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Part Two: An Ubuntu.Lab Impact Story

April 18, 2023

Part One of this series ended with the celebratory convening of over 50 facilitators, meeting for the first time in Zambia after completing the inaugural online training together as part of the initiative called Ubuntu.Lab. If you were to look into that lively room in Zambia, you would have seen people from all over the African continent sitting together, from morning to evening, connecting as a group of African changemakers. Zoom into that picture, and you’ll see Mohamed El Mongy. Mongy is an Egyptian man whose heart beats for the river next to whom he grew up: the Nile. What is his story? What got him into that room? And how did Mongy’s being part of Ubuntu.Lab create an impact on the Nile region?

The Three Divides

In the desert, the presence of water is almost holy. It gives life in the most basic sense. It allows for crops to grow, for people to live and be nourished. So it is no wonder that the Nile River, the longest river in Africa, has been the life source for ancient civilizations as well as the countries it runs through today.

Mongy made it his life’s calling to bridge the divides that threaten the communities which live by the Nile, as well as the well-being of the river itself. Yet the divides, which cut across the social, ecological, and spiritual dimensions, are deep. The Nile runs through and sustains 11 countries and many more communities. Mongy says “the Nile carved the geography and shaped the history of these countries.” Some countries and ethnic groups are determined based on their position and proximity to the Nile. But many things have been forgotten, “both due to us as Nile basin societies,” Mongy says, “as well as due to external factors like colonialism that divided many countries and separated communities and ethnic groups that were supposed to be together.”

The dynamics within the Nile region are divided on the social level, where people are strangers to one another, Mongy describes, and hence they do not trust each other. This is manifested in a sense of individual ownership of the Nile, which opposes the multiplicity of regions and cultures which all depend on the Nile in order to flourish.

Dr. Karambu Ringera, founder of IPI, exchanging her experience with NJ team in one of the gatherings

On the ecological level, the Nile is used as a resource rather than seen as a sentient being. This creates a gap in terms of understanding “what this being is, what she creates to the life of many species, including human beings.” This disconnect from the being of the Nile creates an anthropocentric approach to the use of the Nile, Mongy explains.

Then, there is the spiritual divide. For example, any heritage or tradition that is connected to baptism in the Nile is viewed as paganism because of the predominant monotheistic belief. For many years, Mongy carried in his heart the dream that “people and communities and societies around the Nile are not only healed, but transformed.”

But, after a moment of thought, Mongy adds:

“Not transformed, actually. I like them the way they are.” He laughs. “But to transform the dynamic of interaction between each other. I don’t have the right to wish for people to change, but I dream that we emancipate ourselves from the trauma that has been inflicted on us, mainly from colonialism.”

Not (only) recent colonialism, Mongy clarifies. It stretches beyond, and includes, European colonialism, which caused a whole history of disconnect between tribes and peoples living by and around the Nile.

So Mongy’s dream is actually “not to shift people, but for them to look inwards and see who we really are…our humanity.” He wants the divides which threaten the health of the communities who all depend on the Nile river to be healed. His project, the Nile Journeys, also uses the acronym NILE to describe its purpose: Nurturing Impulses for Living Ecosystems (NILE).

Mongy working the land in Aswan, Egypt

The Calling

“I just shouted out that I have this calling, for maybe 5 or 6 years,” Mongy remembers with a smile. “I had a big excel sheet. Whenever I would be traveling in one of the countries, and I had the chance to visit 26 out of the 54 African countries, or even when I was encountering someone from outside the continent that could serve the calling, at the end of the day I would note down their names, where they could serve, and when I could call them.”

One day, in 2015, when Mongy was working with an organization for conflict resolution and peace, he was visiting a Swiss agency for development and cooperation. “They told me that they have 50 thousand euros, and asked if I have a project that I could do in Aswan, Egypt.” With a laugh, Mongy remembers how he pulled the concept note, which he carried with him all the time, from his bag. After reading the proposal, they said “Okay, we like it, but it will be challenging to get people onboard.” Mongy replied: “No no, I have an excel list with maybe 500 people or more that I can call.”

Mongy then hosted an inaugural event, inviting about 40 people, and basically said: Ok, I have this calling. What do you think?” Some people felt frustrated at the openness of the question, but Mongy explained that he wasn’t feeling unclear about the question. Rather, he felt that he could not answer it himself.

“I need people to answer the question with me,” Mongy says. Because “if I answer the question myself, I would only draw from my own experience, which is very limited. Who am I to shape something that could relate to one third of the African continent’s human population?”

At the end, about a quarter of the people that attended ended up sticking around. Together, they established an entity in Belgium through which they ended up applying for more funding, which they then secured in 2018.

Mohamed El Mongy and Robert Wanalo representing the Ubuntu Lab Institute in a partners meeting in the Netherlands


Where was their funding first applied? The answer to this question explains why we are telling the story of the NILE Journeys in relation to the overarching story of Ubuntu.Lab.

