If you happened upon a section of last year's Your & Owls festival that alternately featured a massive banquet and an African food market you were likely wondering what on earth was going on - not standard fare for a music festival. As it turns out Forever Projects is what was going on and this year they're coming back! We caught up with Ben Hawkins, the former ninja-barista for Lee & Me and current genius of design, who's connecting our little community with a community in a country far, far away.
Black Gold: What exactly is Forever Projects and how did it start?
Ben Hawkins: It all began when friends of ours were living in Tanzania to adopt children. While they were there they saw this epic work that was being done by the orphanage in trying to reunite abandoned kids with their families. When they came back to Australia they knew they had to do something to help them out. Forever Projects came out of that desire to help out.
Where did the unique name come from? To be honest it took me a little while to wrap my head around it!
It actually cleared a lot up for us once we stumbled on that name. We felt our name needed to reflect the change in direction from being just an orphanage, which is called Forever Angels, to the empowerment work we are doing now for families in the community. We actually only work one on one with families for 12 months, not forever like you might assume! But the effect of that year will permanently change their lives.
Awesome, so is your work mainly involved with one particular orphanage there?
At this stage, yes. The orphanage began with a girl from UK who started it 10 years ago and has been exploring ways to permanently change the lives of the poor, not just give hand-outs or provide band-aid solutions but to treat people with dignity. So we designed a project that works closely with 50 families at once. We work with families who are struggling to prevent the situation becoming so dire that abandonment is the only option. This project can be rolled out all over Tanzania. We've just finished our trial project in Mwanza and we're about to roll it out to a town 100km away as well.
What does your work on the ground primarily consist of?
We work to empower families who have a newborn child who is malnourished. Most often they’re in this situation because they’ve lost their mother in childbirth. When the baby doesn’t have access to milk, there’s not an affordable alternative to keep the baby alive. So formula milk is the most immediate need that we provide. Once the kids are healthy, we want to empower the family so they can go on looking after their own children. So we give them training and help setup a business to give them a solid income stream. Lastly, we make sure they have a safe home so they can live independently long term, which might mean building them a house.
I think the tendency with aid organisations, especially historically, has been to blanket entire areas with money or band-aid solutions as you put it. The shift in working towards manageable, long-term change is appearing to be far more beneficial, but does require much more commitment. It's great that you guys are working in this arena. How do you see your engagement with the West, specifically in Wollongong, benefiting these communities in Tanzania?
We want to actually inspire people. And create a community who are also inspiring each other to use not just their money but the things they're good at. One of the things we've been stoked about is people coming to us, saying they've got this thing they want to use to do good. Like a street artist, barista, designer, builder or a kid with a trombone. They're using what's in their hands to engage in a cause outside themselves and inspiring other people to ask the same question about their own skills and work. Because of that, it's creating its own community here. And together we tell stories of real people whose lives have been changed in Tanzania because of them. I think we're only just scratching the surface of what's possible here. It's still developing.
That's great, I really love that it's more investment on this end than just, "Please give us your money..." though I'm sure money also helps! So I saw over the fence last year at the Yours & Owls festival that you had quite a set-up there for a banquet, and that market - such an epic set-up! What's happening this year?
We're bringing it back! Yeah it was an epic feat last year to recreate a Tanzanian market and drop it into a festival in Wollongong. We really had no idea how people would take to it but it was amazing. It was really the springboard to where our community is now.
This year we'll be joined by a whole group of street artists who are giving their time to create a massive mural. Sandygoodwich and Samara's will be pumping out delicious feeds and cocktails and it all goes to help empowering Tanzanian families. We love how people can do the thing they were going to be doing, like having a beer at a festival, and it can permanently change someone's life in another country.
Rad! So what should festival attendees be on the lookout for there?
We'd love for people to come and hang out with us, grab a beer and a meal and see what our community is doing or be inspired by stories of families whose lives have been changed. We're hoping a whole new group of people join us so we can continue to share stories of hope.
Cool, and tell us about yourself. What do you do apart from Forever Projects, what drew you to being involved with them and what is your role with them?
I'm originally from Wollongong but I spent the last couple of years all over NSW so I was floating between freelance designer and having the freedom not to work at all. A friend took me to Tanzania last year and it was there that I saw for myself how good this work was and threw myself into Forever Projects. I'm the guy that makes everything look good and thinks about the story that we're telling.
You're a good man. What are the best ways for people to connect with Forever Projects going forward?