Experiences of a Refugee

A story of self-organization in Africa

Would you think that the adoption of Holacracy® in Africa, in a learning context for disadvantaged youth, would be very different than for people and organizations in the U.S., in Europe or in other industrialized countries around the world? Well, I did when I decided to go to Uganda, to support SINA Social Innovation Academy, a social business that educates former orphans, street children, refugees and other disadvantaged youth in Uganda to become job creators and social entrepreneurs with the ability to turn challenges into solutions.

SINA — a way to foster job creation and self-sustainability for disadvantaged youth.

During my time in Uganda, my experiences about many things were pretty much like what someone might expect in Africa. The incredible friendliness and warmth of the people, the lack of infrastructure, the ability to live with almost none of the amenities that are so completely self-evident to us:

· running and/or warm water for showers — No

· electricity on or off — often a question of luck

· stable Internet connection — No

· a fridge — No

· washing machines — NO (laundry is washed by hand)

However, the experience of supporting the organization and its members in their practice of Holacracy, was most surprising for me!

I am writing this five months after my first visit because I’m back in Africa again to continue the work together with SINA. It is incredibly inspiring to be back. One afternoon, a few days after my arrival, I had a long and joyful conversation with Emile Kwilyame, a graduated scholar from SINA, and one of my many new found African friends. Soon after we started talking about his life, his experiences at SINA, and his personal journey with the Holacracy adoption and with Language of Spaces, I decided to share this story.

When a wish comes true

How did I come to work with SINA? About one and a half years ago I heard about a social business in Africa that was said to be practicing Holacracy. Naturally I was curious, searched the web and found SINA. I was intrigued and impressed by what I learnt about this organization, followed them on Facebook and YouTube and somehow my heart felt a longing. I thought: “Wouldn’t it be lovely to visit there!”

Well, as the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for.”

Etienne Salborn, social entrepreneur and co-founder or SINA

About half a year later, in one of my roles in encode.org, I delivered a Workshop in Berlin. What a great surprise and joy it was to find that the co-founders of SINA, Etienne Salborn, was one of the participants. We had a conversation over lunch and decided right then and there how we were going to collaborate. Four months later, in August of 2017, I found myself on a plane to Uganda with the intention to support SINA in their Holacracy practice for four weeks.

Bottle Huts: Upcycling waste materials to create products of higher value at SINA

The month I spent here last year gifted me with many unique experiences that I will never forget. I experienced beautiful connections and friendships, and I heard heartbreaking personal stories that I would never have imagined. It was clear to me upon my departure that I wanted to come back. And today, only five months later, I am sitting on my little terrace of the bottle hut where I am staying and writing this story, triggered by the conversation I had with Emile.

From refugee to social entrepreneur

Emile was born in 1994 in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo). Due to political instability, about five years ago he decided to flee his country and arrived in Nakivale, a large refugee camp in Uganda, where he lived for three years.

Emile Kwilyame, refugee and social entrepreneur

Because of who he is, and to keep himself busy and useful, he engaged in social work for the youth in the camp, and this is how he got connected to SINA. Members of SINA came to the camp to offer their program to young refugees. They met with Emile, who immediately saw the opportunity and moved to SINA. This was less than two years ago.

He completed the SINA program and is now deeply engaged in spreading the word and carrying the SINA purpose forward.

Today he is initiator of two further Social Innovation Academies. One is based in Kampala, Uganda, not too far away from the original SINA location in Mpigi. There they offer the same opportunities to refugees, which have not found their way to a camp, but have come to the city and are mostly found somewhere in the slums. The second location is in the eastern part of DR Congo, where Emile is from originally.

“SINA’s mission here is to show young people that it is possible for them to create their lives right where they are, in their home, rather than decide to leave and become refugees in Uganda or elsewhere.” -Emile

Besides this, Emile remains active at SINA in Mpigi. He is Lead Link of the Holacracy Support Circle, the Operations Circle, and holds various other roles in the organization.

Holacracy — what a confusion

Asking Emile what he thought when he first heard about Holacracy, he told me how totally confusing it was. Somehow, he had already heard about self-organization, but here it suddenly became real and he just couldn’t imagine how this could work. How could you give away responsibility when at the same time there was this fear of everything ending in total chaos? But, at the same time, he somehow saw that it was a good way to give people a better chance to develop skills and grow the potential that they have.

