Swaying Change by Relinquishing Control
“We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche
There’s nothing quite as tasty as fresh water when you’re dehydrated. We were standing under the hot, dry Kenyan sky, sharing a bottle of water while we examined a rather simple construction we just finished: an improvised water dispenser made of wood, a plastic bottle, and two cords now standing on this school ground. “It’s called a teepee-toppie, you know, from English: tip it up!” my Kenyan colleague explained to me. I liked this thing; it’s a smart low-tech solution that lets you pour clean water on your hands without having to touch anything (but the soap). Diarrhea is a major killer in this water-scarce area, which is particularly sad because it’s so easily preventable with basic hygiene measures.
Now my gaze gravitated towards the group of teachers and pupils who were approaching us. They were going to test if our device worked. I was getting a little excited; hopefully, it would not crumble at first touch. It didn’t. They tried it, one after another, both kids and adults. While I was relieved that our construction was stable, a new anxiety emerged: nearly no one was washing their hands properly. They were barely getting their hands wet and then gently touched the soap, instead of rubbing it onto to their hands. If at all, they were merely adding a homeopathic dose of soap to the water. If this is how most would use the device, our entire efforts to save at least some of the 2,200 children worldwide who die of diarrheal diseases every day were worthless. Just installing hardware without looking at the knowledge, attitudes, and practices was clearly absurd. It was time to find a way to get people to adopt handwashing practices that are worth the effort. But how? I had already tried in vain to teach my nephew the art of hand washing, and now here I was, silly enough to think I would succeed in a different culture on a much larger scale…
Back in the offices of the aid organisation, I started talking to various people in the team about my concern. Luckily, the problem was so palpable that everyone felt the real need for change. But how could we get people to wash their hands not only more often but also in the right way? We knew that we wanted to focus on the children because there’s the belief that change happens through them: they would bring whatever they learn at school into their homes and will motivate their parents and grandparents to follow suit. Children as agents of change—I had no idea if this was sensible, but the thought was charming. But how would we best reach them? The first solutions that came to mind were as obvious as they were boring: put up signs, give lectures, etc.
The quest for a good solution kept occupying my mind while we were out in the community to advance other projects. On one occasion we were greeted by a group of pupils who had prepared a dance for us. Dances in this region, so I learned, served not just the function of building a community but also as a vessel to convey important cultural information. It took awhile for me to connect the dots: what we needed was a hand wash dance! It was actually something I had seen before at a medical conference in Geneva, where European doctors and nurses performed a “hand rub dance” to motivate their colleagues to be more rigorous with their hand washing practices.
Back in the camp, I proposed the idea of doing a Kenyan version of this hand wash dance to the NGO’s team, and I instantly won a group of enthusiastic volunteers among them. One girl went on to create a draft for the lyrics, while a man started to flesh out the choreography. A Swiss volunteer (a firefighter back home) agreed to record the final dance with the sophisticated filming kit he brought along, and another (a child animator back home) was ready to support the dance practice. Before I knew it, the team had already contacted a local school that instantly promised to send us a group of teenagers who volunteered to dance. I was quite excited.
Then the students arrived. Five girls, five boys; different ages. All shy and somewhat intimidated. The first attempts were awfully awkward: the kids were really uncomfortable as they seemed stuck in a conundrum between the fear of embarrassing themselves by playing along and the shame of disappointing their teachers—and us. I felt the need to do something, so I walked up to the group and gave an impromptu speech. I spoke about the bigger picture, the children and elderly dying from avoidable diseases and how they could make a difference because the younger kids looked up to them. I illustrated the opportunity they now had to spread the word across all Swahili-speaking communities. Needless to say, that only made things worse! All the enthusiasm that built up in the team just hit a massive brick wall when we saw how discomforted these teenagers were. They danced anyways, most likely because they struggled to say no, at least that’s what their body language suggested. I was just starting to think that we should abandon this when suddenly younger kids approached our pupil dancers and began to copy what they were doing. Suddenly, my motivational speech wasn’t that unhelpful anymore because these kids just proved me right, which got the teenagers increasingly excited and trusting. I knew that I could lay back from now on. That was the tipping point.
I now realised that the more I put my idea into their hands and relinquished ownership, the more they could make it their own and let it grow. All I had to do now was to make sure that no hand washing movement was missed in the choreography, so I showed up less frequently during their practice over the next days. They kept improving it and had more and more fun. After a few days, I heard their singing voices ring through the NGO’s premises. That gave me chills. It felt like throwing a rock into water and marveling at the waves as they run across the lake. They now had adapted my idea into something that was meaningful to them. We were ready for the recording.
The next day we filmed the dance in several locations. We decided to do the last shoot at our dancers’ school. When we got there, we found ourselves rapidly surrounded by dozens of children who wanted to join the dance. And so they did. I was breathless. The next day our Swiss cameraman took a walk through the community to take some more pictures of the villages. He got greeted by young kids performing the hand wash dance. Admittedly, they didn’t quite get the choreography right, but clearly, they did get the message.
I know that no single intervention will change a system. And I can’t prove that the dance reduced the number of infections in the community. But it certainly was a felt experience that left an emotional impression with many of us. Many of the volunteers and teachers were moved by the children’s’ reaction and we bonded strongly with our dancing crew. As I discovered later, there are actually many creative hand wash dances on the internet, so more people seem to have been convinced by the idea. For me, it taught me that meaningful change can only happen when you have a team of co-creators that spread the word. And that team needs to consist of the people who will have to bear the change. It has to be made of local heroes who understand how your vision translates in the context of their reality.
They will become the agents of change of an idea in which they believe as much as you. I learned that the idea could only grow if I would let it go and let others shape it. Later on, I was told that schools started running hand washing dance contests and a local radio channel promised to broadcast the song. I am still in touch with some members of the NGO. The man who co-developed the song and choreography wrote me later that he wanted to do more with music and even started a band in Nairobi. Change, it seems, affects us in many ways. Let’s conclude with Alan Watts, who tells us that “the only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”
Let’s rock on.