Students, teachers and relatives from Santa Apolonia school (Galicia, Spain) travel to take part in the Great Green Wall initiative to prevent the Sahara extends to the south in Senegal. This trip and all the related activities are part of a project developed by the school within the framework of Voz Natura, the environmental education program promoted by the Santiago Rey Fernández-Latorre Foundation. We interview Jesus Couso (Kechu), coordinator of the project and teacher at kindergarten and primary about this amazing experience.

Don’t miss this amazing video by Juan Barbazán with the best moments of the travel

Thank you so much Kechu for contributing to Searching for Superman and congratulations, what you have done is unbelievable. Could you describe the project? How did the idea come about?  Which organizations have collaborated?

Santa Apolonia school is a secular private school located in the region of Galicia (Spain) whose hallmarks are feminism, personalized learning, and environmentalism. Examples of these are that all the positions of responsibility of the school are occupied by women, we have groups of 15 students maximum per classroom, a horse club and a school farm between our facilities, already special for being in a privileged natural environment on the banks of the River Sar in Santiago.

The Great Green Wall is an environmental project developed by us in the context of Voz Natura program. Voz Natura is an important environmental education program in which Santa Apolonia School has participated in 20 of its 21 editions, having been awarded in two of them. The last one, the last school year, because of “Abuela Pepa” project, what made us become a reference within the program.

The development of the project is totally integrated in the school curriculum, and at the same time in the mentalities of teachers and students. This time, we wanted to go one step further and open the project to other institutions, families, and abroad.

«We wanted to go one step further and open the project to other institutions, families, and abroad»

We knew the work of a friendly NGO in Senegal and we intended to expand the development of the project when Voz Natura program proposed to dedicate the project to the care of  the forests. We put our idea in common with the students from kindergarten and primary and began a search for information that led us to the Great Green Wall Initiative of Sahara and Sahel. We wanted to participate in that initiative.

We presented it to the school management who enthusiastically supported the idea that we had been thinking about some time. Then we got in touch with the NGO Ecodesarrollo Gaia to analyse the viability. We finally presented it to the Voz Natura program while we were developing the “Abuela Pepa” project, which was actually awarded.

What is the Great Green Wall Project about?

The Great Green Wall consists on the participation in the construction of a forest strip that prevents the Sahara extends to the south in Senegal, and the documentation and dissemination activities to raise awareness of the global implications of climate change and the power that people, especially the younger ones, have to reverse it.

«The Great Green Wall consists on the participation in the construction of the forest strip that prevents the Sahara extends to the south in Senegal»

Its main objectives are, firstly, to fight against the climate change by participating in the initiative for the Great Green Wall in the Sahara and Sahel. It is an African initiative against climate change, desertification and poverty through interventions focused on the development of rural areas. Among these interventions there is the plantation of a valley that prevents the desert from spreading, the creation of rural schools, the so-called polyvalent orchards, and the forage banks.

A second goal is to educate the school community about climate change, taking into account that it is a global problem. For example, we can protect our forests in Galicia participating in the construction of the Great Wall or giving up using single-use plastics.

«There is the plantation of a valley that prevents the desert from spreading, the creation of rural schools, the so-called polyvalent orchards, and the forage banks.»

A third goal is to educate by imitating the adult model in the active citizenship, this is, empowering students and the rest of the school community, making them realize not only about their power to make a change through their actions, but also about that there are no limits when it comes to developing their ideas, just difficulties.

«Our goal is to make our students realize that they can make a change through their actions, but also that there are no limits when it comes to developing their ideas, just difficulties.»

The project is directed to the whole school community but we found that the most participative ones were the students from the kindergarten, primary, secondary, the ones from the Job Training Course in Early Childhood Education, and the families. It has been a very significant project that has catched the attention of the entire community as we intended, although the pragmatism of the Bachelor or other job training courses prevented their involvement was more intense.

