When Grand Manan English teacher Robert Griffin began a doctoral program in distance education, he had no idea what life‑changing adventures it would lead to, for himself and for people thousands of miles away. Today, his research has grown into a project that is benefiting families in Guinea, a west African country, and Griffin has developed a fascination with a country and a people.
He began his PhD studies in 2008 with Canada's first online doctoral program through the University of Athabasca. He is the only one of the 13 students working abroad. With a thesis on distance education and women's health literacy in a rural developing country, he initially planned to introduce high school or college courses. He says "it never dawned on me" that the people might instead need basic education on sanitation and health.
While looking for an organization and country to partner with, he was approached by acquaintance Ken Keirstead of Group Lyceum, a private New Brunswick consulting company and community development organization. The organization's mission is to enact development projects driven by local demand, utilizing indigenous staff and addressing needs of disadvantaged rural people. The company focuses on the Republic of Guinea and had just opened a clinic in the village of Dominghia, near the coast. It was to be a polio vaccine clinic, but Griffin says, "As soon as the word 'clinic' was attached to it, people came with everything -- malaria, typhoid, cholera, dysentery." The focus of the facility changed from vaccination to providing health care. They were "inundated with patients," and the need for basic information on hygiene became apparent. Griffin describes "a huge cholera epidemic" in 2012, which the government's medical system could not handle. The only recourse was to isolate people on an island in a river, "and count how many died." People who went to the new clinic received care, and the question became how to educate them about things like separating latrines and drinking water. "They thought [washing] was a white man's quirk," Griffin says. "There was no health literacy; kids just get sick and die. They have large numbers of children, hoping that a few of them will live."
His idea was to work with local doctors to create a series of videos on disease: "This is what it is; this is how you get it; this is how you prevent it." They added one on maternal care because many women die in childbirth. In four isolated villages with no running water, no electricity, no wireless services and mostly illiterate people who speak only the native Sousou, Griffin decided to offer the videos on iPad Minis powered by solar panels. "The doctors did an excellent job with the material." There were logistical problems to work out with the recordings, but once the iPads were presented, he was amazed at how quickly the women learned to use technology they had never seen before. "They're like my kids," he says. "It's intuitive. They can pick out a file, run it. Now [the project] is scalable."
The exchange of cultural knowledge has been mutual. Griffin has learned a lot as well. "Nothing happens in Guinea without permission," he says. "You must go through proper channels. There's a protocol, and I had to be well versed before meetings." On his first visit in August 2012, he met the country's vice president of transition, whose job is to help modernize government services, as well as ministers of health and education, a prefect, who is the equivalent of a provincial premier, and get approval from all. Next came the district chief, and the chiefs and elders of each village. Proper meeting protocol dictates getting acquainted, inquiring about the weather and the health of one's family and "talking about everything else for an hour" before introducing one's purpose. All was done through at least a couple of translators. "They asked good questions" about the project. "You can't impose Western ideas and expect them to be embraced," he points out. "[Asking] what they want and need, and asking permission, has stood me in good stead."
In March he returned with sample videos and solar panels to give the people a chance to look things over, and last month he went to set the program up. "The whole process was interesting," he says. Each village got a light bulb. "Where do you put the only light bulb in a village?" He describes "10 men around a tree, where they hold their council meetings, discussing where to put it." All the light bulbs ended up at the chiefs' houses, but all were put outside where everyone could see them.
The first step will be to see if the videos help women to understand basic sanitation; the second will be to see if they change their behaviour. He says it will take a few years to see the results. A local assistant is monitoring the project. He plans to return to Guinea in either December or March, depending on how many women have had a chance to see the videos during their busy planting season. Then, in town meetings with the chiefs and elders, doctors will give the women a sort of oral exam about what they've learned. They will also provide some data to the health department on whether sickness has been reduced.
"I think the government is doing a good job of bringing the country into the 21st century," he adds, describing improvements in the capital of Conakry, a city of three million which has had no electricity. "I'm seeing change just in the year I've been going. I find the politics fascinating."
So too are the people. "I've really become hooked on history. They like showing you things in their village. Their history is very well preserved and very much in their minds," he says, relating tales of landmarks dating from slaving days, missionaries and a mystical "transporting rock" which "hasn't worked since white men came." He admires their enterprising spirit and natural talent. His preconceived stereotype of "lazy Africans" was quickly proven wrong. Given opportunity, "they can fix anything, make anything out of nothing. They have pride in their work and want to learn how [to] do it properly." While he sees similarities to Grand Manan in community spirit and villagers' care of one another, he's also been educated in some cultural nuances that prevented him from being taken advantage of on more than one occasion.
Griffin's students have also benefited from his research. In a Grade 7 class on government they discussed empowerment, using Guinea as an example. He wants them to appreciate what they have. For example, many of their Guinean counterparts can't afford school.
Meanwhile, he has shared his project with the local community and received "overwhelming generosity" from Grand Mananers. Students held a fundraising concert and dinner. The local Rotary branch -- an organization highly respected in Guinea -- is contributing, and many private donations have come in. He says, "Islanders are extremely generous, not only in our own community but in projects such as this." About $75,000, raised locally and through Group Lyceum, will see the polio clinic transformed into a 10‑room hospital. They have finished the walls and roof, cistern and septic system, and this fall they will be raising money to complete the interior and provide solar power and a well.
Griffin is now on Group Lyceum's advisory committee. He has won a number of teaching and other awards, is a founding Grand Manan Rotary member and has served in a number of community organizations. He has a new lease on life following open‑heart surgery in 2010. "I probably shouldn't have survived," he says. "I don't know where this [research] will lead. I feel I was meant to do it and it's important."