Moussa Gadio

This paper focuses on the philosophy of social transformation of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire as depicted in an educational project in the Manankoro community in the South of Mali (West Africa) using the Reflect approach. The purpose of the paper is to demonstrate that social transformation as conceptualized by Freire took place in that community. It briefly presents the Reflect approach and the way it is linked to Freire’s thoughts. It then describes and discusses the project, its activities and outcomes in relation to Freire’s philosophy.

Reflect and Social Transformation in the South of Mali

Reflect Approach: Origin and Link with Freire’s Philosophy of Social Transformation

The term Reflect was originally an acronym. It meant “Regenerated Freirean Literacy through Empowering Community Techniques – REFLECT” (Chambers, 1997, p. 121). The term then evolved to stand just as a concept, “Reflect.” It was first developed by the British organization ActionAid in 1993 through pilot projects that were implemented in Uganda (Africa), Bangladesh (Asia), and El Salvador (Central America). Ever since, the Reflect approach to community development and social change has become one of the most widespread approaches used across the world. If the Reflect approach is widely used, part of the reason lies in its underlying principles.

The Reflect approach has two main pillars: the educational principles of Freire’s social transformation philosophy and the Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) method. Archer and Cottingham (1996) noted that

“the Reflect approach seeks to build on the theoretical framework developed by the Brazilian Paulo Freire, but provides a practical methodology by drawing on Participatory Rural Appraisal techniques”. (Abstract)

Building on Freire, Reflect focused on several elements of his philosophy, mainly the issues of dialogue, conscientization, and literacy through codification and decodification. Dialogue was the baseline of the co-learning he encouraged between teachers and learners. The issue of consciousness raising that would lead oppressed people to be aware of their situation and take action was also taken into consideration and was favored by dialogue. Codification and decodification were in relation with dialogue between learners and aspects of their learning environment which leads to literacy, whereby learners decode and read their world. Merriam, Caffarella, and Baumgartner (2007) pointed out that Freire used conscientization to promote literacy, an aspect that is also important in the Reflect approach.

Freire’s ideas inspired the Reflect approach at several levels. Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA), which appears as the second pillar of the Reflect approach, also happened to have been inspired by Freire. Archer and Cottingham (1996) noted that

“Chambers is the key figure behind Participatory Rural Appraisal, having written and trained extensively. He has often spoken of the origins of Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) and refers to Paulo Freire’s work on dialogue and conscientization as one of the central influences”. (p. 8)

PRA was also about community-driven change and transformation. After years of top-down approaches, whereby learners were very poorly involved in the learning process in the knowledge banking concept of Freire, PRA was meant to bring another dimension of learning which was more learner-driven.

Describing PRA, Chambers (1994) noted that

“the more developed and tested methods of PRA include participatory mapping and modeling, transect walks, matrix scoring, well-being grouping and ranking, seasonal calendars, institutional diagramming, trend and chance analysis, and analytical diagramming all undertaken by local people”. (p. 1253)

Therefore, PRA could simultaneously be used for several purposes. It allows the involvement of community members in the process of learning and development. It uses and values local assets and knowledge. Through PRA, community members learn through themselves, and they learn by doing. Archer and Cottingham (1996) argued that “PRA techniques have been applied to broad appraisals, to detailed diagnoses of health needs or local agriculture, but they have not been applied in the past in literacy programs” (p. 8). This junction between PRA and literacy has been achieved through the Reflect approach.

A Reflect activity has two main components. The first part is the construction of graphics and discussion. According to Archer and Cottingham (1996),

“each unit starts with the construction of a map, matrix, calendar or diagram. These are constructed on the ground using whatever materials are available locally – sticks, stones, seeds or beans”. (p. 12)

This is done in a participatory manner. The tool is discussed and reported from ground to paper, and participants start to put words on the chart. That phase is the beginning of the second part which deals with the introduction to literacy. The group using Reflect is called a Reflect circle, which is inspired by the term “culture circles” as used by Freire (2007). The Reflect approach is widespread in the world, as around 500 organizations now use it in at least 70 countries. It is promoted through regional networks on each continent. The African network which is based in Uganda is known as Pamoja. An international network known as “Circle International of Reflect Action and Communication” (CIRAC) coordinates the work of regional networks. Reflect was introduced in Mali in 2000. Ever since, many development organizations and communities demonstrated interest in the approach. One of those development organizations, Jeunesse et Développement, facilitated the approach in the southern area of Mali. That project will be chosen as the sample project that will be reviewed through this paper.

