agenda by Zosia Swidlicka

reading time 6 minutes

Adama Sanneh, the co-founder of the Moleskine Foundation lays out his vision for a new kind of education for all.

Dans Ce.. 2016, © Siaka Soppo Traoré. Courtesy Galerie MAM

With a background and interests that defy pigeon-holing, Adama Sanneh has spent his life championing knowledge and creativity as the tools for social change. As co-founder of the Moleskine Foundation, he wants to inspire a new generation of creative thinkers, with a special focus on Africa.

He refers to the Foundation as an “unconventional space (or reality) that aims to foster critical thinking and creative doing in areas of need, and beyond”. Sharing these common values with the Moleskine brand, they operate in complete independence from the company, passionately championing the right to quality education for all.

Adama Sanneh, photo by Luca Dimoon

Where did your professional journey begin?
My interest in International Development was first peaked after graduation, while volunteering at a small orphanage in Tanzania. With a little bit of luck, and a little bit of resourcefulness, I got a job at an emergency relief NGO in East Uganda. Things were going well, and I ended up opening an office in another country, taking it from 3 employees to 40 in a few years. It was a tough training ground, but an incredible experience.

WikiAfrica Education, African School for Excellence, Johannesburg, South Africa, photo by Siphosihle Mkhwanazi

What caused you to move away from the classic NGO model and explore alternative methods?
I always held a critical gaze towards international development. Of course, I can’t speak for the whole field, but I questioned the personal path I had been on and whether the approach had been the right one. Especially towards the end, I felt that there was something inefficient here. I was reaching all my goals, and I could see that the work we were doing in water sanitation, food security and those kinds of classic solutions was even saving lives, but that positive outcome didn’t always translate into positive impact. In the context of Uganda of the time, I think the work we did also carried the risk of slowing down and taking responsibility away from the government to invest in that area and fix up the problems there. This kind of thinking is nothing new, but I lived it, and it made me ask myself; what is the right approach?

AtWork Kampala Chapter 03 workshop 2015, photo by Clare McLay

How did you go about discovering different approaches and forming your own ideas for change?
After declining an offer at SOAS to complete one MBA followed by an MPA, I started working for the UN at the World Intellectual Property Organization. This gave me a totally different perspective and showed me the possibilities of uniting public and private sectors to bring about social change. So when I met the team at Moleskine and what was then called lettera27, it was a natural step. Being able to meet and work with such great intellectuals, including the founders of Moleskine, was a huge privilege and added another dimension to my experience to date.

AtWork Lisbon Chapter 08 workshop 2017, photo by Herberto Smith

Can you give some examples of projects that have been particularly successful, or you personally enjoyed
A project we did in N’Djamena in Chad springs to mind. We brought our AtWork format to the National Museum there; the first programme to take place there in years. So little was offered to young people to develop their skills that they were a bit disorientated at first. We worked with a small group to reactivate the space and give ownership over it back to them. The most rewarding aspect was not the end result, but the process the students went on to get there. The workshop sparked an unexpected dialogue. Taboo topics such as sexuality, identity and politics came up organically in a non-confrontational way. We had created an intimate environment and a safe space where students felt able to express their opinions. One of our mentors, Simon Njami puts it very well: “We have nothing to teach them; only to extract the light inside them”.

Are there any challenges you face, teaching new ways of thinking in communities where openness is limited?
It’s a constant struggle for us all to deal with; that of self-improvement, wherever we are in the world. But when a student succeeds to take the first step and open their mind, it’s difficult to describe the feeling you get. We recently received a letter from a workshop participant, who told us how the process had helped her realise that she wasn’t crazy after all, but just a sensitive free-spirited person, and that she understood now that knowledge is the tool to a better life, according to her own criteria.

I think a big problem is the way in which impact tends to be measured. I really think we need to evolve from a purely solutions-based approach. It’s not as simple as just ‘fixing’ something broken. I believe in conversation. If we enlarge the dialogue and inject it with the right tools and experiences, we can co-create a true exchange which eliminates the third party approach, benefiting all parties in equal measure.

AtWork Abidjan Chapter 02 notebooks exhibition , 2014, photo by Lucio Lazzara

Why is the work you do so important today, and what makes it so relevant on a global scale?
The wonderful thing is that a few years ago, talking about empathy and unconventional education, you would have been branded a hippy. Now, it’s the UN which is putting it on the global agenda, making quality education one of the Sustainable Development Goals. This is the proof we needed that we are living in the era of creativity. Think back to what you learned at school. Much of the hard skills and linear thinking that was on the curriculum then is now totally irrelevant. As technological innovation continues to outrun social development, the need for soft skills becomes more and more crucial. Critical thinking, empathy, creativity: these are the most important things we can teach our youth today.

But it’s not just a one-way relationship. Education lets you witness someone taking a step towards a different level of consciousness. It forces you to confront a human being as a human being, not as a beneficiary. It is an exchange: I always learn something about myself in the process.

AtWork Kampala Chapter 03 workshop, 2015, photo by Solomon Okurut

What’s on the horizon for the future?
We are about to relaunch a project that goes way back, WikiAfrica. Stemming from the idea that knowledge is the basis of everything, it aims to increase the quality and quantity of information on the internet about Africa. There’s more info on Wikipedia on Switzerland than there is on Africa! As part of the relaunch, we’re bringing together 60 – 70 educators for a teacher training session on how to use Wikipedia in the classroom. We hope to inspire them to in turn empower their students to produce their own content, and make them realise that they can be the ones to transform their reality. Africa is where innovation will come. Where new models of society and thinking will come. This will allow us to adapt to different communities, each with its own complexities. We don’t do this only to create leaders of the future, but to produce conscious citizens in the creativity era. It’s a new level of literacy.

How can people reading this get involved in your work?
We have a membership programme that lets people get closer to our activities. You can also donate to specific projects you want to support through our website, and of course sharing our stories and experiences on social media always helps. But we are still at the beginning of our journey, so we are always looking for new energy and ideas from all over. A hundred percent of the money we receive goes directly to finance transformative and unconventional educational initiatives for youth in communities affected by cultural and social deprivation.

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