Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The stuff they don't teach you in grad school

So most of my readers know that I love being in the field. I love working with people, learning new cultures, and problem solving in the context that I am working in - rather than reading about all of these things. Of course, doing research or implementing a program is much more difficult in the field than it is back at home in an office or a classroom. But I love this challenge. It is largely not a deficiency in the education I got back at Duke that this has been a challenge, but more the name of the game.  I have learned A LOT in the past two months and thought I would pass on a few tidbits, both to serve as advice but also (and more importantly) to serve as a note to self.

Trust is key - Although cliche, this couldn't be more true. But this is more than just establishing who is a trusted partner abroad. I have found that it is equally essential, if not more so, to have the partner trust you. Trust means different things in different places. Be yourself. People don't trust phonies - and people are wise to games everywhere you go. I have learned over and over again to the last two months to trust myself. I know more than I think I do, my instincts tend to be almost always right, and when I am confident in myself others will be confident in me too.

Just go with it - In one of the most helpful conversations I had regarding my time abroad, I was assured by a mentor to allow myself a healthy dose of "winging it". And have I? As my dad would say, boy howdy. There have been times the conversation has meandered from my script, but often this is when I find the most intriguing things. For example, when only half of the people who showed up to my focus groups for participants of the program had actually ever participated, the conversation went to the CFK brand in Kibera and was an unexpected, but important, conversation.

Quit taking it personally - Don't take it personal when people don't show up to things or show up three hours late, don't understand the questions you are asking, or are hesitant in sharing their opinion. I find that Kenyans can be refreshingly blunt, even to the point of laughing directly at the way you dress (and the way you say chakula or ngong, not that I am still bitter taking that personally).

Context is everything - Be flexible and understand things change. Find out when people will actually show up to things, go to where people will actually be, and conform to them. Today I trekked half way across Kibera for a twenty minute interview. In the room with the people I spoke with where three teens, two newborns, two children, one kitten, and one rooster. Three children were breastfed while I talked with their mothers. Never in Professor Whats-Their-Bucket's class did I learn how to administer an interview to a woman who is breastfeeding in a ten-by-ten while contemplating if the rooster's noise would cover up the voices on my audio-recording. But again, I could not have (nor would I have) taken those women from their homes into my own sterile environment to have that conversation.

Be patient (with yourself) - We are reminded to be patient with our partners abroad. Collaboration doesn't happen overnight. Cultural adjustment doesn't either. You aren't going to know the cool way to say "hey what's up" right off the bat. Most cultures don't come with a how-to guide, nor should they. That's the fun part. Rarely are we taught to be patient with ourselves as well. As a person who has once or twice been called an overachiever, I am often more patient with others than with myself. Sometimes learning how things DO NOT work is more important in learning how things DO work. Can I tell you how ridiculously awkward my first interview was? I was terrible. And then I was frustrated at myself for being terrible. But I learned and now I am so in the groove I can handle errant roosters in the middle of the interview like a pro.

Something else I learned while here? Betting on horses, even those in foreign lands, will only lose you (or your new friend) money. Pole rafiki yangu. 

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