Tunisia: when design brings people together

Photo by el Warcha.

This week on International Wednesday: located in the working-class neighborhood of la Hafsia is El Warcha, a workshop where the locals can take back the streets one piece of furniture at a time.

Design and art are bringing people together. El Warcha is a workshop started in 2016, by the French designer Benjamin Perrot, the Tunisian designer Marwen Derbel, and the Tunisian architect Taha Balti. They encourage what is commonly known in architecture as participatory design.

Traditional design projects involve the clients and the professionals. But in participatory design, community members – from users to local businesses – are included in the design process. This can take place through various activities such as software development, urban planning, or even through the making of art. This way people can have a direct impact on their living environment by being directly involved in its creation. This form of design also ensures that the result fits people’s needs.

With El Warcha, Perrot wanted to find ways to make the citizens in la Hafsia have a tangible impact on their neighborhood and the way it is made. El Warcha should be a space were strangers could work together on the same project to design and create public furniture and art.“I believe the public space is a space of experimentation for democracy; and maybe having an input on how it’s made can have a political impact,” he says.

Workshop session. Photo by El Warcha.

The street is generally the place where people demonstrate, protest, and assert their opinion. Perrot sees a political aspect to the activities of El Warcha. Through the building of furniture and art, Tunisians express and implement their ideas and can have a direct impact on the city.

When the initiative first started, Perrot did not know who would come to the workshops or how it would play out. Progressively, more and more children and teenagers from the school nearby started participating at El Warcha.

Life in la Hafsia

“The rehabilitation plan of la Hafsia starting in the 1980s and the end of Ben Ali’s regime gave the opportunity for such project to happen,” says architect Faika Béjaoui.

After the French protectorate, la Hafsia was a very poor neighborhood with high unemployment. It only started changing with the restructuration and rehabilitation plan in the 80s. Buildings were renovated and a better access to public services was provided.

Béjaoui asserts that during the dictatorship, such project could not have worked. It would have been under the control of the government and therefore would have received very little support from the inhabitants. The political party in power at the time – the Socialist Destourian Party – was very unpopular. Citizens’ freedom was highly restricted, opponents were tortured, and the press was censored.

Participant at workshop. Photo by El Warcha.

At the time, the public spaces were the government’s property and people would not actively engage in improving their living environment. After the 2011 revolution, these ceased to belong only to the government, but the sentiment stays. Initiatives, like El Warcha, emerged to change this.

Progressively, Tunisians have been gaining more and more freedom and agency. But longstanding issues of unemployment still remain, especially amongst the youth. In la Hafsia, young people are a major part of the population, which is mainly poor and rural.

The impact of El Warcha

Roufa Zouabi has lived in la Hafsia for the past 60 years. He says it is important to provide children with a sense of responsibility and recognition, and El Warcha achieves this. Instead of hanging around in the streets after school, the workshop allows these children to apply their own ideas and build things. These activities provide discipline.

Aziz Romdhani lives in the apartment above El Warcha and started attending the workshop since its very beginning. At the time, he was 13 years old and had no experience in design. Two years later, Aziz manages projects on his own.

“Aziz is one of the core member of El Warcha,” says Perrot. “Aziz had trouble at home, at school. I believe being successful at El Warcha is a big step forward. Now he says he wants to become a designer.”

Light installation. Photo by El Warcha.

While El Warcha helps children and teenagers gain confidence and independence, Béjaoui believes that these initiatives alone cannot fully improve the situation. “Even though El Warcha greatly contributes to the emancipation of the youth, issues like unemployment have to be tackled on the long term through policies and actions from the government.”

This summer, for the first time young people working at El Warcha will get to travel abroad to showcase their work at the Chale Wote Street Art festival in Accra, Ghana. The Warcha team will be working together with locals to build street light installation using recycled material.