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SHARING WISDOM. Using videotape, people in many isolated villages are being given the opportunity to share in problem solving

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One of the most significant aspects of VVN is its commitment to demonstrating that illiteracy is no barrier to effective communication. With a literacy rate of less than 50 percent in many developing countries, Martha Stuart wanted to ensure that people, whether or not they could read or write, would be able to express themselves.

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``What has been proven is that illiterates can learn to use very sophisticated technologies very effectively,'' says Ms. Walsh, who has remained an adviser to VVN since its inception.

One outstanding example of this has been VVN's experience with a labor union for women in India's vast sector of undocumented workers. The Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) joined VVN after its director, Ela Bhatt, attended the first international VVN meeting in Bamako, Mali, in 1982. Since then, Video SEWA has trained about 20 of SEWA's members, most of whom are illiterate. SEWA's video producers and technicians are vegetable vendors, hand block printers, carpenters, cane workers, and junksmiths.

Video SEWA has produced a large number of videotapes, which they are now selling to other organizations in India, as well as distributing to other countries through VVN. These tapes have ranged in subject-matter from trade techniques and nutrition to farming and family health.

``Video is a very powerful medium,'' says Ms. Bhatt. ``In Mali I saw that it was the village women who were producing tapes, beautiful tapes. I was so impressed. I said to myself, why shouldn't we have the best stuff, the best communications instrument? Then Martha came here and she trained a group of our women.

``Out of these, I think 13 were illiterate women, working-class women. And they're really excellent. They have never seen even TV, yet they are excellent in the production aspect. First of all they are very steady -- strong shoulders. And they don't get distracted. They have good concentration. Then they have a good eye in the sense that they are able to perceive -- I think better than ourselves. Once they are clear about a subject, then they are very clear.

``For example, they were producing a tape on diarrhea in a village. [Dehydration, resulting from diarrhea, is the major cause of infant and young child mortality in developing countries.] They knew the situation so well. The way the camera moved: the drinking water facility, the pond where people wash, how dry the land is -- then the kitchen and the pitcher where they put the water. Diarrhea was the subject, but they also shot the whole cause of diarrhea, which is water and the facilities and how dirty it all is.''

One aspect of VVN's work that surprises some observers is that in dry, dusty parts of the world illiterate villagers maintain video equipment in good condition, virtually indefinitely. There have been almost no incidents of damage to equipment anywhere. ``The idea is that the people feel they `own' the equipment in a very special sense,'' says Sally Stuart. ``Its use has given them self-confidence and a sense of involvement in shaping their own lives.''

Martha Stuart's vision for Village Video Network is perhaps best summed up in her own words. ``By giving global reach and social import to this kind of personal exchange,'' she wrote, ``to what is essentially people encouraging other people, I believe we can tap a pool of human energy and healing power of untold dimension. Once people move beyond a win/lose mentality, they are able to relate to each other on the basis of trust rather than fear. . . . For the first time we have the means in videotape technology truly to girdle the globe with examples of people helping each other. I find it hard to imagine a more powerful method for establishing world peace and supporting human health and growth everywhere. But it begins at village scale.''