Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Lessons Learned in Africa

Jambo!  I’ve been MIA from the blogging world lately because I spent the first month of my summer living in Bujagali Falls, Uganda. Africa has always been in my heart and living, learning and teaching there has been a shared dream of mine and my sister’s.  This summer we traveled together to Uganda to volunteer with the SOUL Foundation.  We were so very blessed to spend a month living with a host family in the most welcoming and amazing community imaginable.  When I returned, I had to pretty quickly jump back into school mode to attend my district’s Summer Academy professional development.  While catching up with my principal on the phone, she remarked about what an amazing opportunity I had to live and teach in Africa and that I surely will bring so much back to share with our students this school year.  It got me thinking… What will I share?  What impact did Africa have on me that I will bring to my school?  What lessons did I learn during my time in Uganda?  So, I did some reflecting and lots of looking through my pictures to come up with the following list of my own lessons learned.  I am sure there will continue to be other lessons that pop up and different ways that I realize I have been changed from this experience, but for now, here are some things I’d like to share about my journey.

Lesson one: When you’re a fish in the water, make the first move.

It’s not comfortable or fun to be the fish out of water.  If I’m being honest with myself, I am rarely out of my comfort zone at home.  I spend my time doing what I love and am good at surround by people that know and understand me.  In Africa, I frequently felt like a fish out of water.  I didn’t look, speak or act like the people I was living among, and there were vast cultural differences that challenged me daily.  What made me feel better adjusted and more comfortable were the interactions with the community when people from the village made the first move.  That is, they made the first move (despite the language barrier) to greet us, welcome us and try to understand us.  The more difficult times came when we felt disconnected and out of place because no one was interacting with us or acknowledging our presence or trying to understand our cultural differences.  Thankfully, those times were few and far between (as I said, we were in the most welcoming community).  I think sometimes we tend get so caught up in our own comfortableness that we don’t realize how uncomfortable and out of place others around us may feel. This is certainly often the case with parents and school-- and especially so with parents that are not from the US themselves.  My school population is around 60% Hispanic and growing, and I thought a lot about that while I was in Africa.  Like those welcoming people in the village, am I making the first move to ensure that they feel comfortable, appreciated and accepted within the school building?  I am definitely a fish in the water back home and at school, and I want to be ever so conscious of doing what I can to make the first move in welcoming and accepting all.

Lesson two: Children are much more resilient than we give them credit for.

The afternoon before we were getting ready to leave, Elizabeth and I went to sit by the Nile together one last time.  We quickly found ourselves surrounded by 8 or so children all under the age of six running, screaming, crying, laughing and playing with no adult supervision.  One second they were mean to each other by hitting, hurting and teasing, and the next they were laughing and playing again without any adult intervention.  The same truth could be said about the students we were teaching at preprimary. It often went against my nature to allow children to just freely roam and interact with each other anywhere and everywhere by themselves, but it is such a cultural norm that I had to just get over and accept it.  And you know what?  It turns out that children are much more resilient than we give them credit for.  They look out for each other and very quickly get over it when they get hurt.  They don’t hold grudges or create drama with their friends.  If someone hits them, they may cry for about 30 seconds or they may just turn around and hit that person back who will then shrug and move on with life.  The next thing you know, they are back to playing and having fun.  Children as young as three are responsible for getting to and from school by themselves and sometimes have to do so by walking very long distances.  It is amazing (and through a Western lens, often terrifying) that they are able to handle and do so much by their own little selves.  It makes me think that in America we are often guilty of going overboard on coddling our children and not expecting as much out of them as they are capable of.  I want my kids at school to know how much I love them, and I am sure as a result of that, I too often give in to the drama and allow them to become dependent on my help.  I plan to very consciously take a step back this year and instead of coddling, empower students to accept their feelings and problems solve on their own.  Trust me, they are more than capable of doing so.

Lesson three: Hard work really does pay off… but it may take some time.

While we were volunteering with SOUL, we were fortunate to visit many different women’s groups that SOUL created to empower the women and provide sustainability within the community.  Some of the most amazing groups we visited and got to participate in were the fish farming groups.  Four years ago, they had the idea to create a group that would fish farm to earn money for themselves and their families.  Being from a fishing community, they were excited to take this project on; however, they did not know about the process and chemistry of fish farming nor did they have the ponds ready to go.  They had to start from the bottom up.  Together, this group and the SOUL staff found some land and began to hand dig the four ponds necessary to start fish farming.  It is incredible to imagine what they must have been feeling and thinking on those hot African days while digging for what I’m sure seemed like an endless amount of time.  How were they able to keep the end in sight and understand the purpose for all of their hard work in the beginning knowing how far away the reward was?  While we were there, the fish pond group was gearing up to sell their biggest fish and make their first profit.  That’s right, their first profit after 4 years of all of that hard work.  They had many struggles along the way and numerous learning experiences to get them where they are now, but I think that the reason they will continue to be successful is because they are now seeing how all of their hard work has paid off.  They have had ownership of the whole project from start to finish.  What a useful example I now have to share with my students to help them keep the end in mind while goal setting and planning for their futures.  It isn’t always fun, easy or quick, but in the end, hard work really does pay off.

Lesson four: Synergy can turn a bite into a meal.

One of my favorite things to witness was break/lunch time at preprimary.  Firstly, the kiddos were just adorable with their little lunch pails.  But looking past the cuteness was a raw understanding of synergy that took place each day during this time.  The kids would take their own little pail and go sit down with a group of friends.  They would open their lunches, grab a handful of beans or rice or whatever was packed for them that day and put it in their friend’s pail.  Next, they would reach in and grab a bit of corn or potatoes that were in their friend’s pail and place it in their own.  They did this with no communication whatsoever.  There were no “please” and “thank you” taking place because they had such a basic understanding of synergy.  In other words, if they go eat by themselves then they will have a meal consisting of a few beans.  However, if they grab, take and give among their friends, their lunch will go from a few beans to beans, rice, corn, potatoes and whatever other goodies were packed for their friends that day.  I think what was truly remarkable to me about this is how it happened so naturally.  In America, how often am I telling kids the importance of sharing and teaching them that we can do more together than we can alone?  Kids in Africa just get it.  On another note, synergy can also help raise children, create and run a business, expedite the success of a business, foster sustainability and over all better everyone’s livelihood. 

Lesson five: It takes a village to do just about everything.

The final lesson that I want to share from my time in Africa is about the incredible sense community I felt and experienced.  The saying goes, "It takes a village to raise a child", but the truth of the matter is that it takes a village to do just about everything.  One of the most striking cultural differences that I am struggling with as I acculturate back into Western society is the lack of community I feel here.  I've been lucky that I had professional development this week to allow me to get out of my house and interact with fellow school counselors.  But even so, after the few hours we are together, we all go back home, close our doors and do our own thing.  That is too often life here in America.  In Africa, there was no going inside and closing the door… people were always outside so that you can see, greet and communicate with everyone.  They don’t have the same sense of individuality that we have here.  Instead, they truly live by the words “What’s mine is yours and embody them in all that they do.  The village is better off because everyone looks out for each other and their children (who are usually just roaming around in and out of people’s homes and getting fed and loved).  People there work together to create a community that can continue to sustain and better itself every day.  How amazing would it be if our schools had that sense of community?  What if instead of competing to have the best scores or smartest students we all worked together in a synergistic way to share and grow education as a whole that would benefit each and every student and family? 

Thanks for reading my thoughts… Living in Africa was an amazing and life changing experience that I will always hold in my heart.  Now, with my new lessons learned, on to planning for the 2013-14
school year!