In this aspect, it also influences that in the stages of kindergarten, primary and secondary education, Voz Natura Project is offered as an extracurricular activity, so there are groups of students who perform tasks every week.

Regarding the teachers it happened the same. There has been more involvement in kindergarten, primary and secondary school teachers, although I would say that all the teachers have participated in some way.

For example, the French teacher in Secondary offered to teach us some basic lessons in French, which is the official language in Senegal, which almost the whole team attended with great interest among students, especially among the youngest ones. Family involvement was also intense especially in those stages.

At the school we have implemented the one to one system, consisting of one Apple Ipad device per student. During the trip, to increase the engagement, we connected via Facetime with all the students, and the following days we made a live connection as a travel log through our Youtube channel, which all the students followed with great interest.

«The French teacher in Secondary offered to teach us some basic lessons in French, which is the official language in Senegal, which almost the whole team attended with great interest.»

The trip to Senegal lasted eight days and due to the long weekend only three of those days were «school days». During those days the families helped their children to connect and follow the travel diary. They had already participated with enthusiasm in the campaigns to collect school material and sanitary material, and although the flow of information was constant through circulars, emails and our Natura Apolonia blog, the families were insistently demanding information. As only a few could travel to Senegal, everybody wanted to participate in whatever they could.

Ecodesarrollo Gaia and in particular Guillermo Fernández Obanza García and Cristina López Rodríguez were a great help. They were in charge of the organization of all the activities in Senegal and were a great source of knowledge. We could say that this institution was the biggest collaborator, actually, it was not so much a collaboration than a dependency: without them we would not have been able to develop the project.

«During those days the families helped their children to connect and follow the travel diary. They had already participated with enthusiasm in the campaigns to collect school material and sanitary material, and although the flow of information was constant they were insistently demanding information.»

We achieve to involve a few companies who helped us financially or with the donations, although the largest budget allocation for travel, lodging, maintenance and travel of the team of volunteers was responsibility of the members of the expedition who paid all these expenses.

It is also remarkable the uninterested participation of a group of companies attracted by the cooperators of the job training courses who demonstrated a great capacity for reaction and a great proactive attitude: Merino San Lazaro, Grupo Maquisaba Santa Comba, and Maquisaba Logístics, Tinta Negra Combarro, Ana Equivalenza , Club Patinaxe Sarela, Papelería Xaquín, University Residence of Lugo, Official School of Languages ​​of Lugo and IES Lucus Augusti.

«The largest budget allocation for travel, lodging, maintenance and travel  was responsibility of the members of the expedition who paid all these expenses.»

All these contributions deserve to be highlighted, but let me tell you the case of one of them as curiosity.

Some participants in the campaign to collect school supplies acquired these supplies in Santiago in Xaquín Stationery. When they realized that those supplies were destined for this collection campaign, the owner automatically made a discount. Later, when I told this story in a radio interview in Radio Voz, the interviewer herserf recognized that Xaquín stationer had done it more times in the past with similar initiatives.

What is Voz Natura program about? What kind of activities or projects are part of the program?

As I mentioned, Voz Natura is the environmental education program of la «Voz of Galicia», and its main goal is to raise awareness and involve the school community in the recovery and defence of nature in the region of Galicia.

It has celebrated already 21 editions with participation of around 800,000 school children and 40,000 teachers, school workshops and environmental organizations can also take part. It started with less than 100 projects and currently more than 350 schools take part. It is undoubtedly the largest environmental education program in Galicia and its relevance has been recognized both nationally and internationally.

To take part, an environmental action project must be presented during the month of March, which should be preferably related to the topic that the program proposes for that school course, although it is not essential. These projects are evaluated by the scientific committee of the program and all those who meet the requirements are selected to participate.

During June the selected schools are given a small amount of funding to be used for the development of the project during the next year. Once the activities have been completed and the project is finished, a report is prepared and sent to be evaluated again by the scientific committee that chooses the winners.

