This musical introduction is not random, back at home music has always played an important role. When I was young, I lived my carefree life as the youngest in a family of four, in Sint-Truiden. School was easy for me, so after school I happily commuted between the sports club and the music school. My older brother played the drums and basketball. Somehow, I thought that had to be the coolest choice and followed suit. The world was small and didn’t go beyond my region’s borders, although sometimes our rock band went to play for a mere handful of people in some regional pubs.
Looking back, I actually did have some links to the outside world before. I remember renovation weekends with my uncle in Holsbeek, after which we went to the local pubs, in search of Ice Tea and Duvel, a local Belgian beer. My uncle told me brave and stout stories of his work-related adventures in Algeria, Senegal and Ivory Coast. He also showed me a video tape he once shot out of the window of a hotel room in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. The images of a multifunctional garage, serving its original purpose as well as serving as a prostitution bar. The video also showed the enormous creativity and pragmatism found on the streets. At that time, it seemed so far away from our small perfect world, but little did I know…
It’s not only rock ’n roll
The potential of our musical adventures proved to be rather limited, so a serious decision had to be taken. Studying it is. In an effort not to completely discard my musical ambitions, I chose to study musicology at the Faculty of Arts, together with a rather select companionship of other 18-year-old enthusiasts. ‘Do you have to play an instrument to study musicology?’ No, you don’t. The official website of the KULeuven (Catholic University Leuven) describes it as follows: ‘the study of music in a broad social and cultural context’. At the time it seemed like an intelligent choice: a university degree without having to stop playing music. It meant security and freedom, I still had a lot of options later. Perfect at the time!
However, it didn’t really satisfy me to analyse a beautiful Beethoven sonata, not that I was good at it anyway. The more time passed by, the more I knew I needed to broaden my world view. All of a sudden, when we had to review some concerts in our third year for the music journalism course, it all made sense. While the light in the Brussels’ Bozar went out, the light inside my head became brighter than ever. Journalism was my new passion.
What’s the story morning glory
Foreign affairs, politics and sports. My optional subjects perfectly resonated with my renewed interests and foreign affairs especially interested me. I felt liberated to be able to discover a new branch and leave behind the music for what it was in favour of the real world. At the Brussels HUB (college and university Brussels) a lot of passionate host professors promoted journalism, and they succeeded in doing so. At the end of the academic year I got the opportunity to help out as a trainee at Het Belang van Limburg – a Flemish paper – editorial office.
I learned a lot, but after being offered a permanent contract I hesitated, and thought about the region’s borders. I had to look beyond, far beyond. Anyone writing about foreign topics should experience the country they write about.
The idea seemed easy at start, but in order to end up where I wanted to be, I had to approach it in a structured way. The search for foreign experiences led me to the Senegalese city of Kaolack. Compare it with a big, hot sandpit with around 300,000 inhabitants. My international cooperation studies allowed me to work as a communication intern for a local NGO devoted to women’s rights for half a year. I noticed quickly enough my job wouldn’t be exactly as described, but nevertheless I had a wonderful time there. After work, I went into the country with my friends, looking for new places and new stories. On the road we experienced the Téranga, the famous Senegalese hospitality, we met the young talibés begging for money to pay for their Koran studies, and young graduated people my age forced to drive a van or a motorcycle or to be a tourist guide to earn a living. Senegal was everything but the Africa we generally think of. It was inspiring, dynamic, touching, creative, chaotic and most of all attractive.
The world I only saw images of when I was young, became the world I lived in.
On the road again
Back in Belgium it was time for a reality check. At the exact same moment, I had the opportunity to start working as a partnership coordinator for Africa and Asia at StreetwiZe • Mobile School. Considering I was 24 years old, they put a lot of trust in me and gave me a lot of responsibilities. Training, coaching, travelling and people are the pillars of my job. Too good to be true… Fourteen days later I stood on a sports ground in Delpan, Manilla, capital of the Philippines. Together with Ann Van Hellemont I watched in disbelief how our local partner, the Virlanie Foundation turned the normally harsh streets into a space full of creativity and opportunities, using just a mobile school. It didn’t take long to realise that all my experiences lead me to this moment. I knew I had to put my heart and soul in my new job. I wanted to gain experience fast. The streets in Greece, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Tanzania confirmed my presumptions. Any time a mobile school appeared, the negativity of the streets disappeared. The negative perception of kids living on the streets became one of creativity, enthusiasm and empathy.
Today, three years and thirteen countries later, people ask me: ‘Why StreetwiZe • Mobile school?”. The answer is straightforward: because of the unconditional focus on positivity and opportunities, regardless of where you are, be it an enormous dump in Kenia or a company in Belgium. Also, it is very inspiring to listen time and again to the stories of street kids, making it work, chasing their dreams in the harsh context of street life. If you add the complementary team of incredibly motivated colleagues to learn from and the network of motivated and like-minded street workers, devoting their life to taking the mobile school to the street every day, you clearly see why this hybrid project is the ideal learning environment for a young starter to work and grow both professionally and personally.
Dancing in the streets
The inspiring moments are countless. All the way from the first session with a mobile school in India with over 120 children, to the football matches together with the local population, not to forget the street work session turning into a big dance party in open air. Something unexpected can happen at any time, be it in Belgium or elsewhere.
At this moment we have 48 mobile schools in 25 countries and we’re still expanding. The potential seems endless. Street kids in Tanzania, youngsters of the slums in Bangladesh, refugees in Greece … the mobile school is the ideal tool for street workers to work with and for these youngsters. Additionally, today’s digital innovation within the organisation will boost the reach as well as the impact of our mobile schools considerably.
One of my colleagues has the great habit to ask me to describe certain events or travels using just a few words, which is harder than it seems. But if I really have to describe myself in only a few words, I would honestly have to choose for the words ‘lucky bastard’. Lucky bastard because people around me always supported me 100%, lucky bastard to end up with such great colleagues. Lucky to be able to work with street workers, to be able to train them and coach them, and to work together in a positive and creative way to increase our effectiveness on the street. Lucky also, to be able to do so while standing next to the street survivors in person, and listen to them and their dreams.
In Swahili, there’s a proverb saying: where there are experts, there will be no lack of learners. However, the question stays, who’s the expert and who’s the learner? Asking the question is answering it.
Let’s go for number 49 and beyond! En route!
eternal optimist • music lover • people person • busy bee • winner of the 'loudestSkypeCallConverstation'-award • joie de vivre • heart of gold • passionate • diplomatic • creative
Sander Degeling (27) is Partnership Coordinator Africa & Asia for Mobile School