In Part One, we heard about the difficulties which the newly trained facilitators faced when the funding for their first in-person gathering fell through. We read about how the participants decided to pull it off anyway, using their own resources. The first payment which Nile Journeys ever invested was for three of the Nile Journey founders, including Mongy, to go to Zambia to attend the inaugural cohort.

The idea of “plugging in” to Ubuntu.Lab came up before the funding was even secured, and served as the initial step in what then became the Nile Journeys. Going through the online training, and then meeting with the others in-person in Zambia, deeply informed the Theory of Change which guides Mongy and his team to this day.

“We found that the notion of the U process is really very resonant to us because, in essence, it is a shift from spiritual, ecological and social divide to connection.” And, Mongy reflects, ”this is exactly what we do.”

Mongy and his team wanted to do this shift from an indigenous African perspective rather than from a perspective “which we need to Africanize.” Again, this is where Ubuntu.Lab came in, which incorporates the philosophy of Ubuntu into the U process. The Ubuntu philosophy is: I am because you are. My well-being is intertwined with your well being. In this philosophy, ‘your’ is not just another human being, it can be your ancestors, a future generation, nature, soil, or a river….in many ways, this is a new approach to systems thinking, or an “African approach to systems thinking,” as Martin Kalungu-Banda, co-founder of Ubuntu.Lab, put it.

Digging the hole for 1.5 KM water connection to the new IPI school in Meru, Kenya

The Impact

Since participating in Ubuntu.Lab, NILE Journeys have enabled more than 20 projects in six countries, with eight community hubs spanning across several of the Nile Basin countries.

Founders of two of the community hubs, Filimon Gebremehdin founder of Fili Coffee and Samrawit Petros founder of Temsalet kitchen, in a presentation of respect your thought

One of the community hub partners is in Ethiopia. The founder, Filimon, is a young man who had been born a refugee, and who had lived in a refugee camp until the age of 14. He developed a passion for coffee when he began living all over the country of Ethiopia. Through an internship, he was able to go to Turkey to explore the consumer side of the coffee business before returning to create a coffee shop of his own. He is one of the first people who resonated and supported the creation of the NILE Journeys. Together, they worked to conceptualize and fundraise for the project. The plot of land which the municipality offered was an abandoned piece of land which locals used as a dumpster . He decided to take it and transform it using only recycled material. Now, the coffee shop, named Fili Coffee, is a place where people meet and share their stories. They hope to export the coffee to Egypt so that, when people read his story on the packaging, they think: “ohhh, Ethiopia is much more than we initially thought of it.” Filimon has now trained baristas who have now opened similar coffee shops all over the country.

NILE Journeys team in an initial reflection on the board game

One of the projects in the arts and culture sector was the production of a cooperative board game. This board game comes in 4 languages (English, Arabic, Swahili, and Amharic) and does not have any winners or losers. Rather, by default the players are collaborating to save the species around the Nile.

The board game developed by the NILE Journeys in partnership with Makouk game designers

Another example in the arts and culture sector was the organization of a festival in Sudan that invited Nile Journeys to partner with them. The idea of the festival was for musicians and artists to jam together while restoring one of the houses in the town. In partnership with one of the families, the artists would restore the home, use it to create music during the festival, and then leave it restored after the festival is over. Due to the outbreak of the civil unrest, this festival will end up taking place in Aswan around the beginning of 2024.

In the land and water sector, community hubs have installed 3 water access and purification projects in Aswan and Kenya, and are working on a water innovation lab.

The NILE Journeys team and the community of IPI in Kenya in the opening of the Gazebo community space

With the indigenous culture sector, and inspired by Theory U and Ubuntu.Lab, one of the partnering hubs, International Peace Initiatives, created a space for a pan-African school in Kenya called Ubuntu School. They already have 3.5 hectares for the school, as well as having already built the classroom. They’re currently in the process of designing the curriculum for the school.

Lidya Alemayehu, as part of the Nile Journeys core team, facilitating an open space

There are countless more projects, too many to list in this article. Each of them has its own inspirational story and hopeful future.

Lighting Up the Map

In Part One of this series, Martin Kalungu-Banda’s heart sank when he saw that, out of 15,000 changemakers participating in the Presencing Institute’s u-lab course, only 3 were calling in from the continent of Africa. The digital map which lit up the geographical areas from which people were calling in from literally left Africa in the dark. Now, if we imagine each of these stories as a light on the map, we see how, from Kenya to Egypt, the map is beginning to light up. This is what happens when a community comes together, no matter what challenges they may face…a living example of the ubuntu philosophy: I am because you are.

Dennis Siroh, one of the NJ core team members presenting the community space of Rusinga Island Organic Farmers Association (RIOFA), one of the first Nile Journey hubs

Tags: Africa, ecological community, ecosystem restoration, river restoration, Ubuntu