3 things I reminded myself daily while working abroad

1. Try to participate in the story without being the main character

There are a bevy of factors to consider when pursuing aid work abroad, but there are two essential questions you might try to ask yourself: 1) Are you a good listener? and 2) Are you OK with taking the back set? Principles of empowerment are widely endorsed in the aid sector, though not every organization honors these principles through action. As a general definition, empowerment is a multi-dimensional social process that helps people gain control of their own narratives. It fosters power (that is, the capacity to implement) in people, for use in their own lives, and their own communities.

It’s certainly understandable to want to advance in a well-resourced organization that allows you to take a managerial role, but it’s also incredibly rewarding to measure your growth against the growth of another- especially if someone else is more qualified long-term to lead in a particular context.

We naturally interpret the world through a lens of self, and it’s difficult to step outside that orientation. But by working responsively, instead of prescriptively, with a local team that understands the community, you can move away from this narrow band of thinking, as you examine your role within the larger tapestry of their efforts.

While not everyone loves taking the back seat, I’ve found the most satisfying way to work at the grass roots level is to aspire to make your presence immaterial-empowering locally led teams to push reform both within, and outside, the boundaries of an organization. Learn where and how you can help. Listen. Keep exchanges bi-directional and dialogues open. Our stories become richer when we knot them together.

2. Don’t feel pressured to have opinions. Take your time developing them.

Opinions are in high demand -they grant us an identity, a community and a reason to act. But we live in a world where stimulation is constant and where facts and fiction are tossed and fed to us through an endless round of information. We are asked to make decisions, and to stand for complex causes before we really understand the depth of an issue. It’s easy to consume a few articles, appraise a project, and flatten a problem–all in an effort to contribute to the dizzying discourse of global development. Some NGOs are especially guilty of this as passions alight and ricochet in a myriad of directions –everyone hoping to make an impact and imprint something that matters onto the world. We want things to be black and white, compact and consumable, but it isn’t that simple.

It’s so important to approach this slowly, to grow your banks of knowledge and to shed hubris before acting in an unfamiliar space. Even the best intended interventions permanently distort communities-for better or for worse. Likewise, while it’s tempting to mar good intentions after you’ve read a few op-eds, it’s just more noise until you really understand the information and can have a nuanced conversation about it. As discomfiting as it is, suppress the urge to act too quickly or the urge to moralize, before knowing more. Be generous to yourself and to others. Take the time to develop your own opinions, to actively listen, and to really learn. Be reflexive, and be critical. Keep asking questions and accept the jarring idea that sometimes the more you know, the more uncertain you become! 

3. Force yourself into the present

When I first moved to Tanzania, I learned that it was compulsory to greet the people I pass-all the people-and in various permutations that reflect our social relationship. At first, I found this exchange nerve-wracking. It would add additional time onto my daily commute, and when people attempted longer conversation, I’d find myself babbling on about something banal like my favorite food –or anything that my limited Swahili might somersault through.

But then I realized that greetings were very much part of work– the work of simply being present–and I began to enjoy these interactions. In order to comply with this requirement- I realized that I’d have to go OFF auto-pilot (more often.) I was reminded to see people (to really see them) and to make an effort if this time was to mean anything at all. And while it can be hard to pull away from the rote tasks that help hours pass by absently and yank yourself back into the orbit of now, it felt a little easier in Tanzania. The laughter with different strangers on different days, the banana leaves that framed each commute, Mount Meru carved softly in the distance; these images assaulted every walk I took –and I noticed that I noticed them. Boundaries butt up against each other and begin to erode within a small community. I guess it’s easy to forget the space we’re occupying when we overlay our actions with spreadsheets and systems and automated playlists on spotify. I admit that in the short-term, it was tempting to focus on KPIs or other more quantifiable goals when I felt the way forward was too ambiguous. But the days we live, reflect the lives we live. And while a day of smiling and looking up at the sky could accurately be dismissed as a careless day, it might also be described as a beautiful life.

What kind of lessons have you learned from working abroad? What would you like to share with others interested in this sector? We’d love to hear your story!

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