After college, Connie Kamara served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea. She lived in a village with no running water or electricity, working as a health educator. At times, it was difficult getting everyone in the same place at the same time so she could spread her message.
Women were busy with cooking and children. Men and women gathered separately to socialize.
Kamara noticed however, that everyone gathered when a donkey pulling a certain cart came through the village. The cart carried a dilapidated television, VCR, and generator. Usually, it showed martial arts flicks.
"Everyone in the entire village was out watching whatever was on that screen, and they were just completely enthralled by it," Kamara remembers.
The more Kamara thought about it, the more she realized, whoever owned that donkey and cart, was onto something.
When she took a job at the American Refugee Committee, she began looking for ways to use video to spark discussions on gender and health issues. These issues rarely get discussed in some cultures, and can get worse in a crisis situation.
"A woman just doesn't stop getting pregnant because she's had to flee her home. She, all of a sudden, doesn't become not pregnant any more when she is four months pregnant. Rape escalates, HIV transmission escalates," says Kamara. "All of the normal society protection mechanisms break down, so all of these things tend to escalate."
To address these health issues, people need to be comfortable talking about them. Kamara works with a concept called participatory video. That means letting local people make videos and craft messages in whatever ways they see fit. The goal is to bring change from within the community.
Kamara admits it was a hard sell.
"People couldn't really understand why we would need videos in refugee camps. How is that going to help the people?" they wondered.
It's a valid question, particularly in a media-saturated country like the United States, where video is everywhere. However, Kamara was working in different places with different needs, and she had witnessed the power of a TV screen to captivate an audience.
The project she helped develop is called "Through Our Eyes". It's a joint venture by the American Refugee Committee and New York-based Communication for Change.
The messages are more powerful because they're delivered by people who look and speak like the people watching the videos. In Guinea, for instance, villagers interviewed one another in Liberian English. One woman even shared her story of being forced into marriage at age 13.
"We heard you were very small when your mother forced you to marry one big man, about 50 years old. Can you tell us your story?," begins one video. "Well, I was about 13 years old when a man came and said he wanted me. My mother then forced me to be with a man, " the video continues.
After the videos are shot, there is a screening for the entire community, followed by a feedback session. In a village in Liberia, ARC board member Sonia Cairns saw one of the videos and playback sessions firsthand.
"We were crowded in a very small concrete building, probably 150 people, of every age -- babies and village elders and people hanging in the windows trying to see it as well," Cairns recalls.
Cairns says the film left her breathless. It was about child rape. She'd never seen anything so depressing.
But, after the film, she says, something hopeful emerged -- all types of villagers stood up and gave their reactions.
One man said, 'We should report rape.' A village elder said, 'This horrible problem has always existed and now we must stop it.' Cairns says, a young woman with children offered to travel around the country showing the film in different places.
"This project was so visceral. There was no one in the room who was not touched by it," remembers Cairns.
Project initiator Connie Kamara says ultimately, the real success is not so much centered on the videos, but on the reaction and transformation that they create within a community.
"Just to see these women go from being literally sitting on the side of the room, covered up with their shawl on Day 1 of the training, to by Day 3, they are up in the front of the room, fighting for the camera, they've got the microphone in your face, they've got all these questions opinions, ideas…," says Kamara. "The minute that someone believes in them, the minute that someone says we think you're capable, how much that empowers people, and how quickly is amazing.."
USAID has awarded the project a three year grant. It will continue in Pakistan, Thailand and Rwanda.