Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Chai and Beer and Dancing

     This is my second time doing this job, ergo you should trust me. I don’t say that out loud to people here; it’s not the sort of statement that inspires confidence. You would not take your child to a pediatrician who had diagnosed one other adolescent, or a mechanic who had successfully repaired a single prior car. Or perhaps you would, but you would expect their services to be heavily discounted, if not free, which is essentially the deal Supia is getting (with the IFP, at least). I’m learning on the job, we’re all learning on the job. Learning is what we do: we’re students.

     None of which excuses us in any way from doing the job as well as humanly possible. I only mention my very limited frame of reference because it is the lens through which I see this project. Like everyone else here, I have nothing except my own personal experiences with which to compare this new undertaking. Encounters, obstacles, personalities, strategies: they are all either “Like It Was In Tanzania” or “Not Like It Was In Tanzania”. My teammates may very well stab me the next time they hear the word Africa; who can blame them? All of this is the grain of salt. Take it and read on.

     People make projects work or fail. Building relationships with those people is a critical part, perhaps the critical part, of development work. I believe this to be even truer when that work is being carried out without the benefit of external resources (read: money). When building a project solely out of goodwill and need, interpersonal relationships are often the glue that holds the whole thing together. This notion can also be problematic, which I will discuss below. But first, the two events that led me to this conclusion.

     First: on Monday I was alone in Supia, and decided to head down to La Playita in the afternoon. When I arrived I found the vereda deserted, with a tenth of the normal complement of soccer players. I asked what was going on, and found out that there was a multi-game tournament taking place between La Playita and San Lorenzo, which is a town in an indigenous reserve, about 7-8 miles from Supia. After waffling for a bit, I decided to damn the expense, and caught a cab out there, rightly guessing that the investment would be repaid in memories.

     I arrived in the middle of the second game. Too many details will make too long a story, so the highlights: the president of the Junta screaming at the referee like a drunken sailor, two mules taking the field and refusing to budge, a missed penalty for San Lorenzo which gave us the win, a dislocated kneecap for one of my favorite women on La Playita’s team, and that same player finishing the freaking game! After the game we all walked down to the plaza to wait for our bus, which showed up 90 minutes later. In between I facilitated a number of “relationship-strengthening workshops”: they bought the first round, I bought the second. Someone convinced the proprietor of the local disco to hit the lights and pump the tunes on a Monday. Someone else did not think El Oso Blanco could dance.

     And that is how I found myself in a town I’d never been to, dancing with a woman I barely knew, while La Playita cheered.

     Things got stranger on the ride home. It was like a Friday-night football game in the US, if the fans, band, and team rode the same bus, which also had a liquor license. They were rather rowdy. The music got a bit loud. One of the female players started dancing in the aisle of a moving bus. She then requested a male dance partner, in the person of your humble narrator. Who was I to refuse? And that is how I found myself dancing with a woman on the middle of a moving bus, while La Playita cheered their faces off. This is relationship-building.

     The second event: yesterday, we sat down with Luzdary, the lovable volcano of a woman who we hope will run this program. She proceeded to needle me about the events of the previous evening, and most everyone in La Playita broke out laughing when they saw me; it sort of felt like we’d all seen each other naked. But that isn’t the point. The point is that near the end of a long and tiring summer, we were finally able to ask her if she would be the boss of this undertaking, and she said yes. We also asked her about recruiting a local retired cop (Samuel) to be a teacher. She laughed. Samuel is her cousin. So that’s not a problem. Oh, and Efren, the taxi driver who takes us to and from La Playita? That’s his brother, and also Luzdary’s cousin. This is relationship-discovering.

     We’d considered Luzdary as a potential project manager since we arrived here. But it was not right to ask her before; she did not know us, and we did not know her. More importantly, we did not know what the program should be, or whether she would be right for it, until we went house-to-house and talked with the community. Similarly, we knew the people who lived in La Playita before this week. But it is only very recently that they have ceased being “at-risk youth” and “vulnerable populations”, and become friends.

     Am I saying that every development worker needs to make a fool of themselves to be accepted? Or that we should only work with people we know and like? Unequivocally: no. In fact, making the project’s success contingent on interpersonal relationships would be an awful idea; the project should outlast any goodwill which we have earned.

     What I am saying is that there is no substitute for mutual understanding. Even in my limited experience I have seen projects fail because development agents acted without comprehending the problem or the people. They did not do the necessary work, and the fact that some of that work often happens over chai or beer or dancing makes it no less important.

     I woke up the morning after my mobile disco with a small hangover and a sheepish grin on my face. As we walked down to La Playita, I had a moment of self-doubt. “Have I”, I asked Tefi, “lost my respect in the community?”
     “Maybe they don’t respect you”, she said. “But now they trust you.” 

     Given the choice, I’ll take it.

1 comment:

  1. Seems like "I'll respect the hell out of you" is a line from something but I can't remember where. Is there a picture of ... (thought I was going to ask for a pic of you dancing, didn't you?) ... the mules on the pitch?