Experiencing foreign cultures is hard enough for the most privileged of us but the Safarni initiative manages to take the children of Ard El Lewa on mind-opening journeys that don't require a visa...
In a country with one of the world’s highest illiteracy rates, lack of fine education and a large percentage of the population falling below the poverty line, it is inevitable that we worry about the minds of our kids and the future of our upcoming generations. We live in a time where it is critical to move forward and nourish the seeds of the future population. A few of us are privileged enough to have access to quality education and worldly exposure, but most of us are not.
An idea was sprouted in the mind of Raphaelle Ayach four years ago, whilst living in Spain and studying Arabic. Socially sensitive Ayach realised that many of the “people who had negative opinions about each other had never sat down with the other to listen to them or hear their story,” and with her love for the Arabic culture and a strong emotional pull towards it, she decided to journey to Egypt for her language studies and eventually begin the interesting initiative, Safarni, which aims to replace judgment with critical thinking in the minds of our young generations.
Ayach’s initiative provides fun methods of cultural learning and a ticket to a more open mind to children who in their lifetime will probably not be fortunate enough to experience foreign cultures first hand. “In Egypt’s revolutionary times, it’s even more crucial to have such mind-opening initiatives,” believes Ayach who takes the children she works with on imaginary journeys to other nations, teaching them about the languages, lifestyles, foods and famous figures of their destinations.
“We're living in a world that's becoming more and more globalised, but, for most of the world, intercultural contact takes place in a distant sense. We get an idea of other cultures through media and through what people we know say, but very few people actually get a chance to experience the culture hands on. Everything we don't [know] holds a sense of fear and/or disdain.”
Due to the lack of cultural exposure and knowledge most of Egypt’s population faces, opinions are formed and judgments are made without any critical thinking. Narrow-mindedness is a weakness that we cannot afford, and that’s why Safarni aims to educate our young ones with hands-on learning about the world outside Egypt.
“When we witness other cultures or ways of living we accept that our way is not necessarily the only way, nor the right way...and that maybe there isn't even a right or wrong. There's just different. We need to replace judgment and fear with a real interest to listen to each other and interact genuinely, even if we come from different places or perspectives.”
Even the teaching methods implemented at Safarni are carefully strategised in order to optimise the mind-opening experience. For example, the use of judgmental words such as “bad”, “3eib” or “we7esh” are discouraged at the center, and kids are instead encouraged to utilize other adjectives such as “mokhtalef” or “gedid” to describe differences. Additionally, kids are urged to critically think about instructions given rather than following them blindly.
The initiative takes place at cultural centre Artellewa, founded by Hamdi Reda, an big supporter of Ayach’s approach. Ard El Lewa residents between ages five and 15 are invited to come and “experience foreign culture hands on, by eating, singing, playing and dancing.”
Despite some of the solid support the Safarni receives, it is also confronted with skepticism. Some Egyptian adults have questioned the method of teaching at the initiative, suggesting that “these kids are only coming to have fun! They’re not learning anything, only having fun!” to which Ayach responds: “the children are coming because they are having fun? Great! Mission accomplished!” Ayach firmly believes that this type of thinking “comes from a misguided understanding that education, to be educational, must involve sitting, listening and memorising,” the standard, traditional type of learning Safarni opposes. The project alternatively promotes “learning organically from the heart,” and to do so one must have fun whilst learning. Family support is extremely important to Ayach, as parental influence on a child’s mind is colossal, and for this reason Safarni is looking to make family days where parents come along and participate in the adventure with their children.
It is not just the kids who benefit from the Safarni initiative. Raphaelle Ayach finds the experience as equally rewarding for her, claiming that “[her] version of Egypt is probably very different than the children of Ard El Lewa’s, and it is their version that is real and that interests me.”
According to Ayach, many of the kids who have taken part in the initiative had “never seen a map before, or even if they had, none of them knew how to use it or even locate Egypt on it.” Whereas the project started with more of an emphasis on learning something different rather than having fun, Ayach quickly found that the “fun” methods of learning had the kids running back to the map, eager to learn more. Currently, Safarni is collaborating with a school in Canada, making pen pal videos from the kids on both sides. The light-hearted, humorous videos involve the kids speaking about their own and each other’s cultures and are heart-warming to watch.
The Safarni initiative is a fresh and inspiring approach to educating Egypt’s young minds about the world outside Egypt. Through the enjoyable learning methods, the kids are being equipped with essential tools for life, such as critical thinking and using an open mind to perceive our differences.