Overview of the Project Area

Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa. It is a territory of 1,241,238 square kilometers with a population of 12,051,000 inhabitants. Most of the country is covered by the Sahara and Sahel zones. Populations live mainly in the southern part where the project has been implemented. The project area is known as the Manankoro community which is along the border of the neighboring country of Côte d’Ivoire. This southern area, with better climate, is an area of human concentration unlike the Sahara and Sahel zones. The environment flourishes in the area despite the pressure of human activities. The Manankoro community is a rural, small, and isolated area. Further characteristics are long distances from big cities, unpredictable roads, and low access to media.

Mali changed its regime from single party rule to a democratic system after a popular uprising in 1991. This new political orientation has been reinforced through the implementation of a decentralization policy. Decentralization is a system through which new territorial entities have been created. Those entities self-administrate freely through elected councils. The most significant change was the number of local entities known as “commune”, which evolved from 19 before decentralization to 703 afterwards. An important attribute of decentralization is that it allows citizens to elect their leaders. The level of accountability changes as elected leaders have to report to citizens. The potential of citizenship is also affected in term of leadership since citizens can also be candidates in elections.

The Manankoro community is composed of three rural communes. Each one is composed of a number of villages and has a town as headquarters. The three communes together have a total population of 28,250 inhabitants living in 42 villages. The decentralization process permitted each of them to have an elected council headed by a mayor. Those elected councils are in charge of planning, implementing, monitoring, and evaluating the process of local development. Decentralization granted a number of competences to new communes. Therefore, elected councils in the three communes could develop and implement policies and plans in relation to education, health, water, natural resources management, and development of infrastructures for rural development. The issue of decentralization also highlights that of citizenship and participation in the community. There is an effort to develop the political potential of marginalized groups that were not politically involved, such as young people and women.

The socio-economic life of Manankoro is influenced by its people and their interrelation on the one hand, and people and their activities on the other hand. Manankoro is ethnically diverse and rich. Each village has its own dominant group and its minorities. Although ethnicity determines people’s daily activities, it is rather a factor of cohesion than division. Obviously, there is tension between farmers and cattle breeders over the use of natural resource. However, due to long term values of solidarity and peaceful neighborhood, community members all live together in a peaceful manner. As a rural community, Manankoro social life is influenced by its economic situation.

Indabawa and Mpofu (2006) help us understand the economic conditions of rural communities such as Manankoro. According to them, rural communities

“live off the land, often on a seasonal basis. Livestock raising and farming are the most common means of economic survival”. (p. 40)

Farming activities in Manankoro are based on food crops like millet, corn, peanuts and also cash crops like cotton and cashew. Besides farming and livestock, fishing and small business are among the economic activities of the area. The dedication of the population to their activities and the enormous potential in terms of land and natural resources constitute valuable assets on which the community can rely in its effort to improve its economic conditions. Isolation, in term of distance from big cities and unpredictable roads, constitutes a serious handicap in term of economical progress. This isolation is however one of the aspects that helped to maintain an interesting cultural life in the area.

In rural communities like Manankoro, cultural life goes beyond ethnicities and celebrations. The Manankoro community used to be a reference for its culture in the whole southern region. The social, political, and economical aspects of this community life all have cultural dimensions. For example, besides the elected council, there are traditional leaders who act as moral leaders. This traditional leadership is ruled through a village council led by a chief of village. Traditional leaders and elected leaders work together to administer the community. Isolated rural communities like Manankoro have not been much influenced by media and technologies; therefore, authentic cultural features and behaviors, e.g. traditional celebrations, still prevail. However, the issue of culture may be challenging in terms of educational rights and social justice in relation to aspects like child education and gender. In such communities, gender, for example, is not considered as an issue and women are marginalized from the socio-political and economic life.

