Friday, September 24, 2010

Webster's Defines Job as...

If a problem falls in the desert, but there is no one around to worry about it, does it really exist?

Poverty, hunger, disease in 3rd world countries, these are bad things right?  I recently heard a section of a speech from President Obama on BBC radio where he said something to the effect of “it’s time we start helping and urging these struggling countries to develop sustainable ways to support themselves instead of supporting a dependence on long term aid”, basically the idea where instead of giving a man some food you teach him to fish so everyday for the rest of his life he has a reason to go sit on a boat and drink beer.

Drunken fishing stories aside, yes Barack, most will agree that this is a great idea, but where nearly everyone will differ is with the how.   

Spoiler alert, I don’t have any genuine answers to the big "how" question and I'm not sure Barack does either.  To be honest, after experiencing a year of the development game I've come to the conclusion that anyone who gives you a definitive recipe for how to fix a struggling area is either lying or trying to impress someone.

So the best I can do for you is to sum up my first year as an optimistic Peace Corps volunteer who was ready to fix Africa but realized that the illusive "how" is more complex than simple good intentions.  After a few months in the lost-in-a-temporary-black-hole-of-despair stage I've now progressed to the realistically-hopeful-and-optimistically-jaded (no plug intended) for the small fraction of this life that I do understand.

Just over a year ago I got off the plane in Mali.  At this point I could write all about the expectations I had leading up to that moment and if you were to just imagine the exact opposite then you’d have a good understanding of my last 14 months.

Let’s break this down:

Misconception Number 1: I exit the plane and place my first foot on African soil, (Imagine an over dramatic inner dialogue voice with a slight echo) “People of Mali, at ease for I am here to solve all of your problems!” 
Lesson Learned: Shockingly, I soon find out that they have figured out how to live before I’ve been able to impart all of my wisdom on them.  As a matter of fact, I soon realize that the village style of living is more self-sufficient then the average American’s.  Small speed bump. 

Misconception Number 2:  (Same voice from above) “That’s ok, I realize you had to find a way to make do until I could arrive, but now I’m here, let’s get started with the Q&A.” 
What would you do if let’s say a friendly Chinese fellow arrived in your office and shortly after the awkward introduction started informing you of better ways to run your business?  Even if he's coming with the best of intentions, he's still Chinese, you're still American, cultural wise it's comparing apples to oranges, fried rice to fried chicken.  
Lesson Learned:  Most people are not going to jump at something just because it's new.  A lesson I learned the hard way when I lost a small fortune investing in Pepsi Clear.

Misconception Number 3:  (No longer standing high on pedestal, similar inner voice, remove echo)  “Ok, ok, I accept that you have certain ways you like to do things, but you must agree that there are some problems so let’s fix them.”
Lesson Learned:  Forget all the fixin' talk, wait a ridiculous amount of time, and finally piece together what I and my Malian colleagues collectively believe the problem to be.  For example, I see a leaky roof and start thinking of ways to patch it up whereas my Malian friends might just tell me to just find somewhere else to sit.

Misconception Number 4:  Six months in, initial expectations shattered along with good portion of ego, but I now have fit myself into a small niche where they have specifically asked for help and I know I am qualified to do so. “Here is my proposal for what we need to change and how we’re going to move forward.”  They love it and want to get started immediately.  Yes!  The time has come we’re really going to start making some improvements.  Six months later we’re just about to get going. 
Lesson learned:  Be patient.  And here I thought two years in Africa was excessive.

To sum up in the simplest terms, I was under the naive impression that this would be easy.  Yeah, the living conditions would be hard and the language barrier frustrating but the satisfaction of a job well done in a place that can really use the help would surely erase all of those mild discomforts.  Little did I know the main discomfort would be spending the first year attempting to redefine the word “job”. 

I’m not sure what the point is here and maybe that is the point.  It’s easy to feel lost.  Everything I thought I knew has either transformed or is not relevant to this daily life.  Sometimes I feel like that kid in the cartoon, confused, frustrated, scared. 

If I could go back in time and give the Tyson of 15 months ago some advice it'd be, "assume you know nothing, then slowly start from there."

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