What is the Point of All This Heroism?

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This blog was originally posted on SIL Lead on May 3, 2022

That’s a big title right there, and a question with an oversized philosophical pedigree. Especially considering that what we’re going to talk about in this post isn’t philosophy at all… it’s a relatively small literacy program in the Western province of Papua New Guinea (PNG), a country that many people probably couldn’t even circle on a map. Bear with us, though.

Koen de Hartogh is not a hero in the traditional, Western sense. There are no statues erected in his name. No banquets feting him. No ticker tape parades.

In fact, it’s highly likely that Koen would be baffled that we’ve described him as a hero at all—especially in this context. He is, after all, merely one member of a seven person team that includes three United Statesicans, two from PNG, and two from the Netherlands: a diverse group of talented IT workers, educators, and Koen’s illustrator wife.

This is clearly no “Fellowship of the Ring.”

There isn’t a broadsword-wielding wizard among them.

And yet…

It’s easy enough to take a page from Tolkien when we talk about the work this team does, because the odds have certainly been stacked against them—especially on our recent collaboration, the YUMI Read project with All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development (ACR GCD), a partnership between USAID, World Vision, and the Australian Government.

Let’s back up, though, to how Koen came to be a part of that project.

In his pre-Papua New Guinean life, Koen had worked in IT, programming software for schools. Although he came to Ukarumpa in PNG to work for SIL as a math teacher, he soon switched to Literacy and Scripture use. He had a blast making Gospel music recordings in local languages, but before too long was promoted (against his will—as is common with heroes) to regional director. When a local lawyer said to him, “Koen, PNG needs some fresh input in the world of e-learning,” Koen started “Education for Life.” Seven years in the making, Education for Life has served a number of national projects, where big groups like UNICEF and Save the Children contracted Koen’s group to create digital books that could then be easily shared in remote corners of P.N.G. via smartphones, and with solar powered projector kits that Koen’s team had developed.

When ACR GCD put out a call for e-learning ideas that would also benefit the disabled children of Papua New Guinea, Save the Children invited Koen’s group to their planning meetings as they developed a proposal to revisit the successes of their previous collaboration—this time in the remote Western Province of PNG.

The experience that the whole team–Save the Children, SIL LEAD, Callan Services National Unit (CSNU), The PNG Assembly for Disabled Persons (PNG-ADP), and Education for Life–brought to that proposal proved to be enough to win the challenge, and the YUMI Read project was born.

“Yumi” means “we” in the local language of Tok Pisin, putting a local spin on a project that everyone involved knew would face some very real, very localized challenges. Although the plan was to load the books our SIL collaborators were creating onto SD cards that could then be used with smart phones in conjunction with solar projector kits, people in the extremely rural Western Province that they were targeting tended to use what they called “one bang” or “dumb” phones. With nothing to take the SD cards, Save the Children was forced to shift strategies and began distributing smart phones as well.

So what does any of this have to do with heroes, and Lord of the Rings?

Well, Save the Children knew before they started that they would be facing an uphill battle. And Koen and his team knew that distribution would be a major issue. But as Save the Children had said from the outset, they knew that if they had even a little success providing e-learning in a region with such challenges for distribution, that they could have success anywhere.

And not only did they have some success, but FIVE HUNDRED AND FOURTEEN accessible Bloom books have been rebranded, bundled and tagged (for tracking usage by teacher and students) for the project under a creative commons license. These books are now in the Bloom library. In addition, 20 new local stories have been developed in collaboration with the vision and hearing impaired communities in PNG, which will be available on the Bloom library soon!. 

The world seems full of problems right now.

Real problems.

HUGE problems.

Valley full of angry, violent orcs-sized problems.

So, what do you do against such problems? You ride out to meet them. One book at a time.

Because of malaria, deafness is the most common disability in Papua New Guinea. And on this project, Koen and his team were able, for the very first time, to run a workshop with Papua New Guinean blind and deaf people. They were able to learn from them, and to incorporate their intelligent insight into creating effective, useful materials for their own communities. The project benefited from their enthusiasm for the Bloom app, and with their help the team was able to create books that analytics show have already been used in ninety-one countries around the world.

It would be easy to focus on the challenges of the ACR GCD YUMI project, and on the bare metrics of distribution. But that would be to ignore the fact that progress was made. Books were created.

Change can happen all at once, in sweeping events with noticeable players.

But mostly it happens incrementally, through the small actions of every day heroes like Koen and his team. People who hope and believe that every new book is a step in the right direction.

This is the sort of action that really matters.

This is how we change the world.

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