Jeunesse et Développement: The Organization that Facilitated the Process

Jeunesse et Développement is a youth founded national NGO that became operational in 1999 in Mali. It is involved mainly in education, training, and information. It started its activities in rural areas, with the objective of facilitating community self-development. Before the beginning of Adult Education programs, Gboku and Lekoko (2007) highlighted the importance of conducting a needs assessment process. Among the reasons for conducting needs assessment, they noted that

“needs assessment of potential adult learners gives programming staff the opportunity to assess learner needs and priorities impartially, free from the personal references and biases of the target group”. (p. 63)





General Assembly
Source: Moussa Gadio




Based on the principles of active listening to future partners and not imposing on them ready-made solutions on their development concerns, Jeunesse et Développement facilitated a month-long needs assessment study in the Manankoro area in 1999. The study revealed four areas of concern that were health, environment, the situation of women and literacy, and its results were used as the foundation for launching a community project in 2000 (UNESCO Institute of Lifelong Learning, 2007). Given the interrelation between the concerns and the issue of literacy, Jeunesse et Développement suggested the use of the Reflect approach to which it has been introduced through a training of trainers by the British organization ActionAid.

The Manankoro Community Reflect Project and Social Transformation

The Reflect project started in 23 villages and later extended to 40 villages in the three communes of the Manankoro community, which represents a coverage of 95 % of the geographical area of the community. Each village had its own Reflect circle. A Reflect circle in a village was usually composed of 30 to 50 people with equal numbers of men and women. In larger villages, there were several circles. Reflect circle participants were youths and adults, but not the entire population of the village participated in it. The Reflect circle was run by a management committee that included some leaders and elders of the village although they might not be active participants in its activities. The Reflect approach teaches participation and engagement. Thus participants used a circle which could meet either in a classroom, under a tree or at the public place of the village. To minimize Freire’s notion of culture of silence during the Reflect activity, facilitators were chosen among community members, mostly two, a man and a woman. The Reflect circle met according to a schedule its members decided on. Jeunesse et Développement provided supervision and feedbacks through its field agents and coordinators on the progress of the Reflect circle.

The Manankoro community project used the Reflect approach to deal with the developmental issues identified by the community in collaboration with Jeunesse et Développement and other partners. Those developmental issues were mostly social ones. They focused on civic education, health, natural resources management, and gender with literacy as a transversal activity. For all these issues, the Reflect approach strived to give voice to community members. Dialogue, reflection, and action were among the guiding principles of the functioning of Reflect circles in each of the villages. Freire (1986) pointed out that

“critical and liberating dialogue, which presupposes action, must be carried out with the oppressed at whatever stage of their struggle for liberation”. (p. 52)

The Reflect approach was significant given several oppressive features in the community. Oppressors included both outsiders involved in the administration and development of the community and insiders. Oppression was manifested through the relation between leaders and citizens, landowners and landless, rich and poor, men and women, parents and children, and teachers and learners. Therefore, activities around concerns identified using the Reflect approach could foster critical thinking and action so that the social transformation wished for by the community members could take place.

Civic Education and Social Transformation

The issue of civic education highlights the perception of community members as citizens on the one hand and their relation with their leaders on the other. The reform of decentralization brought a significant change in the status of citizens. Citizens evolved from subject citizens in former times to active citizens during the era of decentralization. In other words, citizens not only have responsibilities but also rights. To highlight transparency and citizens’ involvement in the process of local development, sessions of the elected councils are public. Each citizen can come and observe. Citizens may demand to see the communal budget. They can call upon leaders to fulfill their responsibilities. In the Manankoro community, all Reflect circles were enthusiastic to discuss and reflect on decentralization and civic education. The UNESCO Institute of Lifelong Learning (2007) noted that

“at the community level, there were civic action centers in every village. These consisted of a library, a learning space for the acquisition of reading, writing and arithmetic skills, a legal activity space, and a video center with audio and audiovisual cassettes”. (p. 21)

These centers were opportunities for citizens to engage in dialogue, reflection, and action on citizenship and local development.