And back in the month of June there is a party where all the projects are exhibited and the best ones are awarded. This party has an enormous educational value, because all the participants, thousands of people in a festive atmosphere, come together sharing the different experiences.

«There is a party where all the projects in the context of Voz Natura program are exhibited and the best ones are awarded. This party has an enormous educational value, because all the participants, thousands of people in a festive atmosphere, come together sharing the different experiences.»

Some of what we have done in relation to different projects are: river cleanings, beach cleanings, illegal landfill cleanups in the bush, brush cleaning for protection against fire, opening of firebreaks, clearing and documentation of old mills, bridges, laundries, etc., which form part of the ethnographic heritage, tree plantations, creation of school gardens, raising of birds in an incubator, formation of ecological patrols, construction of compost places, measures of energetic saving, transformation of the school for circular economy, census of wolves, construction of apiary, construction of a vertical garden in a nursing home … and this year, the construction of the Great Green Wall.

And then there is an infinity of less ambitious but necessary activities to achieve these others, such as the maintenance of all the previous projects, the different communications between institutions, the work at the school garden and the school farm, tasks of surveying and measuring of incubator eggs, waste measurement in the river water, maintenance of the Natura Apolonia school blog , dissemination work with posters, collection of materials, plastic expression to leave a mark of all the activities that serve us to remember and explain our project, withdrawal of honey from the hives. They are endless.

And taking about the curriculum, we give freedom to each teacher to integrate this center of interest in each curricular development. Due to the motivation of the students it is very simple.

In the Great Green Wall project more specifically, the tasks that we have been doing until the date of the trip are almost all related to the different campaigns that we undertook and with the search of information and organization of the trip. Also of course, those related to the maintenance of the previous projects.

Talking about the Great Green Wall project, which activities have you done before going to Senegal? We know that you started a crowdfunding campaign for the construction of a garden. How did you calculate what you needed? How did you promote it? Did you offer rewards for the donations? How did you distribute the tasks? 

In relation to the previous activities there is a before and after the formation of the cooperating team.

In order to achieve the goals proposed for the trip, the team had to meet specific characteristics in relation to number, age and participation.

We established that children under 16 years of age could not travel, that the total number of participants should be around fifteen, and that participation should be diverse and bring together family members, students, faculty, and care and service personnel . We also wanted all the educational stages to have representation because we looked for learning by modeling.

Once the team was organized, the activities were about organizing the trip, searching for information, collecting school supplies. sanitary materials and agricultural equipment, crowdfunding for the construction of the school garden, planning the activities, games and educational dynamics to develop in the different schools that we were going to visit, planning of the environmental activities, dissemination of the project and social networks, preparation of the live connections from Senegal, media production: planning, execution and editing.

«We wanted all the educational stages to have representation because we looked for learning by modeling.»

Previously we were focused on disseminating the project, looking for information and designing activities to develop during the trip. Once the team of co-workers was formed and the tasks were distributed, each one had to lead a team with other students even if they did not travel.

To give an example, the crowdfunding campaign to build a garden at the Coruña School in Senegal was designed by the children at kindergarten and primary after the visit of the director of that school, Aissatou Sylla. That activity was later shared by the team of cooperators and directed by Olga Montero, mother of two students from primary. However, the dissemination of the activity was responsibility of the students from secondary.

«The crowdfunding campaign to build a garden at the Coruña School in Senegal was designed by the children from kindergarten and primary.»

Aissatou complained that the goats, which roam freely down the streets in Yoff, had come into the school and had eaten all their flowers. At first the students saw it funny at first, but then they thought about what they could do to solve that.

First, they wanted to build an electric shepherd to prevent goats from entering the school, but then they realized it was not a good idea because it could give discharge to school children.

We decided then to build a garden and protect it with fences by putting a door for children’s access.

We estimated that we would need 600 euros, taking into account the prices we have here. And we spread the word among the educational community and through our social networks.

