I had this message drafted a few days ago, was not able to send it, but I think the moment – after our colleague ask for concrete experiences – is very appropriate to share. So here are some lessons from personal experience.
These I have learned during 4 intensive months of work in northern Uganda with refugee communities (mostly from South Sudan) to develop and administer a survey – a few years ago, while working as an independent consultant.
[For a bit of context, this process involved the community in all steps of the survey from design/piloting, translation to 4 languages (by community members), selection and training of non-professional enumerators (community members), application of survey and feedback/participatory analysis.]
1. You also have a culture, yours is also ‘a culture’. At the eyes of the other, you are the strange. I particularly ‘discovered’ myself as Latin-American during these months in Uganda (note: Brazilians don’t really identify with the Latin-American stereotypes and neither with the lable of ‘latino’- even if we are seen as such and in reality share so much in terms of culture with all other Latin-Americans. Please also notice that, even if Latin-American and having lived most of my life in Brasil, I am a white middle-class woman, that had access to higher level education and whose culture is very close to western/European – this is where I speak from, and how I am perceived).
2. Be prepared to recognize you made a mistake and act in case something happens. In one situation I felt the need to go at the houses of each of my team members (around 12 in total) and have an individual conversation. This was after one very difficult meeting, in the middle of a lot of stress and time pressure. It was all sorted out, but took a lot of energy to make sure all was kept on track and the trust (built over weeks of work and intensive dedication) was not broken.
3. Be open (be curious!), be patient, and always respectful. Have some reality checks. I had talks with my driver that helped me to understand the culture in which I was immersed. And if necessary, take a day or two off to breathe in the middle of culturally difficult situations – and talk to experienced colleagues. Better to step off for a couple days than having to fix things later.
4. And a lesson from something that went very well: be mindful and respectful with dress codes. Women were open to receive me in their houses and talk to me because I dressed respectfully – they literally told me that they appreciated that I did not wear pants, but longer skirts and modest blouse. (I believe I was able through this and other attitudes to show respect and build trust. After one Focus Group Discussion, women sang for me and ‘baptized me’ with a name in their language.)
I hope this adds a bit of concreteness to the discussion J