Navigating the Cultural Waters

Today was my first day of non-jet-lagged brain waves here in Ethiopia. Though much of the country adheres to a very ancient form of Christianity, from our building we can hear the Muslim call to prayer starting at about 5:30 am.
I’ve spent enough time in Muslim countries to have come to love the sound of “Allahu Akbar!” — strung out, over a loud speaker. I have understood that we Christians used to have that sort of spiritual presence in our lives when the church bells rang out the various prayer times of the day. It would not have had the same effect as hearing the human voice, perhaps, but it did mark the specific moments where prayer was invited and space made for it, when everyone, all at once, could turn their thoughts away from the day-to-day drudge to something higher.
Today was the first day I didn’t feel utterly gobsmacked with jet lag. I managed to function yesterday and I managed not to have a nap. I’m opposed to naps after long trans-Atlantic flights. I think they just prolong the agony.
I had my misgivings about doing this trip and getting involved in this project. I don’t usually accept gigs in developing countries under a month-long stay. Especially where I’m going into a culture that I am totally unfamiliar with. I believe you need time to catch the rhythms of the people, the kind of energy they have. I need time to learn my 100 words in their language, to figure out how they do dinner, to decide if what I brought to wear is appropriate or not.
I was worried that our four-woman team might be too task- and milestone-oriented. I thought they had expectations that might not be reflected in the reality on the ground, and that we needed time, time, time to make the connections with folks that would tell us what they really wanted to accomplish.
The soap-making team doesn’t stand to fail the way we Salesforce gurus can: Women will come to their workshop, if only to have some fun on a weekday when the kids are at school. They may or may not grab the initiative and start soap fair trade businesses and make money hand over fist. If we fail, though, to engage with our Ethiopian friends, to fully understand where they really are with their shiny, elegant database created for them by an American who is now a Salesforce employee– if we fail to get this puppy up and running… the consequences don’t even bear considering.
That may be a bit overblown. I mean, Salesforce is just a database, after all. And it’s online and we all seem to blithely feel that the Internet just works everywhere the way it just works for us. So we could fail here because the infrastructure forming the background grid just ain’t here.
From the vantage point of the States, there were just a whole lot of ways this might not work out. We are only two days into the experience now, so while the vibe is great and the feeling of connection with these folks strong, we could still fall on our faces. We are asking a lot: “Hey folks, here’s everything we could come up with to make your Salesforce work for you. Now we want you to embrace it the way we do. Learn to make rollup summaries. Figure cross-object formulas. And last but not least, create a nine-point dashboard that covers the most important data you’re tracking. Oh, and please don’t fall behind on the data entry, okay? And keep the data clean as a whistle, too, while you’re at it. Thanks.”
Somehow, while I can see the road ahead with some bumps and detours, I believe we can make this work. It comes down to a combination of a fundraising and marketing dynamo of an executive director with a deep love and passionate commitment to the project…AND…a local staff that takes a much more laid-back approach, using the multi-tasking central leader style, the guy who gets much of what he gets done through gentle persuasion, and appreciation and encouragement of his staff. I’ve seen this local type of NGO leadership in several organizations I’ve worked in outside the States. I had to learn it.
While we Westerners are more into scheduling, project management, agendas, daily check-in meetings, the local staff are just not in the business every day of filling the bucket of the current hour with as much as is humanly possible. They don’t sell what they do, they go about meeting the needs of children that would once have been “throw-aways,” orphans,  with a level of compassion that I’ve only seen among my friends the Nepalese.
And I code switch between the two of them all day long. Both work. And both respect the other’s style, at least that’s what it looks like on Day Two.
Add to this mix, a couple of Canadians who are willing (or at least too polite to express unwillingess) to take some cross-border ribbing and other visitors from the West who bring their own flavor of getting along while we all heal the world– the melange feels as though THIS, this, is a tiny nudge, a feather caress of a movement, a slight shift in the wind. It’s all we can do. It’s all we can ever actually do.