Before joining Dimagi as a field manager, I had signed on to lead a summer study abroad trip for high school students. As usual, Dimagi was amazing and worked it into my schedule once on board. Rather than connecting with organizations around ICT4D, I instead went to live in rural southeastern Senegal, in a village of around 1,000 people. There, I moved in with a Peul family in their mud and straw hut overlooking the border of Guinea and Mali.
I spent the month working with a group of 12 U.S. high school students as they learned to step outside of themselves and into this new culture. My days were spent facilitating the group arrangements, helping lead service work, attending to their home life, tears or wound care. It was an incredible opportunity and watching the students’ minds and world expand was deeply inspiring.
It was a month of being fully immersed in a place that we would typically place on our “impact” map. The people in the village live on less than $3 a day. Malaria is running rampant. The pharmacy is often empty. Crop yields are troubling. Most students drop out after 6th grade. Life is very, very hard. NGO SUVs come drop off malaria nets, hang posters at the clinic, shake hands and call it a day.
What those SUVs miss however, is far more telling. The village is, hands down, the happiest community I’ve ever seen. Days are spent full of love and with joy for life. Laughter constantly fills the air and everyone feels a deep sense of belonging. There is no complaining, no fatalism and no sense that there is need for external help. Our host families taught us what they’ve always known: life is just a little bit better there.
For the whole month, our group’s only task was to soak in their stories. The students quickly learned to drop the pretense of being westerners from a ‘developed’ land, with skills to teach and ‘service’ to impart. While they thought they were going to help the villagers live better, it became evident to them that it was really the other way around. That month our new families taught us more about the simple art of love and happiness beyond anything we could have given them in return. It was a beautiful and soul stirring experience.
All of us at Dimagi work hard to make an impact. Often, we do a great job. However, as a field manager, it is my job to apply these lessons to the team’s work across the globe. The communities I enter into are rich in their own ways, and it is my job to recognize it. By starting from this place of positive deviance, I can learn from every new health worker, farmer, teacher and beyond. Rather than joining the cadre of those in the white SUVs, it is my job to soak in the culture that accompanies each project. Like my students, it is my job to move in, settle down, and be humbled by the wisdom that surrounds me.