Recently, a kind Malawian diplomat reminded me of something very important. During a chat about the role of international development in Tanzania he said,
“Remember, you know nothing!”
Now, before anyone gets cranky – he was and is absolutely 100% right! This is something my boss also likes to remind interns of when they are getting ready to go overseas on their internships and personally, I find it very helpful (it also takes off the pressure to ‘make a difference’ or ‘create change’). Quick reminder: that is NOT what overseas placements are meant for in the first place!!
Sure, no one likes to be reminded of their inadequacies (myself included) but I think it is incredibly important, especially when it comes to any sort of development work, to keep in mind that as an outsider you know very little. You do not fully comprehend the situation regardless of how much time you have spent in said country or community and you probably never will!
and that is okay!
People and cultures are wonderfully complex and it really is arrogant to assume that you know anyones situation better than they do. You also miss out on the exciting, everyday things when you are busy trying to prove your own worth. Sometimes we get a bit preoccupied with the idea of ‘experts’ but trying to be one is really not very useful to anyone.
So instead – pull up a chair or sit on the floor if need be, have a cup of chai and SHUT UP and LISTEN. There are always opportunities to learn but we have to get out of our own heads to really make the most of them. Remember, you know nothing – which might just be the most important thing that you do know. I do know that it holds true for me.
As a side-note, I think ‘knowing nothing’ is applicable to many other jobs and life experiences apart from development but I will leave that for other wiser souls to address.