether in the United States or Africa, and how hard it is to feel connected to learning if you can’t see yourself in what you are learning.
How did you return to working in Africa?
In 2006, I returned to Zanzibar to work with a local education NGO. That’s when I met a project director from EDC, who was looking for someone who spoke Swahili, had an education and management background, and could help with the production and technical aspects of IRI. I joined EDC in 2007.
How did your arts training help with IRI?
Working with the EDC Tanzanian team was my dream job. The education, arts, and development worlds collided. Under the RISE and ZTUR projects, we developed audio and video programs for young people using local stories and songs to teach the literacy, numeracy, and life skills curricula.
We also mobilized out-of-school youth to be non-formal teachers. The work was gratifying because we were using creative and playful solutions to help teachers and students living in remote places who had very limited resources. Through innovative technology, such as wind-up/solar-powered radios and hand-held video devices, we were able to reach students in all districts in Zanzibar and across mainland Tanzania.
What’s one lesson you learned in your work abroad?
I learned the importance of balancing strength and humility. When you’re working with different languages, in challenging conditions, with diverse cultures and people—from religious leaders, to community members, to government officials—you have to know when to be persistent and when to be humble and take a back seat. I also learned that when you make space for students’ creativity, stories, and voices—even in classrooms with 100 students—they begin to love learning.