The students from the job training courses made their best and we reached 1000 euros of donations so we had to close the campaign abruptly. We gave that money directly to Coruña School as soon as we arrived. Aissatou herself participated in the purchase of plants and the distribution of them creating more of a escolar garden with aromatic plants to keep the flies, another major drawbacks.

In addition to the garden, you created a campaign to collect and donate school supplies and medicines. How did you organize, promote & execute the campaign?

There was a person from the team in charge of the campaigns for the collection of school material and sanitary material, but the whole team was involved, especially in the diffusion of the campaign.

We all contributed with ideas about where we could get donations. There were people who did the campaign in another city (Lugo), there were people who did it in their student residence and there were some who went door to door and pharmacy to pharmacy requesting donations and collecting them.

We set the logistic center at the school agora. We had also to limit the campaigns because people sent all kinds of material that we couldn’t take with us.

Of course these campaigns were also disseminated in the school and they had a great participation. We had already done this type of initiatives and the truth is that the population in general and our school community in particular always responded positively.

«We had to limit the collection campaigns because people sent all kinds of material that we couldn’t take with us.»

With the emails to the families, the social networking, the blog Natura Apolonia, and a radio interview I did in Radio Voz we got much more than what we could transport, which was around 250 kilos, and that’s only school material, since we took the medical material to the headquarters of Ecodesarrollo Gaia in Coruña. There they classified it and transported it with special permits to the school where they had also set up a medical clinic that serves many people who can not afford private medical attention.

«With the emails to the families, the social networking, the blog Natura Apolonia, and a radio interview I did in Radio Voz we got much more than what we could transport, which was around 250 kilos, and that’s only school material»

Can you tell us about the experience in Senegal? Which problems have you found that you did not expect? How have you solved them? In what activities have you participated? How has the relationship with the locals been? Any anecdote?

Once there in Yoff, a neighborhood on the suburbs of Dakar, the experience is absolutely enriching. There is no day since we returned that I don’t not say «when I was in Senegal …». The experience was very intense and the affective bonds we established are still strong are resistant. Nowadays we continue sharing love through the group chat.

Finally, the team was formed by Mito, a member of Ecodesarrollo Gaia and director of the expedition; Charo, the school director; Juan, deputy director; Kechu (that’s me), coordinator of the project and teacher at kindergarten and primary; Lourdes, mother of Paula, student from job training courses; Olga, mother of Matías and Ánxela from primary; Patricia, Carolina, Marta, Catuxa, Macarena, Laura and Paula, students from the job training courses; Marcelo and Nicolás, high school students .

The whole team agreed to note that the thing that impressed us most was the amazing welcome of the local people, people with so many needs, but happy and funny people in the end.

The people are amazing. Calm, peaceful, dialoguing. They come to you, they greet you, they chat for a while. And the same to each other. There does not seem to be any stress. But at the same time they are not unemployed. They are always in movement and in the street.

«The thing that impressed us most was the amazing welcome of the local people, people with so many needs, but happy and funny people in the end.»

Children are a separate chapter. You can see it in the video perfectly. Smiley faces, all day on the street playing football. I saw a soccer field where they were playing four games with their four balls and their eight teams all at the same time. Zero violence.

On the other hand, a thousand stories to tell.

We set up the school garden according to Aissatou Sylla’s requests, the director of the School.

We traveled to the heart of the Great Green Wall guided by Bukunta, a local religious leader. There we were welcomed by the head of Senegal, Colonel Waly Guéye, national director of the Great Green Wall, who gave us the welcome saying that we were the first spaniards to arrive.

He explained us the different activities included in the initiative, among them, the polyvalent gardens and the rural schools, places that we also visited and where we could participate by donating school stuff, stuff for the farm and planting species of citrics.

We enjoyed the teachings of Guillermo Fernández Obanza, Mito, who allowed us to participate in the activities of the NGO Ecodesarrollo Gaia, and took us to collaborate with different schools in which we were able to donate the school material.

