The Eastern Cape Together Iqonga LoThungelwano is a network of farmers, students, academics and activists form throughout the Eastern Cape, with a strong focus on rural Eastern Cape. The network has, as its focus, communication and social learning to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Eastern Cape Together Iqonga LoThungelwano (community action network) has been active since late March, when a group of concerned people from the Imvotho Bubomi Learning Network (IBLN) identified the problem of a lack of good quality corona virus awareness material that spoke to rural Eastern Cape citizens in their own language and with relevance to their own contexts.

The Environmental Learning Research Centre at Rhodes University have been working closely with the IBLN and other local networks in the Eastern Cape to establish the Iqonga LoThungelwano.

Inspiring models such as the Cape Town Together Community Action Networks helped to spur this group to develop a similar initiative in the Eastern Cape, but with a strong focus on being a hub of reliable information, advice and solidarity for rural Eastern Cape contexts.

The network now has over 200 community champions, based throughout the Eastern Cape: from Humansdorp in the west to Bizana in the east and from Lady Frere to Port St John.  It also reaches to Thembalethu (George), into the Cape Flats communities and the amaXhosa communities in Gauteng.

The network aims to provide a space for the flow of information about the disease itself – how to slow the spread, best practices for mask making and wearing, hand washing, safe food distribution and sharing practices, caring for corona patients; but also about the social impacts of the lockdown – giving advice on how to access the new social grants, linking people to food relief initiatives, tracking and reporting villages with no access to water, following up on reports of local clinics turning people away, and so on.

The Eastern Cape Together Iqonga LoThungelwano sources materials from other initiatives including the excellent materials produced by the Rhodes University Community Engagement unit, and also produces original materials in isiXhosa. All written materials that the network develops and shares are thoroughly fact checked, written in easily accessible English, then translated into the isiXhosa spoken in the villages and townships, and accompanied by a voice note that gives some background and context for the information being shared.

The Eastern Cape Together Iqonga LoThungelwano team also produces short videos featuring champions and community members, explaining and demonstrating best practices relating to protecting ourselves and others from the virus, and sharing inspirational stories.  These videos are all available on the Iqonga Lothungelwano youtube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbK41qVZpxwIOdnCi6gm8hw

The community champions are provided with monthly data bundles. They use this data to send all of these materials on into their own networks, which are diverse groups that include councillors, municipal officials, traditional leaders, health care workers, grandmothers, fisher folk, high school learners and more. Responses, questions and suggestions are sent back to the coordination team, and in this way, there is a two way flow of information, which has been critical in this time of limited movement.

Some of the important feedback we have heard from rural partners relates to a ‘mismatch’ between the formal language of official directives and people’s lived realities, cultural norms, and contextual concerns.

In the Eastern Cape, there has been a lot of concern about the spread of the virus at large funerals, and therefore, understandably, government has tried to restrict the attendance and duration of funerals. However the way in which this regulation has been communicated requires further engagement with the profound cultural and spiritual significance of particular funeral rituals for different EC citizens. This shows the complexities involved in making the connection between science and culture in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In future, the Eastern Cape Together Iqonga LoThungelwano network believes it can help address these issues by helping to open discussion and dialogue needed at the interface of science, policy and culture. By doing so, the network believes that a middle ground can be found that adapts to meet the health requirements of preventing COVID-19 spread, without undermining important cultural practices.

The WHO has identified six criteria which need to be in place for a safe easing of lockdown. The sixth criteria is ‘engaged communities who understand messages and adopt sustainably safe procedures’. An article by Sibulele Poswayo in the Daily Maverick on 3 June, pointed out the crucial need for Eastern Cape information campaigns in isiXhosa. The Eastern Cape Together Iqonga LoThungelwano has, from its inception, aimed to meet both of these needs.

The interactions and relationships formed through the network helps to give this pandemic a human face. During this time of physical separation, the network provides a platform for people to remain connected to, supported by and contributing to meaningful action and care.

We are guided by the principle of ‘Each One Teach One’ / ‘Each One Reach One’, whereby care and knowledge is passed from one person to the next, while maintaining safe physical distancing, in a wide reaching network of solidarity and learning.