Act: Inspiration

The story of Adélaïde Merle: My journey to systemic thinking

April 14, 2021

Adélaïde Merle is a graduate of Gaia Education’s Design for Sustainability programme and a certified trainer. This is her story on what galvanised her interest to learn more about a holistic systemic approach to help communities.

In 2017, I started working as a translator/project coordinator for a new UK mining exploration company in the Republic of Guinea. I knew nothing about mining, I had never been to Africa, and I didn’t really know what I was going to be doing. But the person I was working with said it was exactly what he wanted: someone with not much experience in this field, so they could think outside the box.

The mining project was at its very beginning, they had secured an exploration permit for gold in a remote location in North Eastern Guinea. They used geophysics to map the area and were convinced that there was gold there. Within the boundaries of their permit area, there is a quiet community of about 600 people called Sobata. The goal was to have them participate in the project and to help them. But it took me a year to realize that the project was actually taking place on their land, very close to their village, in the fields where they grow food.

Initially, my role was to get to know the community over the phone (the few members who speak French) to try to source equipment and contractors across the country for the project. That’s how I met Ibrahima, who became my main point of contact in Sobata. He told me a lot about life over there, about how much they want their situation to change. The visit of a foreign white investor to their community was not very surprising for them, as their village is surrounded by several massive gold mining projects, led by the biggest in the industry. They had been doing artisanal mining for a long time themselves, and as it is a very dangerous job, I thought at the time that our ‘sustainable mining’ project was going to bring them more safety.

During the first year doing the job, I learned a lot about mining and how it works, about the corporations and the dynamics around foreign investment in Guinea. I learned about the difference between this country’s mining code, praised by many as one of the most complete and secure in Africa, and what is actually happening on the ground.

At some point, I found myself feeling more and more uncomfortable about mining and the reality of it. Of course, the impact on the environment is huge, despite the efforts of the big corporations to hide or minimise it. I realised that never mind how ‘fairly’ we were to treat the community of Sobata, they would never see the colour of the gold they would help mine, let alone getting some money from it. I’ve also understood that after all the resources are mined, or worse, if the investment stops coming, everything stops. No more jobs, no more help. Mining is definitely not a long-term solution.

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After some time, since I was still needed for the translation of documents, and for the liaison between English and French within the community, I talked to my client about my discomfort. Surprisingly, he understood and offered me to focus on something else to support the community. Since they had mapped the entire area for gold, they also discovered some underground water bearing structures, and he suggested that I look into drilling for water. I was very excited and immediately started doing some research, finally feeling ‘at the right place’.

But as I was in the middle of looking at water pumps, aquifer recharge and flow rate, I started to wonder: how is this water going to be used? For what purpose? What are the needs of the community around it? These questions opened the door to systemic thinking. I began to consider the social aspect of what I was trying to do: women spend hours every day collecting water. If they don’t need to anymore, how is their social dynamic going to change? Constant access to water could allow the people of Sobata to farm during the whole year, and not for 3 months only. How do they make this transition? What kind of farming techniques are they using currently? Is it efficient for them? Is it harming the environment? How are they going to organise themselves with an increase in production? Will they suddenly see more economic opportunities arise? How will these changes affect their belief systems, their way of seeing the world, and the way they interact with others?

I felt overwhelmed by all the questions that were arising from this ‘simple’ action: drilling for water for a small village in Guinea, and I finally understood that it is not possible to address an issue in a sustainable way without looking at it with a systemic approach.

While I was doing some research on permaculture, I came across Gaia Education and their Design for Sustainability course. Their whole systems approach to design thinking was exactly what I was looking for to offer solutions that would make sense at all levels and take into account each dimension of sustainability. I was hoping that I could use the courses to work out how I could support Sobata and luckily three wonderful ladies from the Design Studio course expressed interest in the project when I posted about it on our learning platform so we formed a team.

We asked ourselves what would be the most impactful, efficient, collaborative actions we could suggest and put in place that would support the community in its desire for change and resilience. We came to realise that education is one of the most empowering and creative tools that exist to face climate emergency, connect with each other and act towards social justice.

Through learning, practising and teaching, the community of Sobata would have the opportunity to become truly resilient and to inspire others to join them on the path towards regeneration.

We heard about an Ecovillage Design Education (often referred to as EDE) programme being organised at the end of 2019 in The Gambia. It felt like a perfect opportunity to try and implement the tools we learnt during the Design Studio course and a great concrete step beyond the ‘theory’ of our Case Study.

We used design for generosity to create a crowdfunding campaign to support four people from Sobata to join the Ecovillage Design Education programme. We used the power of our networks and tools on how to connect with people, to reach people from many different countries to support us and this campaign. We discussed with the EDE team to see if they could offer the course in both English and French. We remotely organised and coordinated an international trip for the Sobata team from Guinea to The Gambia and we got great support along the way. Finally, we got lucky enough to meet and spend a month with these people in person during the EDE, and this in itself was completely life-changing.

By then I had been on a journey from managing a project with an unaware post-colonialist and well-intentioned mindset with many blind spots, to building bridges in a multicultural environment and using a systemic approach in order to find local solutions for global issues.

Yet I still had some biases, one of them being a belief that people in Africa are poor and need help, and that people from the Global North are rich and have a responsibility towards supporting the Global South. This unconscious belief was proven wrong a thousand times during my EDE when I became aware of the richness that so many people I met have and feel on a daily basis, just in a different way that I was used to; it is simply not measured by how much money they have.

This experience was very humbling for me and now I would rather focus on supporting already existing projects in Africa and learning from amazing initiatives rather than trying to initiate them.

The Design Studio course and Ecovillage Design Education programme are empowering courses that helped me learn how to think in a systemic holistic way and become aware of privileges and biases along the process.

I believe this is absolutely essential if we want to connect with people in a meaningful way and build a regenerative future together.

Teaser photo credit: By Fatoumata D – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Adélaïde Merle

Adélaïde Merle is a graduate of Gaia Education’s Design for Sustainability programme and a certified trainer.

Tags: environmental education, indigenous lifeways, systems thinking