A significant step in the process of social transformation in terms of civic education was the creation of civic education committees in each village. These committees promoted the rights and responsibilities of citizens. It is important to note that these committees benefited from the support and collaboration of many of those government bodies that used to undertake oppressive activities against citizens, given the fact that citizens had few rights, which then were even ignored. Therefore, both civic education committees and civic action centers, derived from the actions of Reflect circles, constituted weapons of liberation and self-promotion for citizens. They were tools by and for community members, which in reference to Freire’s notion of problem posing education allowed community members to discuss and reflect on their own issues and take action. Since administration and governance were most often linked with power and feared by citizens, such tools represented efficient weapons for community members’ self empowerment and social transformation. Various civic actions were undertaken in villages and the interaction between elected leaders, government bodies, and citizens gained in transparency and efficiency.

Health and Social Transformation

The Reflect circles discussed themes that the community members found important to them. Health was among those issues in the Manankoro community. To favor more dialogue and discussion on the issue of health, Reflect circles used the peer education strategy. Considering the sensitivity of the question of health, especially Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) and HIV, which were taboos, peer education promoted dialogue among groups who were comfortable in talking to each other. Women could talk to each other; young people and men could also talk among themselves to develop trust. Then, participants came together and discussed the sensitive issues in Reflect circles. In terms of an increased transformation concerning health, the UNESCO Institute of Lifelong Learning (2007) reported that

“due to an increase in the proportion of people able to recognize and treat child illness (malnutrition, diarrhea, acute respiratory infections, and malaria) and STD/HIV, access to health services and facilities has improved”. (p. 21)

The creation of community health care associations and their collaboration with civic education committees made it possible to promote inter organizational dialogue on health and to favor social mobilization. For example, after discussion about malaria in Reflect circles, many villages have undertaken public action to clean villages and promote mosquito nets. The UNESCO Institute of Lifelong Learning (2007) noted the creation of village hygiene and sanitation committees for that purpose. The creation of health related organizations also promoted dialogue with elected councils and government bodies, providing community members with a voice. While developing indigenous knowledge about health and health care, Reflect circles promoted the creation of various bodies in villages to discuss, reflect, and act in terms of health prevention and care. There was a transformation from the past attitude, which did not promote the rights of community members in terms of health and considered some health issues as taboos.

Natural Resources Management and Social Transformation

Reflect circles contributed to raise consciousness on the issue of natural resources management in most of the villages of the area. Questions of land and natural resources management which were strategic in the area were often sources of many conflicts. This part of the country is characterized by an important level of biodiversity. The issue of land was complicated, and it brought together several stakeholders. Local communities, elected councils and government technical services for the environment were all involved. Because of the often conflicting interests it could generate, the environment in a community such as Manankoro could be the source of many oppressive practices. The oppressors in this case were government technical services and some village leaders who undertook destructive practices on the environment solely for their own interest.

According to Diarra (2007), Reflect circle members of one village discussed the issue of natural resources management and found that uncontrolled woodcutting constituted a threat for their community and their environment. They discovered that elders of the village in collaboration with the government technical service favored the decision of woodcutting for business purposes. Having discussed and reflected on the issue, the Reflect circle decided to take action. Freire (1986) noted that

“the oppressors develop the conviction that it is possible for them to transform everything into objects of their purchasing power; hence their strictly materialistic concept of existence”. (p. 44)

The Reflect circle was convinced that this decision of elders and the environmental office was motivated by personal interests. Therefore, they decided to change that attitude. The refusal of elders to dialogue made young people more determined. The young people were ready to take severe measures if necessary to stop woodcutting. Diarra (2007) reported, however, that the two stakeholders ended up deciding to solve this matter through dialogue and negotiation. The young people apologized to elders and elders recognized that young people should be involved in the decisions concerning community natural resources management. Such transformation in attitudes and behaviors was quite frequent in terms of achievements by the Reflect circles.