Before Holacracy, SINA already had roles that were intended to empower all SINA members, but the way it was set up didn’t give everybody the same opportunities. There were learning groups that had a role called Contact Person. Everybody had the assumption that this role was in charge of everything and had to make sure everything got done, mostly by doing it individually, like a leader. The people filling that role often were overwhelmed with everything that was expected from them, which resulting in many good ideas being created in the learning groups, but not getting enough care and attention. Creativity wasn’t nourished and potential amongst the scholars couldn’t fully emerge.

Confusion was big, especially around Lead Link and Facilitator role

“When Holacracy was introduced immediately the confusion started. I was put into the role of Lead Link of the Sustainability Circle. That was a huge challenge for me! I was required to develop trust that the work will get done. At the same time, I was carrying an underlying sense of fear that I would be blamed if things didn’t work out.” -Emile

Among all the lack of clarity, facilitation became extremely confusing. As Lead Link, Emile facilitated all meetings. He wasn’t aware of the rules of the constitution and therefore didn’t know that this was not allowed. In the entire SINA organization, the Lead Link was still looked at as “the leader,” which made the power shift practically impossible, and therefore didn’t lead people to take full responsibility for the roles they were filling. There was additional confusion about the difference of an accountability, a project and a next action. The coping strategy in all this confusion was, “as long as things got done the next day, everything would be ok.”

“Later, I came to realize, the more you do it, the more you understand it. At some point I just decided that instead of complaining about all these issues, I will start to find ways to do something about it. I went to the Ratifier, started asking detailed questions and gradually I started trusting that whatever comes will come, so let’s work it from there.” -Emile

Trying to adopt Holacracy in a do-it-yourself approach, with all the confusion it created, was hard for everybody. What helped Emile was that gradually more and more education was made available to everybody at SINA in the form of books and videos.

Holacracy coaching — more frustration, more clarity

During my first visit in 2017, SINA had been practicing Holacracy for a year, and all members thought that they were doing well. The organization had somehow found a way — its own way — to practice. The people didn’t like it very much, but somehow they had learned to live with the confusion, all the while feeling disempowered that they couldn’t do much about it.

It was interesting to hear how Emile described what first happened when I arrived at SINA. He said, “When you came along and started pointing out how the practice was actually meant to be, that created even more frustration. For me, it felt like having to start all over again, which nobody wanted.”

Sometimes waiting for meeting attendants

Attendance at my Holacracy coaching sessions and at the Tactical and Governance Meetings was extremely low during the early part of my first visit. Either very few people or sometimes nobody showed up.

However, even with minimal attendance, many misunderstandings of the practice became visible. The roles of Lead Link and Facilitator were deeply misinterpreted in the whole organization. Meetings weren’t scheduled regularly and, if they took place, often questions were asked to the Lead Link, who would answer them or just decide what needed to be done.

The first week was a challenge for everybody, both for the SINA members and for me. I was beginning to experience the very real cultural differences regarding time and schedule. At first it seemed impossible to contribute effectively within my short time, all the while remaining hopeful that things would work out.

But we all hung in there, and it turned out, that everybody was very eager to learn. So, after getting to know each other better, connecting and sensing into how it could work, things started to improve very quickly.

Eventually, for Emile, the clarity around different questions, one by one, helped to resolve many of the frustrations. One of the first big “aha moments” that changed the trajectory of practicing Holacracy for Emile and many others, was understanding the difference between the Holacracy meetings and getting the work done. Until that point everybody had been waiting for the meetings to happen, assuming that meetings are the place where the work gets done. Outside of the meetings people just somehow tried to get things done without good collaboration between roles. Then, when the meetings took place, they were not allowed to discuss things, so it was in an unproductive cycle, and nothing was moving forward. Understanding the intended function of the Tactical meeting, and being freed up to do work without waiting for another meeting, was a huge relief for everybody.

Learning exactly what the role of Lead Link is, what it isn’t, and what the accountabilities of the role mean, was the next big revelation for Emile. He now had clarity that each role had autonomous authority, and that what was defined in the Governance was what all roles could expect of each other. The same went for the Lead Link role, no more and no less.

Differentiating the personal and the organizational

With a smile, Emile admitted that the first Governance meeting I facilitated was very difficult for him to understand. Especially around testing objections. But after two or three meetings, when he had the chance to ask more questions, he started to understand. At one point, he began to see how this process made a difference between what is personal and what is organizational and that was another major shift for him.

