IMAGINE a village in Mali -- dusty, dry, isolated, and poor. There's no electricity, no running water. The people are farmers, eking out a meager subsistence from the arid soil. On this particular morning, two women stand in front of a mud-brick house pounding millet, their bodies wrapped in brightly colored cotton sarongs. Their babies sleep in slings of cloth on their backs. Another woman from the village sits on the ground between them, listening as they discuss local problems. She is dressed similarly, and is also barefoot. But one thing about her is different: She has a video camera on her shoulder.
Nearby in another village women are working sound equipment. They are taping conversations -- about the problems of good soil that is being overworked and turning into dust; about the desert that is gradually creeping onto their lands; and about ways to conserve fuelwood and plant new trees. When finished, the tape will be sent to other villages in the developing world, and to international agencies in the so-called developed world.
These women are members of a unique communications organization: Village Video Network.
Since the mid-1970s, scenes like this one have been taking place in a growing number of developing countries. Local people -- often illiterate -- have been learning a communications skill that enables them to share ideas with others in similar situations.
The information exchanged on these videotapes often leads to practical solutions to problems ranging from overpopulation to energy shortages to basic health and nutrition needs. And the knowledge gained gives participants an unusually rich opportunity to exercise control over their own lives.
A major obstacle to development efforts, most observers agree, is poor communication between the providers and the recipients of aid. No matter how eager foreign experts may be to understand, the realities of village life are not easily conveyed in reports they write. Most development planners work from data culled by foreigners visiting the developing world -- second- or third-hand accounts which rarely present life's true intricacies.
Foreign -- often Western -- experts are also usually the communicators of development strategies to the villagers themselves. But their inability to communicate relevant ideas effectively is greatly impaired by their very foreignness. And if their message does get through, their work may foster dependence on outsiders, rather than self-reliance, on the part of the people involved. Moreover, the people at whom development schemes are aimed almost never have an opportunity to express their views and concerns to anyone outside their immediate community.
``It is my experience,'' wrote Martha Stuart, founder of Village Video Network (VVN), ``that villagers doing family planning work in Jamaica and Egypt have much more to learn from each other than either can learn from what filters down to them from their respective national governments or from international agencies.''
Martha Stuart, who died in 1985, was the director of Martha Stuart Communications, and of a video production company called ``Are You Listening'' which produces tapes of group discussions on such subjects as widowhood, abortion, and other issues for broadcast in the United States. Since her death, her children, Sally and Barkley Stuart, have been directing the various branches of Martha Stuart Communications.
``Martha Stuart's vision of communication was to listen to those who were being talked about and give them an opportunity to share their views with others -- rather than always having professionals analyzing people's experiences,'' says Michaela Walsh, director of Women's World Banking, a New York-based group that arranges bank credit for women in developing countries.
With its central office in New York, VVN consists of groups in Mali, Egypt, India, Jamaica, China, Guyana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Antigua, and Canadian Inuit communities which have been trained in video production techniques, and to whom video taping and sound equipment, as well as blank videotapes, have been supplied. Each time a group produces a tape, it sends a copy to the New York office, which then forwards it to other countries on a lending-library basis. Tapes are almost always made in the local language, but an additional sound track in another language can easily be provided by New York or local staff.
People on opposite sides of the globe can learn from each other's experiences by screening the tapes they borrow from VVN. A recent exchange between China and Guyana illustrates this point.
``We did a workshop in China where a group of villagers documented the ecological cycle of pig manure to biogas,'' says Barkley Stuart. ``In the tape they give you a tour of their village and show the process of making biogas. And they show a demonstration of how clean the biogas is compared with the burning wood they used to use. As a result of this tape, people in Guyana who saw it made their own biogas digesters. . . .''
Video equipment is relatively light and easy to handle, providing much more mobility than would be possible with film equipment. It also offers the advantage of instant replay, with no time or money spent on developing film. Video cameras and sound equipment can be operated off a battery or generator.
``We found that you can't tape in a village without giving the people some feedback -- letting them see themselves,'' says Barkley Stuart. ``It's a big event -- when you play the tape back you get the whole village there in no time.''
Martha Stuart had worked in television and radio since the 1950s. In 1965, she arranged a conference on birth control for Planned Parenthood of America, which resulted in a book, ``The Emerging Woman: the Impact of Family Planning,'' published by Little, Brown. Martha Stuart began producing video documentaries in 1966.
In 1974, she went to Egypt to produce a video program on family planning, consisting of a group discussion among village women. It was then that the idea came to her which provided the inspiration for Village Video Network.
``It occurred to her that what she was doing only served her purposes,'' Barkley Stuart recalls. ``She wanted other people to understand these villagers, yes. But she also wanted the villagers to have the same access to this communications medium as she did. Instead of only gathering information for international purposes, she decided to give the communications tools to the people themselves. So while she was there, she taught a group of people how to use the video equipment -- and then she left it with them. Those Egyptians were the first members of the Village Video Network. ``Later, she started training groups in video production in other countries.
According to Barkley Stuart, his mother felt ``that we live in a world where politicians represent people -- but the people's views are not necessarily the same as the politicians'. She didn't think this was fair. When you use film or centralized television, you end up with controlled or managed information. But when private individuals learn to use video, information is no longer controlled by politicians. If you give the people who are actually doing something the tools for communication, you get much more pure, succint, and emotionally true information.
``She started working through local organizations in various countries -- teaching them how to use the equipment and how to establish communication -- how to get someone to talk, for example.'' Some of her first participants were family planning groups in Jamaica and Indonesia.
Since 1981, VVN has been affiliated with the United Nations University in Tokyo, which provides some of the funds that allow the network to supply its various branches with materials such as blank videotapes. Additional financing comes from the proceeds of the other activities of Martha Stuart Communications, such as the sale of ``Are You Listening'' video programs to television, colleges, and libraries in the US. Funding for training and equipment is also provided on a project-by-project basis. Sally Stuart is currently conducting a video workshop in Guyana, funded by the United Nations Development Program.
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.
``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.''