Urban Basic Services in Sub-Saharian Africa: Interview with Dario Caruso
This interview has been conducted by Carla Procida on 14.10.2019 and published in her master thesis project at the Politecnico di Milano, titled "Urban Basic Services in Sub-Saharan Africa. Integrating Service Desifn tools into architectural process".
How and when Verso was born?
Verso was officially born in January 2015, but theoretically it was conceived after my Erasmus experience made in Vienna, where a professor introduced me to some specific topics useful for this project. When I came back to Ferrara, I decided to involve one of my Italian colleagues to this project, in order to develop an innovative model which may change the perspectives of some topics in the university of Ferrara. In this regard, we sorted a workshop, named “Limiti Urbani”, in which we involved a large number of academics, between professors and students, from all over Italy. This workshop represented the first experience of our association, and it was made up of two sections: conferences and practical skills.
Are all Verso team members architects? Or do they have different backgrounds?
At the beginning, we were all architects, since we were all colleagues in the University of Ferrara. Now, we are looking to expand our association involving people with different backgrounds, in order to be more competitive on the market. Currently, we have two partners, who are hydraulic and energy engineers, and we are going to involve also an expert on international cooperation to improve our networking. Moreover, we plan to include a communication expert and a legal advisor.
How many projects did you make in Sub-Saharan Africa?
Actually, just one. We made it in September 2019, in Ouidah in Benin, called Ouidah One. This project was based on the requalification of one of the orphanages in Ouidah. Naturally, we have other projects on mind. In this regard, thanks to the success of the project in Ouidah, we are planning to make another similar project in Allada, commissioned by NGO “La Maison de la Joie”. The space they have is too limited. This work is based on the building of an orphanage, which is considered essential for the local community. To better comprehend how orphanages may operate in that area, some of my colleagues went to Allada for checking the status and the structures of these buildings.
It is important to state that all of these orphanages are managed not only by NGOs, but also by the clerk and the local government. Among these orphanages, there is the one of Sainte Marie de Toligbe, where we did the workshop Ouidah One. This one is managed by the clerk, but the conditions were very bad, so we decided to do the workshop there and implement some improvements.
How and when was the project in Ouidah born? Who conceived it?
The idea of the orphanage requalification in Ouidah was born in March of the current year 2019, after having attended an architecture conference in the University of Ancona. Some of my colleagues came up with this original idea in order to start our networking for making this kind of projects in Benin, before building the one in Allada.
Did you already meet the orphans hosted in Ouidah?
Some yes, but actually the focus groups that you saw on our website we only did them with the children of “La Maison de la Joie”, who we hosts us when we go in Benin and commissioned us the Allada orphanage. Unfortunately we couldn’t do any workshop or activity with the kids of the orphanage in Ouidah, because there was no time.
Is the organization of “La Maison de la Joie” directly linked with your association? Or not?
No, we are not directly linked with them. We have only got in touch with them through our personal contacts. “La Maison de la Joie” is a ONG, which was born by an idea of an Italian, who married a local lady in Benin. Together, they built a house in Ouidah that became an important orphanage. Since they live in Italy, they found other investors interested in helping them with this project for Benin’s community. Now, they are looking to expand this organization with an Italian group, “Insieme per crescere”, which has other ONGs. It is important to state that “La Maison de la Joie” is an Italian ONG, and simultaneously is an organization registered in Benin.
How was the interest with “La Maison de la Joie” born?
Since we decided to make this project in Benin and this organization is one of the most important NGOs there, we got in touch with them thanks to one of our partner’s links with them. Through this link, “La Maison de la Joie” proposed us to work about a project concerning the building of a new orphanage. Once accepted this project, we also decided to perform the workshop about the orphanage requalification in Ouidah by ourselves.
Is there difference between orphanage and family home in Benin?
In Benin, the reality is totally different from Italian one. There, social workers are mediators between families and orphanage managers, also because some orphans are not completely without parents. In case the orphan cannot stay in the family home, this last may be accepted by the orphanage. In consideration of the orphanages management, the ones managed by the clerk and the local government are different by the ones managed by the ONG, e.g. by “La Maison de la Joie”. The management structure of “La Maison de la Joie” consists in two major figures: la Maman, who may cook and make all house services, and the childcare worker, who educates children in behaving in a particular way in the daily environment. Naturally, there are also other figures as social workers or external supporters who may help orphans to do homework or something else.
What stage are you with the realization of the orphanage project in Allada?
Actually, we are at a standstill, since there are several bureaucratic slowdowns because of the granting of permits concerning the building. These slowdowns are mainly due to the local political dynamics. Despite that, the portion of land where it is possible build the orphanage is available. In replying to your question, I suppose that the times concerning the realization of this project are indefinable. The project may take one year or more. Everything depends on the flexibility and collaboration of the local governmental authorities. Anyway, there are many aspects that we found out in regard to the children’s needs that have to do with the way they conceive their living and some of their habits, that have to be together as a family.
What about the funds?
A percentage of this project will be directly financed by the NGOs, such as “La Maison de La Joie”, and other percentages will be financed by donations or other campaigns aimed to the requalification of these territories.
Which kind of activities did you perform for the project in Allada and which kind of tools did you use?
Sincerely, I was not in Benin last year, so I could not supervise everything that my colleagues did in that period. I may say that they sorted some cards in which local people had to draw a small graphic rendering.