This moment, Emile emphasized, was when he became really motivated towards practicing Holacracy. He now understood how the clarity helped with communications and with being responsible. Even when talking to his brother in a role, it was only about work. Talking about their relationship was something totally different. Then it was about sharing and understanding each other, the personal needs and tensions, which needed to be addressed in a totally different way.

“After understanding this differentiation, I could start looking at others as people who want to support and grow SINA as much as I do. When someone, in role, comes with an idea that seems to be good, but that from my perspective will affect my role or the circle in a negative way, then we have a process that helps us find a way how the need of that role can be satisfied in a different way — integrating all roles’ perspectives. With Holacracy I can see both or more sides without judgement.” -Emile

Personal growth big time!

At one point in our conversation, after a moment of silence, Emile verbally erupted: “Oh, my God — Holacracy triggers personal growth big time! It gives people a voice and the opportunity to go outside of their comfort zone. The space for creativity, the clarity in communication, the self-awareness, the joy and love of what you are doing. There is something in the practice that connects me and my work to the purpose inside of me.”

While reflecting on the aspect of personal development, Emile felt that because of the personal journey that Holacracy triggers, it would have been very helpful for SINA and its members to have suitable spaces to support that journey in the earlier stages of the adoption process.

Language of Spaces

Language of Spaces: a framework to develop capacities for working in self-organizing contexts

Knowing only too well what the journey into Holacracy meant, I had already begun to introduce the Language of Spaces to some members of the organization during my first stay. Language of Spaces is a framework developed by Evolution at Work that helps individuals to develop the core capacities needed to work well in a self-organized context.

One of the core capacities is, “Differentiation and Integration (D&I Capacity),” which helps people understand and integrate the differentiation of the personal and the organizational within a self-organizing entity.

On my first trip to Uganda, there wasn’t ample time to roll the Language of Spaces training out on a broader scale, but this time, I started teaching the framework immediately. Emile was one of the first SINA members to reflect and process one of his tensions by going through the D&I Practice.

He told me that after the experience he needed some quiet time to process what had just happened. “I was happy to find, that going through this process makes it easy to process the organizational aspects. But it was still hard for me, especially the community and personal part of it. After going through the process, I sat down and really thought about it. And then it dawned on me: if I keep on doing this it can become a habit! Suddenly I could see that for me this brought the answer to what the community parallel to the organization is. It answered some big questions that I had been asking myself for a long time about when, where and how to process some of my tensions.

Now, after going through the D&I Practice, I know I can process everything.”

Highlights of the journey

At the end of our conversation, I asked Emile what he would say were the most important learnings of his journey with Holacracy and Language of Spaces. Here are Emile’s responses:

“When you think, you know that something won’t work and the fear of doing something wrong stops you from trying, you miss out. Because, guess what: In at least 70% of the cases is does work and it moves the organization forward. The rest is learning to try and do things in a different way. Holacracy taught me that.

The space is safe if there is trust. Trust grows through the practice of Holacracy.

At SINA it gives a unique type of collaboration all the way through — from the beginning scholar to the graduate entrepreneur.

It gives us role fillers the opportunity to become aware that we are responsible for whatever we are doing — in our work and in our lives outside of work.

Start with myself! I see myself and ask myself: what have I done? I am responsible for myself. It shows me that I am responsible for whatever action I take. Sometimes that can be very scary and therefore it can be a big challenge, but I can gradually grow into it and in the end, I can trust the process.

What doesn’t happen today, can happen tomorrow. It helps things to move in their own time and pace. It helps the people and the organization to grow in their own time and pace.

What happens today, can be totally different tomorrow. The flexibility is beautiful!

The D&I Practice showed me that everything can be processed — everything has a space.”

Does Holacracy differ within different cultural contexts?

On the outset of my journey, I was curious whether the adoption of Holacracy in Africa, in a context like SINA would be much different than in the contexts I have experienced many times before. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were much more similarities than differences. I find that very encouraging and inspiring.

There is a deep need within the early adoption process, for safe spaces to support the personal development that Holacracy triggers, regardless of cultural differences. It confirmed the need that gave birth to Evolution at Work and the Language of Spaces framework that followed. I find that very encouraging and inspiring as well!

Saying good bye to Emile at the end of my first visit

Thank you, Emile and all wonderful people at SINA, for gifting me with these rich experiences!