Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Hurricane

For me Predeparture was a challenge; it was reflection, learning, and growth embodied. As the week progressed it became a flurry of thought in my mind that reshaped perceptions and challenged assumptions… Predep was a hurricane.

There is no one way to describe predep and there is nothing to compare it to; it was unlike anything else I have ever experienced or probably ever will. For me it was a major turning point in how I perceived the JF program, EWB, development, and myself.

Imagine this: twenty three people living in the EWB house for one week. Twenty three people living under one roof. Twenty three people made up of two awesome office interns and two amazing JF teams. Sessions ran nonstop all day, and when I say all I day I mean it. Beginning normally at nine and ending around seven the days were jam packed. Sessions took different shapes including discussions, role plays and extended case studies. The topics covered were fairly diverse and ranged from workshops on health to discussion on what exactly poverty and development are. But that was just the tip of the iceberg; with each passing the day the concepts covered became more inherently challenging, more interactive, and more focused – they left me thirsty for more exploration and critical thought. I learned a lesson the first day: you get out of predep what you put into predep.

An activity that I really connected with was a role play where our team (Zambawi! / Zambia & Malawi) were each given a character from a rural village. The Burkina team were each given characters from an NGO that wanted to ‘help’ the village. The character I was given pushed my heart and mind in many ways. She was a thirty-something widow with three kids. She owned no land and was forced to be a hired hand on the farms of the wealthier. Given her status in the village I was not allowed to speak unless spoken to and was forced to lower my head in shame when speaking to men or others in authority roles. Once the roleplay began I immediately found I had little opportunity to share with the rest of the village my hopes and dreams. The first step of the role play was a village discussion – all the members gathered to discuss what to do with this NGO and what kind of ‘help’ we wanted. Being unable to speak up was frustrating; while other more prominent village members reiterated their thoughts over and over the voice of the poorest, my voice, was lost. I was only given two chances to speak and it was incredibly hard to hammer home the points my character wanted. When the NGO arrived this character could not speak – never was she spoken to, if we did would they listen? This made me think about Dorothy differently; yes we often consider her to be the marginalized and the poorest of the poor – a person who we should always keep in heart and mind. But it seems that we often assume that this voice is easy to hear and easy to listen to and that this voice will be triumphant and defiant and echo through the village. I think there is a perception that this voice seeks us out and that it will be easy to listen… But how can we help empower her if we do not listen? How can we listen if we can’t hear her voice when it is caught up in a cacophony of others? How can we amplify that voice for all the ears of the world to hear and understand?
Other activities/sessions included another role play – a behavior change one which again highlighted the complexities of NGO – Village interactions. Although these are of course just role plays and I will be interested to see the realities very shortly.

Integration. It’s an easy word to throw out and say it’s a goal that I want to have but how to go about it? What exactly is true integration? A session on integration sparked some debate and some ideas based on different situations. An idea on how to have deep integration vs. shallow integration is to constantly focus on human contact and not the superficial amenities. For example I am a vegetarian; if I was offered to eat local cuisine that contained meat I do not see eating the meat as being integrated or being open – I think true integration involves human contact, deep experiences, and discussion of culture, beliefs, and values. More on this in a later post.

An extended case study on Sorghum tied up the week; it involved analyzing an actual project proposal, presenting ideas on said proposal, and learning about participatory approaches. The capstone of the whole exercise was yet another role play where we broke into groups and interviewed EWB NO staff who were playing the role of farmers. Andrew, Annette, and I were a team and we tried to focus on asking questions that were more about the farmer and less about the key facts we wanted to obtain. It was a tricky exercise but I feel it was a good test of the skills we had developed thus far in a safe environment where good feeback and coaching is available. Key thoughts for me: focus in on the farmer and let the conversation reveal what is needed, and if that information doesn’t arise begin to ask more specific questions. Always remember it’s about the farmer/Dorothy and not about the sorghum.

If I was to talk about all the sessions and all the learning I gained from them through participation and reflection this post would be A LOT longer – these are just a few of the key points that are on my mind. But the learning and team building did not stop when the sessions stopped; walks back to the EWB house and to the Metro grocery store were full of conversations and fun. We prepared meals as a group, ate as a group, and traveled as a group. Between the sessions themselves and the fact that we were all living together and facing similar challenges a tightly knit group formed. Indeed for me predep was a hurricane – new and great friends, deep reflection, lessons learned, and critical thought. I think I’ll miss the EWB house and I know I’ll miss having the whole group together but it’s time to hit the road. The next step of the journey begins!

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