Because Wayne and I and our family moved so often from one culture to another, and we were there to work side by side with the local people to make a difference in their community, we had to learn how to become trusted, not just as outside “experts”, but as human beings.
What we discovered was that the process is vastly different in different cultures. Mostly we became human beings to the local people by lucky accident.
In Egypt, one day I was visiting a local leader, Sheikh Mustafa, with my Egyptian colleague Ragia. As we were talking with him about the development project, he said, “You don’t know anything about our situation, you are an “abla” – an educated foreigner.
I said in my very limited Arabic, “La, ana felahah!” “No, I’m a farmer!”.
“Mishmumpkin”, he said. Impossible. You are only an educated foreigner.
“La, ana felahah! I can milk a cow!”
“Right,” he responded. “You go in my back room and milk my cow and I’ll give you milk in your tea.” (a real treat in rural Egypt).
So I went in his back room and milked his cow. Not only did he give me milk in my tea, he went to my husband and offered him a buffalo and a cow for me! Sheikh Mustafa was a joker, and this was a joke, but he was saying that I was a valuable human being, and we had made a connection. I was not just a foreigner, but someone that could be treated as a colleague.
With the women in the Egyptian village, I was a human being because I had a son, luckily named Aaron which is Haroon in Arabic, and I was willing to be called “Om Haroon”, in the tradition of calling women “the mother of “ their oldest son.
Wayne became a human being in Egypt by getting his hands dirty side-by-side with other men, and exchanging cigarettes with them in a familiar ritual.
As those who know me will recognize, I’m an extreme extrovert, and usually am the first one to speak and greet someone, and am not shy to insert myself into a conversation. In Murrin Bridge in Aboriginal Australia, there was an elder that I really needed to work with. She had had very bad experiences in residential school, and was wary and prickly with whitefellas. One day, after lunch, I went over to her house to talk with her. Her door was open, but she was intently watching the soap opera on television. Against my usual nature, mostly because I was a bit afraid of her testiness, I stood at her door quietly, not even announcing my presence, for some time. Eventually she looked around and imperiously motioned me to come in and sit down. I did, saying nothing, and watched the rest of the show with her. At the end she started to talk to me, and from then on we were close friends. We were partners in teaching Aboriginal language and culture in the schools. She even shared bush meat with us that her son had brought for her, and the instructions on how to cook it properly. (Tikarpila, or echidna, spiny anteater. You must not cook tikarpila over a flame, because if the fat drops into the fire it will call evil spirits. You must cook it in a hole, that’s its place. An oven can be a stand-in for a hole in modern life.)
By accident, I had stumbled on a cultural pattern that was expected of someone that was a respectful human being – to stand at the edge of the circle or home and wait to be recognized and acknowledged before coming in to become part of the group. Once I understood it, I used this pattern over and over.
In Mexican South Texas, white folks go up to each others’ doors and knock or ring the bell when they want to meet with someone. Mexican folks stay in their cars and honk until someone comes out. Each group thinks the other is rude in their behaviour.
We were reflecting on these practices when we were working in the community, and read a book by Oscar Lewis that provided insight into this pattern. Mexican tradition indicates that no one comes up to your house uninvited except your relatives or your “co-padres”, your children’s baptismal parents. These people are family and allowed free access. So the polite thing to do, if you are not related, is to stay at a distance and let people know you are there. You might be invited in after that. Children are exempt from this expectation, because they don’t understand.
There was a young family across the highway from us that we needed to work with, but they were politically from a different group in the community and were hard to contact. They happened to have a son in kindergarten with Aaron, and one day Aaron asked if he could go across the street to play with Cesar. I said he could, and I walked him across the highway and said, “I’ll come and get you later, because it isn’t safe for you to cross the highway.” Later, I went to get him and was invited in because my son was there. Once I was invited in, I was treated like family, and we became friends who could work together. The ancient custom worked in reverse – if I was in the house, then I must be part of the extended family.
Now these are distilled stories, picking out the most visible behaviours. It would be a mistake to take these at surface level – they are only indicators. In fact, there were many more subtle ways that we became human to people. In some places we lived, it was harder to discern what was the real key to being trusted as an equal, and in those places we had less success in facilitating participatory community development.
I’ve taken these lessons about becoming human to my work with organizations and individuals. Each organization or group has a different culture, and different (usually unconscious) patterns that give clues of whether you are a trusted human being.
In Aboriginal groups, I suppress my urge to talk, and do a lot of just hanging out and being. Because of my white hair, I often get seen as an elder, so I am very careful that everything I do or say is carefully considered, so I don’t abuse the respect.
In a university group, I happily use my most extensive vocabulary, and either allow or join in with vigourous dialogue and argument.
In a corporate setting, I make sure I pay attention and give appropriate respect to the power structure of the organization, even as I encourage the participation of all levels of the organization together.
With introverted people, I don’t just walk into their office and begin to talk. I stand at the entrance and wait until they recognize me and invite me in.
Again, these could easily be taken as stereotypes at surface level, but they are some of the most visible clues that can catalyze reflection on cultural values at a deeper level.
Becoming a human being not only allows collaborative work, but enriches my understanding of the many different ways of being human.