When you first come onto GVI’s base in Shimoni, it can be a bit overwhelming. You are literally situated in a house in the middle of a village where you don’t know anyone, and it is quite obvious that you are an outsider. You try your best to fit in, but when you don’t know the language and your kanga keeps falling down when you try to dress appropriately...you can feel a brick wall of exclusion seemingly around every corner.
However, after working for a week in the schools, going to Abdul’s for chapatti or Pink Curtains for chai, spending time at the shop to buy sodas and phone credit, people start to recognize you. If you show an effort to speak Kiswahili or you approach someone and ask about their day, people genuinely appreciate it. You slowly find yourself remembering faces and names, and you are pleasantly surprised to find people remembering yours as well! You enjoy walking through the village, and you anticipate the exhilarating moment when someone calls you over by name from across the street to say hello and ask about your day.
|Madam Kate in action|
For me, my greatest pleasure is getting closer to the people that I’m working with. I have been teaching Adult English classes for the past few weeks, and I work with a very sweet man named Youda. He and I are becoming close friends as we talk and learn more about one another’s lives and cultures. Youda especially loves hearing about the snows in Vermont, and is always asking me about the tools people use to move about in the snow. Explaining the meaning of Nor’Easter to a man who has lived on the equatorial coast of Africa his whole life is both entertaining and challenging. I showed him photos of my father sunk in snow up to his chest, and we both laughed about it for a good 15 minutes.
You may be wondering where the actual English lesson is within this anecdote. The truth is that the real work is done through connection, through making friends. When you work in a village that is conservative and relatively disconnected from the world, the average college graduate white person can be seen as a very distant outsider. The key to getting people’s genuine attention and understanding is to gain their trust as well as their respect. For example, we are trying to bump up recruitment for the Adult Environmental Classes. We had posted signs around the village, at first in English and then in Kiswahili, but we were still not getting any people to come. Today, we decided to take a more grassroots approach. We went around to the people we knew in the village, mostly shop and restaurant owners, and told them about the event. We went dressed in kangas and I covered my hair, we met some new people and we were friendly and approachable. We introduced ourselves and got to know more people’s names. We found people who knew someone who was very interested, called them over and we were able to directly tell them when and where we were meeting. It felt so empowering and so exciting to make these genuine connections. We will have to see how our grassroots canvassing efforts turn out tomorrow when Adult Environmental meets, but the whole experience reaffirmed how important it is to know the people and have them know you if you want to work with them and change their lives.