We have been field testing Visual Explorer™ with development work in Africa, as part of our Leadership Beyond Boundaries initiative. We were delighted to get this fascinating report recently from Cheri Baker, a Peace Corp worker serving in the most rural areas of Ghana, West Africa.

What does it take to have a creative conversation about a challenging topic? The language and cultural hurdles to conversation here in this story are striking. It is true that words often fail us. If we don’t share the same language how can we talk? We see versions of this story even in organizations with a common language and shared culture. It can be really hard work to understand and be understood in conversation. When we began studying dialogue and conversation as part of the CCL Leading Creatively Program, we discovered the power of images to provide bridges, and insights, and generally to “mediate” the conversation. Our theory about this is that images provide metaphors (metaphor is underneath language) in a visible way (we are visual creatures) in the form of cards which can be handled, examined and shared (the mind is embodied and playful, and revels in art).

Here’s the story in Cheri’s words and images.

From: Cheri Baker

Sent: Saturday, August 01, 2009 5:44 PM

“Hello yet again! Of course, when I reached Tamale, not only was the Internet down but power all over the city was out for about 12 hours! I’m sorry for the delay, but it’s an expected part of life here. Here’s some information for your blog about the three women’s group meetings I held in Kpendua using the Visual Explorer cards.

Work began soon after moving to a very rural village in the Northern Region of Ghana. As a Health/Water and Sanitation Peace Corps Volunteer, my work is incredibly varied and always interesting. Through constant interactions with the villagers in Kpendua, I have learned more than I ever imagined about another culture and its people.

Since I first moved to Kpendua, I have marveled at how strong and hard working the women are. Because I was so impressed with their dedication to their families, a group of village friends and I decided we should start a Women’s Group. But at the first meeting, more than 65 women showed up to participate! In time, our one women’s group became four separate ones, and our work together ever since has been very worthwhile.

“This is the Nyobilbaligu Women’s Group having their monthly meeting on my veranda. Using the Visual Explorer cards, this meeting focused on thinking for oneself, creativity, problem-solving, and information sharing.”


“[In these photos] three women at our women’s group meeting trying to decipher what exactly is in each photo. When they weren’t asking their friends for help, they were sitting quietly turning the Visual Explorer cards over and over in their hands.


At the majority of our monthly meetings, my Ghanaian counterpart and I teach interactive lessons on HIV/AIDS, nutrition, proper breastfeeding, hand washing, or a topic of a similar nature. For the two strongest and most active groups, we are also trying to create business plans for alternative livelihood projects like corncob charcoal and beekeeping. But the most interesting work I’ve done with them has been related to the role of a Dagomba (a tribe in Ghana with whom I live) female, gender equality in a village, and leadership development activities.

When I first moved to Kpendua, I used a well-known Peace Corps technique (specifically a PACA tool) in which you begin by posing a positive question to get the group comfortable and more receptive to information gathering, then following up with a more difficult one that makes the group think about some negative aspects of their life. After a meeting in the capital of Ghana with Lyndon Rego, Steadman Harrison, and Phillip Brady from the Center for Creative Leadership, I was able to bring some of CCL’s techniques to a village in the North. In three separate women’s group meetings, I repeated the same PACA tool–but this time with a very helpful visual aid: CCL’s Visual Explorer Cards. And wow, what a difference they made! When I first posed the question to groups of villagers more than a year a go, I just got blank looks in response. When pried, I could get some answers out of the villagers, but the concept and reasoning behind my questioning was too unclear. They couldn’t seem to fathom why I was asking them, “What aspects of your life here do you appreciate?” When pushed, they could only answer about tangible things. They’d say, “We like that we have a clinic in our village that serves nine surrounding communities,” or “We like that we have a Primary School.” I was disappointed to find that that was all I could get out of them. Frustrated at the time, I eventually moved onto other techniques. But this time around, using the same technique with the Visual Explorer cards made all the difference.

While it was still very difficult, the women were very chatty once they understood the concept of the meeting. I started by asking the women, “What is the best thing about living in Kpendua?” (Most villagers I live with trouble with the concept of the word, “best.” They also have trouble with the concept of “goals,” “improvements,” and “future plans,” but that’s another frustrating story!) When I rephrased the questioning to, “What is already happening in Kpendua that makes you the happiest? What is successful? What is good about living here?” I was able to get a few very informative and interesting responses. The most impressive answer I repeatedly received was related to the Visual Explorer Card (VEC) that depicts a group of young boys standing with their arms around each other’s backs.

