Building and Testing Visual Values Explorer in Somalia

This post comes from Aaron White at Leadership Beyond Boundaries. Aaron is Deputy Regional Director based at the new Center for Creative Leadership office in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Here’s our virtual interview with Aaron: (More on contextualizing Visual Explorer at What is the biggest challenge that youth face in Ethiopia?)


We have been prototyping a Visual Values Explorer contextualized for Somalia. This card deck works with low-literacy pastoralist communities to talk about individual and communal values and to create deep dialogue for leadership development and conflict mitigation.

Why Visual Values Explorer ?

The Visual Values Explorer idea originated from a desire to have a card deck that could be used for low literacy populations to discuss personal and communal values and one that could also be used for dialogue creation around a framing question.

Knowing common values helps build empathy for other groups (women, other clans, etc) to empower and reduce conflict.

Why contextualize for Somali People?

Those who are working among the Somali people need tools like this to better implement programs in food security, conflict mitigation, governance, etc. I saw a great need for NGOs to have a tool like this in their work.

I have a camel given to me by a Somali ‘uncle’ –which means I’m forever connected to this group.  I have enjoyed the challenges of working with nomadic Somalis in Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia and through that experience

Roughly 5 million Ethnic Somali people live in Ethiopia, but over 12 million Somali people also cover part of Djibouti, the autonomous and rapidly developing Somaliland, the Somalia we know from piracy and war, and North Eastern province of Kenya.  All sharing similar values, language, religion, and livelihoods despite being spread across 5 countries and thousands of miles. The Somali culture is very different from the majority of Ethiopia.  It’s a very egalitarian society as opposed to highly hierarchal

 How was it created?

CCL worked with Desert Rose Consulting whom we often turn to for contextualizing of our tools and methodology.  Thomas Berger, a Swiss social anthropologist who is fluent in Somali, worked for several months to get a set of pictures that represented important, and not important values. Many focus group discussions were held among urban and rural Somalis.  Pictures were tested and modified several times until a working deck of 64 values was formed.

What are the challenges?

Values are not talked about in Somali society, so it was difficult to get to the root of the culture to understand the how the values actually play out.

Low-literacy populations engaged in focus group discussions had a difficult time “reading” or interpreting abstract pictures that were being used in current Visual Explorer decks.  The new cards are easier to interpret and leave less room for arguments over what the picture means.

Participants were acutely critical of seemingly minor issues in the picture.  A picture of a man and two children (which was supposed to represent the value of being a father or of having children) often got the response… “why is this man with his children during the day? Is he unemployed? Why are the children not looking after the goats or in school? Is he in America?”  Because of those issues, pictures had to be very carefully selected so that participants did not get distracted and start arguing over meaning.  In a picture of a teacher (see below), we blurred the words on the black board to avoid arguments over the content of what the teachers is teaching.

 Where to next?

A lot of development money goes unsuccessfully into Somali areas, but we believe leadership may be the lever to improve these programs.  Tools like Visual Values Explorer can help NGO staff to get community buy-in or to create understanding for like values between groups.


About Charles J. Palus & David Magellan Horth

Charles J. Palus & David Magellan Horth are Senior Fellows at the Center for Creative Leadership. Many thanks to Steadman Harrison III, CEO of GO, and Senior Associate for the Center for Creative Leadership.
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