Moreover, they had some personal interviews explaining what they expected from this project. From these interviews, my colleagues highlighted all the needs of the local people, in order to develop the most appropriate project for the building of the orphanage. In relation to this, in this project we must to consider to build some spaces useful for all children, for allowing them to be comfortable with the building, such as the area where they may pray, the area where they sleep in peace, the canteen, etc… They do most of the things together.
What tools did you use during the workshops? Did you produce these tools or were they used in other experieces?
We used focus groups for the Allada orphanage, and they were partly already organized in Italy with the help of a professor of sociology from the University of Bologna. We needed her help because working with children can be stimulating but presents other problems. Focus groups with children are different from the ones with adults, and they also expressed their dreams and wishes, and on this base we designed the Allada orphanage.
The focus groups were done with some papers where the kids were asked to draw, the some conversation about their dreams on the orphanage, and finally there was a phase of researching about their way of living.
What were the aims of the focus groups?
Mostly to understand how they live and imagine, but not specifically to visualize the spaces, because probably it would have changed anyway.
What data did you collect and how did they influence the project?
Yes, as I said it was more about understanding how they live, they spend most of their time between the school and the orphanage.
You said that for the Ouidah workshop you couldn’t go and meet the kids before. Why?
We were not able in such a little time to organize a trip to go before the construction. It was already complicated to make the requalification project and the organization of the workshop together.
How did you fund the project?
With crowdfunding and free donations from privates and institutions.
How helpful were the tools in visualizing the data about the space?
Some were written, they we asked for the drawings, and after they gave us an oral restitution.
What phase were you when you had these activities with the kids?
The project was still not there, only ideas. After the workshops, we defined it and presented it both to the NGO and in a small event in Carpi to get some donations. Their evidence of how they used the space influenced the project a lot, also to define were to put the rooms of the “maman” and of the educator. The NGO comprised the time for these research phase in the time given, which was very helpful. The NGO is made of volunteers, so they didn’t have the competences to provide this information, so we had to do it. But I want to specify we’re also not experts in cooperation.
Since one month is passed, do you have news on the level of satisfaction of the kids?
Of course, not everything went as planned, but in some way we did more than we expected. So we are very satisfied. The kids use the space better. Before, they were bored, so they were sleeping a lot. After doing the playground, they started to develop their fantasy, they were very excited about it as soon as we started to build it. Now it’s rain season, so they use the covered part more. Also the beds made a good improvement.
Who were the stakeholders?
La Maison de la Joie gave us a big help, because they hosted us, and gave us the tools to work and build, despite the fact that in that case we were not designing for them, because the orphanage in Oudaih is managed by the clerk, as I said. The NGO was worried for the conditions of the kids, that is why they helped us. Then, we had three local workers from a small construction company, which was absolutely essential to build in the proper way. The priest also helped.
To what extent did the Ouidah project follow the needs of the kids?
Not much, there was only an evident need not to sleep on the concrete floor. About deciding the kinds of plays to put in the playground, we decided by ourselves with recycled materials found there. We had more of them, but we had to take some off because they were using them in the wrong way.
Do you keep documentation of the workshop activities carried out and the results obtained for Allada?
Yes we have the drawings, videos and so on.
Will you publish the results about the impact that the Ouidah requalification had on the kids?
Yes, we think so. We want to go back there next year, but for sure before that someone from La Maison de la Joie will go there to see how the kids are doing and they will give us some feedback. We are also in contact with the priest, that would like us to do more for them, like new toilet units for example. But we can’t do anything now, on one side because we should collect funds ourselves, and on the other because we don’t really agree with a certain form of assistance, we are not there to solve all their problems.
Do you think that with this project you were trying to respond to the kids’ rights to inhabit and play?
For sure in the future the aim is to give some joy to these kids, but mostly it was a way to send a message: an orphanage doesn’t necessarily have to be a place to sleep and eat, but it can also be a place to have an acceptable childhood.
Thinking both about the present and past projects of the office, and of the future direction you want to give it, would you define yourselves as ‘humanitarian architects’?
No, not humanitarian. Maybe the concept of ‘humanitarian’ is a bit too elevated. On our business card we wrote “social architecture”. We believe in helping societies to grown and improve, to live with dignity maybe also despite the poverty. For us ‘humanitarian’ is too linked with a state of emergency. We would like to support development in any part of the world.
Do you see the project as a service to the community? If yes, what kind of service did you bring?
Yes for sure. These kids will be adults one day, and I hope our project contributed even only a bit to their positive growth. Probably such a limited intervention in such a small space doesn’t change much in their life experience, but I think it will also contribute in educating them to use the spaces in the right way. They were used to sleep on the floor and to use outdoor areas as toilets. It’s important to show them which are the right places to do these things.
Do you know what is service design? Do you have service designers in the team? Do you know any service designer?
Before you told me what it is, I had no idea. I don’t know if anyone from the team know any service designer.
Do you see these two projects as part of a system?
We try to not see the project only in the physical form, that’s why we define ourselves as ‘architects for the social’: we need our projects to have an impact on different levels. It’s not just about creating a beautiful space, but it needs to be convivial, helping people to communicate and integrate. Moreover, for sure if we could expand our competences, we would like our projects to be bigger and start with good research and analysis about the people. We know that to have a project that works, onl creating a space is not enough.