Through that photo, the women talked about how it’s great that everyone here helps each other, specifically to floor compounds (an amazing communal and very musical experience), plaster the mud walls (with a mixture of cow feces and mud), harvest groundnuts, and gather maize for naming ceremonies. Another group commented that they were happy that when a man asks other villagers for communal labor farming, men gladly ride their bicycles to farm to help weed. In addition, they were happy we have meetings and discussions so everyone’s voices can be heard. The photo of the dilapidated house by a riverside drew murmurs of approval.

The women said, “The house is very beautiful; it is big and the landlord would be proud to own the house. We are happy that Kpendua has strong mud rooms for strangers (Ghanaian English for “guests”) coming to visit because it’s nice to have strangers.” It was also interesting to hear a woman exclaim she was “happy because she has strong legs to do all the work that women do daily” and that “It’s too hard for the women who can’t walk well.” All this just from a photo of small baby’s feet held in an adult’s hand!!

When a woman holding the card of crayons asked the translator if it was a picture of bowls, he explained to her that it doesn’t matter what the photo is and that what matters is what she sees.

As she grew more comfortable with her thoughts, she made a long speech about how happy bowls make her. She clarified that female villagers use bowls to eat, and food is important. After pushing her to continue, she answered that bowls make her happy because it’s nice to serve and share food at baby naming ceremonies and funerals. Though the inevitable tangible answer did come up repeatedly, it was great to hear what the women thought was going well in their communities. They realized they were lucky to have a competent nurse who could take care of them when they were sick at our clinic, which serves the nine surrounding communities.

Another woman’s photo reminded her of mosque, and she explained that Fridays made her very happy because everyone was “praying very seriously.” Another woman said she was happy we have a road big enough for lorries to pass through our village. Yet another said it made her happy when there was a full moon because people could walk around freely and see at night. (Kpendua has no electricity.) A woman who said it made her happy to see development in Kpendua discussed the photo of an old woman’s eyes. Kpendua has a school, a clinic, a mosque, and light poles waiting for electricity. (Though the district has been claiming that “the electricity will certainly come soon” for more than two years, we do have light poles lying on the ground in the middle of the village!) And in a response that portrayed a major tradition in the tribe, a woman said she was happy that the elders here are respected and make the major decisions for the rest of the village after looking at a VEC of an old lady.

After this question, I asked a new series of questions trying to pry answers out of them about they want to happen in Kpendua. I asked questions like, “What do you see in the photos that makes you sad about living in Kpendua? What is difficult? What can we improve on in Kpendua?”This part of our meetings consistently proved very interesting. I have been here for almost two years, but I can rarely get any concrete answer out of this type of question. No matter how patient I am and how many times I explain that my role as a PCV is not to give money, most people just answer this question by saying that they want me to help them buy a tractor. And get more money. This was the first time I was able to hear what the women really want. The VEC cards really helped them open up. With the VEC, I now know that the women with whom I work want a special grinding mill to make shea butter. And on a related note, they want bulk traders to come directly to the village to buy the unprocessed shea nuts. I also learned that they want more Moringa Oleifera trees, a major nutrition project I have been working on with them for about a year. And they want more water, since there are currently only three working boreholes for 3000 people. (There is supposed to be one for every 300 people.) By looking at a VEC of an overturned shopping cart, a woman said she wanted to learn how to do beekeeping. (Apparently word of one of my potential upcoming projects has spread!)

They don’t want any more lorry accidents (we had a very serious one a few months ago killing seven people from Kpendua and injuring literally everyone else.) And they don’t want people to “grow lean” and suffer without enough food. After gazing at the VEC photo of a pile of skulls, a women said she didn’t want any more warfare within the Dagomba tribe. (An ongoing chieftaincy dispute has split the tribe into two major sides.)

But the most exciting answer for me was when each group mentioned that they want latrines!! In the entire village, I still have the only latrine while everyone continues to go to the African “bush” to use the toilet. The women all agreed that they want latrines so they don’t have to go to toilet so far away anymore. This answer made me so excited because my counterpart and I have been talking until we’ve felt like we were blue in the face trying to desensitize the village to the need for latrines.

Overall, the use of the VEC was a huge success. Though one of the women’s groups kept asking my counterpart to direct them more with clearer directions, he kept refusing for the sake of the activity. We also spent a great deal of time stressing that there were no wrong answers. They didn’t have to know what the picture was of; instead we wanted to hear about anything that they saw. Admittedly, it was also sometimes difficult to get the women to say how the photo related to Kpendua instead of just explaining what they saw in the photo. Even so, I heard more about what aspects of life they want to leave the same and what they want to improve than I have heard in a long time. It was pleasant to hear the women interact so freely with each other, and I enjoyed watching them work together to try to figure out what was on each card.

Near the end of each meeting, women were answering the questions very clearly without using the cards. It was the first time they were so open and forthcoming with their responses. It was an amazing change. I will certainly be using these cards again soon!”

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