In the middle of this, we met other cooperation projects, both local and foreign, and we had the opportunity to met first-hand the work of a teacher in terrorism matters from the ONU. Amazing.

«We met other cooperation projects, both local and foreign, and we had the opportunity to met first-hand the work of a teacher in terrorism matters from the ONU.»

We also visited a dump. One morning we decided to test the drone we took with us for doing the documentary, and it suddenly ran out of battery and fell into a large dump where we went looking for it. In the dump there were plastics and more plastics. There were also rats like dogs, and pigs eating in the trash. There were death bodies of animals and a group of cooperators looking for a drone.

«One morning we decided to test the drone we took with us for doing the documentary, and it suddenly ran out of battery and fell into a large dump»

It was harder to see the children who lived picking up remains of who knows what. That experience helped us to see a reality that it would not have transcended if the device had not fallen.

What is evaluated in a project with these characteristics?

The evaluation of this project, just like any other, is carried out taking into account the main goals established at the beginning.

Taking into account these goals, we define the evaluation criteria and then these criteria are transformed into indicators or rubrics that will tell us the level of acquisition of the objectives.

«The goals we initially thought are not enough to evaluate a project of these characteristics .»

It must be evaluated in global terms, for example if it has reached the whole educational community or if it has been remarkable, if it has made students aware of climate change or if the students have been able to make a connection between climate change and social inequalities.

And we must also take into account the co-evaluation and the self-evaluation.

I consider the self-evaluation really valuable in these kind of projects because most of the results will take time to materialize, but through self-evaluation you can check if you made a change in the awareness of students and the entire educational community.

However the project has been transformed as developed as noted in the documentary and the goals we initially thought are not enough to evaluate a project of these characteristics .

«Through self-evaluation  you can check if you made a change in the awareness of students and the entire educational community.»

Moreover, it started as an environmental project and I would now define it as educational, social and environmental, so the goals also have to be redefined.

Do you feel that this experience has been transformative for your students? How?

Look, that’s susceptible to being evaluated. Yes absolutely.

Without any doubt it has been a transformative experience for those who travelled to Senegal, but I believe that not only for the students, but also for the whole educational community. The significance of this project is very intense. And if it has been transformative for me, it will also be for all those who have interacted with me, mainly my students.

«It has been a transformative experience not only for the students, but also for the whole educational community.»

Perhaps the deepest transformation is that of eliminating the mental barriers of the «I Can’t», which is great step forward. But I like to think that the people are also more aware that the earth is sick and it is because of human action, which also causes brutal social inequality.

Somehow we are part of a sick and blind society, and my impression is that we have had the opportunity to open our eyes.

Which has been the best part of the experience? What do you think that could be improved?

A very curious thing happened to me during the trip. As coordinator of the project, I was very aware of the group and the development of the project. I was in “teacher mode” and unconsciously I was a bit emotionally closed. I saw the reality of what was happening and analysed it but it did not impact me very much.

It happened to me when I got back home that day by day I woke up. This is why for me, the best part of the experience was the group we formed itself and the people we met.

Living with Mito is a luxury. He is a wise man. Bukunta is amazing too. Charo and Aissatou are really courageous and Lourdes and Olga are absolutely brilliant.

«The best part of the experience was the group we formed itself and the people we met.»

The girls from the job training courses are machines. The youngest ones, the high school students, put the fun!

Juan, the person in charge of the video has at least two outstanding talents, one is audio-visual communication.

And me, as you can see, I’m a fucking charlatan, and even then, I think there is nothing that we could improve. Of course I would change nothing.

For more information visit the blog of the project.

Author

I am a telecommunications engineer, teacher in innovative education and freelance filmmaker questioning not the "Why?" but the "Why not?" in every aspect of life. Since 2017 I travel the world looking for stories worth telling.

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