Gender and Social Transformation

According to Naidoo (2002), decentralization in Africa can favor the participation of marginalized groups such as women in education and community development. Maruatona (1996) added that for those groups,

“the Freirean method would make the adult learners subjects, not passive objects, of their learning. The process would help them to become active participants in the development process that is intended for the improvement of their lives”. (p. 9)

Therefore, decentralization and Freire’s ideas provided opportunities for Reflect circles to contribute to raise awareness on the issue of gender in the Manankoro community. Reflect circles conducted discussion and reflection on gender issues and the political, cultural, and economic implications. The informal nature of Reflect circles and some shared cultural features permitted discussion about and reflection on sensitive issues such as women’s participation in the decision-making, female genital mutilation, and girls schooling. The fact that men and women discussed and reflected together, people were able to deal with gender issues as a concern for the whole community, not in terms of opposition between men and women. For social transformation to take place, effective and responsible actions should be taken.

Despite the challenging nature of cultural features in terms of gender in the African context, the UNESCO Institute of Lifelong Learning (2007) reported many changes in the conditions for women as the result of Reflect circles in the Manankoro community. One example was the creation of women’s groups. Each women’s group was organized around a number of income-generating activities which included saving and credit, gardening, mills, and small business to increase women’s economic power. Income-generating activities provided women with significant financial resources which in combination with the discussion and reflection in Reflect circles contributed to increase their roles in the decision-making process in the family and in the community. That reinforced the status of women and girls and constituted an important change compared to the previous situation where women were living in ignorance and hardship working conditions. Therefore, Reflect helped women, with men’s support, in the community to critically analyze their situation and the oppressive acts all around in order to develop a way to free themselves from the internal and external influence of the oppressors.




Women Reflect circle
Source: Moussa Gadio


Literacy and Social Transformation

Considering the literacy rate in Mali, which is 26 %, with a higher percentage for men, the issue of literacy still constitutes a big challenge. The philosophy of the Reflect approach on literacy is not literacy for the simple acquisition of reading, writing, and numeracy skills. In fact, the type of literacy that the Reflect approach used was a consciousness raising and action-oriented literacy. Although the UNESCO Institute of Lifelong Learning (2007) reported that Reflect circles permitted 1,080 members of the Manankoro community to become literate every two years, with 60 % of them being women, the influence of literacy and its potential in terms of consciousness raising and social transformation should be seen beyond numbers.

In their Reflect circles, the Manankoro community members wrote and read their world. The UNESCO Institute of Lifelong Learning (2007) reported a range of activities to develop a literate environment: development of graphs, community newspaper, signs in and between villages, visual and audiovisual materials. According to Archer and Cottingham (1996), in the Reflect circle,

“every participant is encouraged to make a copy of the map or matrix in their book and then write associated phrases, and eventually sentences. They end up producing a real document of their own rather than just having an exercise book full of scribbles”. (p. 13)

Those documents produced by participants were the ones that contributed to the village library and literate environment and described the transformed society in which they wished to live.


This paper focused on describing and reflecting on some social changes brought through the Reflect approach in the Manankoro community and how those changes related to Freire’s concept of social transformation. Merriam et al., (2007) described the Brazilian context of Freire’s work as marked with marginalization, ignorance, and exploitation. These characteristics also applied to the Manankoro community. Building on Freire, ActionAid developed an innovative approach to social education and change called the Reflect approach. In the Manankoro community, people used the Reflect approach to discuss, reflect, and act on issues of real concern to them: Citizenship, health, environment, gender, and literacy. Although further studies and research need to be undertaken for an in-depth analysis of the outcomes of their discussion, reflection, and action, based on the literature developed on the Manankoro community Reflect project, Manankoro people witnessed some critical and community driven social changes in the light of Freire’s philosophy of social transformation.


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