Terra Incognita

Experiential education as a versatile instrument for an impactful intercultural learning

Guyana welcome

As our Ukrainian young participants squat around the barrel with fire inside, an Amerindian lady from the North Guyanese tribe blobs a layer of mashed manioc root to prepare a starchy food as she comments she does it every day. This pancake from manioc is a traditional and simple food in French Guyana, something the Ukrainians would compare to the mashed potato dish.

While we all spectate this process talks about the life and household of these simple Guyanese villagers who host us this day are going on. Someone plays with a dog while others wander around trying various fruit together with the host. And we are lucky – large lime and grapefruit trees are in abundance around the ranch. The moment of true immersion into the world across the ocean for the Ukrainians, the moment to remember for the rest of our life.

Youth exchange there and back

It all started with double, bilateral “Terra Incognita” youth exchange between youngsters from French Guyana and Ukraine supported by the French National Agency of the Erasmus+ Youth. In frames of that project 10 participants and a leader from Ukraine visited French Guyanese countryside, lived there for a little while, learned directly from the locals what it is to inhabit the north Amazon rainforest, get their own bread on the table, what it’s like to carry own cultural identity as a native American in the French overseas territory and travelled around the jungle confronting all sorts of surprises from monkeys over the heads and big rainforest spiders to the launch of the rocket from the European Space Agency station in Kourou.

In return the Ukrainian group hosted the Guyanese youth in Ukraine. Something that enormously broadened their outlook on the world as many of them never left their villages as it takes much effort to travel the rivers of South American rainforest, let alone went to another continent, to see for the first time the capital of their French motherland. They came to the remote Ukrainian village of Busha and learned the same lifestyle realities of simple peasants in Ukraine, learned the elements of traditional culture, tried out the local crafts and expanded their perception on how multicultural the world is. That was a huge and impactful experience, something that forms the attitudes of respect and appreciation towards cultural diversity of the wider world.

portrait of a young womanAs a project manager, I was really concerned about that uncommon Youth Exchange. First, the organization was not easy: my colleagues and I had to work on it for months (jet leg, languages, currencies, financial supports). It was a real headache, but it was worth it. To connect East Europe with South America on an Erasmus+ project was, as far as I know, never done before and we knew the impact would be very significant because of the situation of the youth in both territories. Obviously, by sharing a common experience, people from the European outermost regions and people from territories getting into the EU had reinforced their sense of inclusion to the European Union and shared a common feeling of community. Both groups were very different, even opposite on some points but realized they shared the same values and uncovered many similar cultural elements in the countryside of Guyana and Ukraine – said Josephine Jean, a coordinator of the French Guyanese organisation.

The concept steps in

“Terra Incognita” project concept is specifically about exploring the boundaries of intercultural sharing/learning when the best setting is the countryside of the host side. Often the rural areas are not high on popularity, frequently omitted by attention of outsiders on the cultural maps of destinations. Still, it’s the cradle of any civilization, source of tradition and culture. In some countries there are still more people living in villages in comparison to towns and cities. Countryside offers the simplest and very sincere sharing environment between the people preserving the core elements of any nation. “Terra Incognita” utilizes this notion while effectively using learning by doing, explorative methods, community engagement, informal learning to enhance the experience of the young participants in its activities.

Another cornerstone of “Terra Incognita” project is the deep immersion into the community, utilization of the social base of any given project venue to raise the intercultural awareness, sense of belonging to the moment of the event. Basically, our learning environment is out there – among the locals who offer their knowledge and energy for free as they are similarly motivated to interact with the international group. How often we saw or participated in the international youth events meant to ignite intercultural exchange but finished up closed-in among the limited group of participants from a few countries who are baking inside a hotel not knowing the reality of the community that hosts them outside the window? Well, as a contrast “Terra Incognita” concept is about breaking free from the group-focused agenda of non-formal education events and shift the accents towards group vs. the community approach. Also, it is great to have ambassadors among the national representatives of the host group who are acting as mediators with the community, stimulating communication and sharing with the local inhabitants.

A rural, hosting community in the spotlight

The concept elements of “Terra Incognita” were tested during the Key Action 2 project coordinated by Development Center Pangeya Ultima which saw several events realized in Croatian, Lithuanian, Bulgarian and the Ukrainian rural communities. This was a multi-stage project that introduced participants to a great work done by the community-based organizations from the Latinovac village in Croatia and Antalieptė village in Lithuania through study visits. Later the participants had a seminar in the Bulgarian town of Blagoevgrad on the topic of village-based international youth non-formal education projects and then a youth exchange in Ukraine, in the remote and authentic village of Stina was organized.

This was a moment of opening by youngsters as leaders and the moment of exchange of working attitudes among all those involved in the festival arrangement. We had workshops run by youngsters together with their senior counterparts – local craftsmen and food producers from Stina, we had quest travel activities around the village, presentation of local customs by the inhabitants of Stina, concert, guide-tours, fun activities and the fair with the selling of local products. Finally, up to half a thousand people visited this event, and later as a follow-up the young participants produced a brochure – something like a manual for those interested in implementing experiential education in their educational programs based in countryside venues.

portrait of a young men in t-shirtWorking with the Terra Incognita activities was a real fun for me as a coordinator. I was always sure of an enormous learning gains that awaited the groups before they arrived to the venue and was excited myself to share this energy of simple exchange in the rural setting. Moreover, me as a connector between the group and the local community I had a precious advantage of learning the feedback from intercultural communication from the local inhabitants first-hand. Especially, it is a pleasure to see how people respond to their memories of the nice experience they had had when during the “Terra Incognita” event was held in their host community. Uncle Mykola from Stina still boasts to his guests with a bottle of liquor presented to him by the members of the Bulgarian group visiting the Terra Incognita festival in his village! – shared Iaroslav Gerashchenko, coordinator of Terra Incognita project of Pangeya Ultima organisation from Vinnytsia, Ukraine.

A true connection

Iaroslav is remembering a special moment of the youth exchange, having Guyanese youth in Ukrainian Podilia region: We were standing silent in the half-light premises with candles flickering on the walls and the stern looks on the faces of orthodox icons staring from the darkness at us in the Ukrainian Orthodox monastery of Liadova . Then Josephine called me to the girl from the Guyanese group and said she had a question to me. “Who’s that?” – she pointed on the icon of Saint Nicolas, a white-bearded man with a big crown incrusted with gemstones and a soft look of the grandfather. I answered that was a saint who made miracles and that such depictions are common for all the main figures and holy spirits in the Christian orthodox churches. The girl became visibly bewildered. She started to tell me that their saint spirits dwell the forests of Amazon, the big Ocean outside the coast and the mighty rivers flowing into it. And no surprise as she had wandered off her village in the Amazon for the first time. Here, in the monastery she was overflowed with the imagery of what the Ukrainians believe in. I sensed the moment of true intercultural learning. I thought I was ready for that as a coordinator, but I felt I had probably the same tangible experience as this girl had at the moment.

The “Terra Incognita” projects were implemented in 2018-2019 and coordinated by Ukrainian Development center Pangeya Ultima. The projects were supported by Erasmus+ Youth programme.

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