Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Reflections on the end of another adventure: There's no life like it

The loads are heavier in countries like Nicaragua, but the backs are stronger

A troubling aspect of life: You don’t know what you don’t know. As a person driven to know everything, I don’t like that.
I didn't  consciously grasp when we started this Cuso International work in Central America three years ago that I was longing to know more about what I didn't know. But I was. What stands out most as I wrap up my second Cuso posting is how exciting it feels to be learning again.
The role of a Cuso volunteer is essentially to take your professional show on the road and share your skills with people in less-advantaged countries, helping them improve their systems or their training or their processes in ways that ultimately address poverty and inequality.
But never mind the task. The bigger challenge is dropping in cold to another world in the employ of an organization that is happy to see you, but uncertain what to do with you. They will have no real idea or interest in your illustrious career back in Canada, so you’ll be proving your work cred from the ground up.
It sounds kind of scary, I know. I am 58, and once upon a time was a biggish fish in a smallish pond.  But when I first start a Cuso position, I am nothing more than an unproven and unknown older woman who may or may not have had a career as a journalist in some other country and in some other language. It is up to me to demonstrate that I have value.
But professional discomfort and profound humbling aside, this time with Cuso ranks among the most invigorating, challenging, memorable and life-altering years of my work life (I think my three-year stint as the executive director of B.C. grassroots sex-work organization Peers Victoria still wins out).
Some of the new learning is just straight-up communications culture. People like more colour and fewer words in their documents here. They’re lousy about answering emails, so you really have to try for face-to-face time. They like technology, but anyone over the age of 25 is going to need some time to figure out the wired world.
But a lot of our differences are also value-driven. In Canada, work demands often outweigh family relations. In Central America, family always comes first.
Canada’s approach gets you much better economic development, But Central America’s approach keeps people much more bonded and rooted to family – not just the nuclear family, but a hundred aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, almost all of whom probably live nearby and drop by for a visit often. Who’s to say our way is better?
80-year-old Managua man who repairs and sells old shoes he
finds in the garbage. He gets by on 3 sales a week.
As I've said many times in my blog posts, I see my own country much more clearly from afar. On a lot of fronts, it’s an amazing place.
Our social programs are the stuff of dreams to Central Americans, most of whom will work until the day they drop dead and who are completely on their own when dealing with their disabled children, aging parents, health-care problems, and periods of unemployment. They would be agog at all our workplace regulations and benefits.
 But at the same time, it’s pretty cool to see a work culture in Central America that lets people put their personal relations first. Down here when I run into people I know on the street, I've learned to take the time to talk to them without even a twinge of thinking that it’s almost 8:30 a.m. and I should hurry into work. Work waits in Central America – and when you really think about it, that’s not so bad.
Are developed countries like Canada the gold standard? That’s probably been the question that has weighed on my mind most in these three years. I do have skills worth sharing with the non-profits I've been placed with, but I've also gotten so much value out of what they have taught me. More and more I see the richness of a “poor” country, and question my own Canadian work culture. There is a price to pay for efficiency. 
And while I like that I'm from a country able to give time and money to countries in need, I have a new appreciation for the many other ways there are to live a life - and much admiration for people whose resilience and resourcefulness is awe-inspiring. (Like the young Nicaraguan guy near Casares who fixed our broken-down car with a screw driver and a piece of discarded fishing line he found at the side of the road.)
Thanks to everyone who has supported my spouse Paul and I in our Cuso International fundraising, which is closing in on our goal of $7,500. It really has been a life-changing experience. And if you've ever wondered what it might be like to test your own adaptability by working in another culture, two words for you: Do it. 

I've just finished my second assignment with Cuso International. Please visit my fundraising page and support a great Canadian organization doing good work through volunteerism in 17 countries around the world. 


Ian Lidster said...

Is it over already? I thought you had just started there. Shit, time goes too fast, dear Jody. And you can't be 58. That'd mean I am -- real old. Anyway, have loved following your adventures and may the next one be just as fulfilling. I have probably never fully expressed how much I treasure knowing you. Believe me when I say I do.

Finner said...

Such a great review of your time away and an insightful perspective on what we can learn from another culture about priorities in our lives. I admire your courage to just do it and expand your knowledge horizons!