I can’t believe it’s almost Thanksgiving. The days here go by so slow more often than not, but the months go by fast. At least my friends here know what that means.
The last few weeks have seen a flurry of activity in my job. Reaching out and making connections on this side of the ocean while people back on the other side prepare for an event there. (I’ll be letting all of you know more about that later). Bottom line, it’s been busy. The good kind of busy though. Yes, for the purpose of this blog, I’m being intentionally vague. If you really want to know what’s going on, talk to me when I’m back in the US.
Lots of good momentum happening in the job, lots of new doors opening, lots of opportunity to be had.
Anyway. One thing that it’s been hard for me to just shove aside and not think about is the culture here, as per usual. (Disclaimer: Not trying to insult or offend anyone, just pointing out a few things that have been on my mind. If you can’t deal with honest, possibly wrong, observations, you should probably just stop reading now.)
While sitting in out monthly PTO meeting here at the school where I work, I finally figured out why I really don’t enjoy attending them. So often, all the same questions are asked. They have to do with tuition discounts, future security of the school, school lunches… EVERY TIME. This time however, new ideas were brought up and the parents had a generally negative reaction to something that seemed so basic and mundane to me that it should have taken maybe 5 minutes. Without going into detail, I’ll explain my extrapolation from the conversation and why I have a renewed sense of mission for being here. My brain finally made the connection of why I personally am so frustrated with lots of things in this place. Most of the parents here, aside from the ones educated in the West, have only ever received basic educational instruction and have a working knowledge of basic concepts. However, whether because it was never taught in a way that promoted needed skills or because this place has been at war for so long, many of the adults of this country have not learned the basics of problem solving and critical thinking. Very basic jumps in logic for me are not even thought of, much less considered. Not because these people are thick-headed or unintelligent, but because they have never been trained to think like that. On the contrary, much of the last generation has been in a country at war where the main questions on their minds were the safety of their family, whether there would be enough food or not, etc. This is may be an overgeneralization, but I would bet that a lot of this is still true for the average man or woman here. This doesn’t excuse the proclivity to try to scam westerners in my opinion, but at least I understand why it is. When you’re looking at long-term survival, you want to get as much as you can (whether that’s money, food, whatever) when you can.
As westerners, our training in critical thinking and problem solving starts before we can walk. We’re given toys with shaped blocks that we have to put through the proper shaped slots, puzzles, and all kinds of other things. Our training in critical thinking and problem solving continues in Pre-K, Kindergarten, and all the way through the rest of our lives. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to not think in these terms because it has been so permanently ingrained in the way I think and act. Also, very few of us have been in situations where our long-term survival has been a cause for question, at least most of the people reading this. If forced into a similar situation as the people here, how long would your ideals hold up? Not assuming anything, just asking the question.
Now, add to this lack of critical thinking training, a decade of foreign aid. For the last twelve years, foreigners have come in and tried to solve all the problems that this conflict ridden country has faced for years. Armed with technical expertise, (for some) a sense of promoting the greater good, an ethnocentric mentality, and sh*t-tons of money to waste, we have successfully reinforced the idea that these people don’t need to think for themselves because foreigners will take care of it.
This is not universally true here. I’ve met with some truly remarkable individuals here, both in the private sector and in the government that “get it”. They see the problems, they understand the culture here, they plan and implement solutions. Also, maybe I’m giving my home country too much credit, I know our public education system leaves a lot to be desired, but I feel like the average person has been equipped with a lot of basic problem solving skills.
Anyway. The problem comes from both sides and is amplified by a lack of cultural understanding from each. This is exactly why education is so important. Yea, hydro-electric dams are great, teaching villagers to grow wheat instead of poppies is incredibly important, building a well-trained and disciplined police force and national army is a must, but… without a strong educational system how can all of this be maintained? Furthermore, without a strong primary and educational system, of what real use is higher education? When someone can buy a diploma from a local high school and then go to college, it shows that the whole system is a joke. (Yes, this has happened. But they didn’t buy it from our school.) A strong educational system cannot be built over-night. Teachers have to be trained, schools have to be built and maintained, and the whole mentality towards education needs to be changed. (I could write another whole post about the mentality toward education here, maybe a different time. But also, I don’t think it would be so different from a large mentality of kids in the US.)
The solution begins with education. Teaching the necessary skills to children as soon as possible while also entering it from an appropriate social and cultural understanding. Without this, the educational system here will slog through another generation of aid-hungry, subsidized population and will waste so much brilliant potential.
To my friends here: We’re not trying to destroy your culture. We’re trying to take what’s worked in ours and help you to fix your country. Progress always demands change, but it doesn’t have to demand the annihilation of the beauty of your long-standing traditions. Help us westerners to understand this better so that we can work together effectively.
My government may tick you off, but you know what? Your government ticks me off too. We want to help, you (generally) want our help, so let’s figure out how to do this well. Let’s start with education. The other stuff doesn’t seem to be working all that well yet, but it will come.
To my friends in the West: Don’t you dare tell me that you’re “tired of giving” to this country. What have you given? Aside from aid-workers, veterans, and soldiers, you’ve probably directly given NOTHING. Sure, you’ve paid your taxes (50% of you haven’t even done that much), but you have had no direct interaction with this country or culture and have made no contributions. So, first of all, zip it.
Secondly, our culture has changed and become a superpower in an unprecedented way. We are not the historical norm. I take this as a blessing and a curse. We can talk about that privately if you want. The only place that I’ve ever been that expects a culture to completely change within a decade is America. Most other people understand that significant cultural change happens, at its fastest, over at least a generation.
To both sides of the ocean: Good grief, have a little patience. Work together.
This is going to take a while. So dig in.