Through my internship with African Impact, and my experiences traveling abroad this summer more generally, I have learned a great deal.
From an environmental sustainability perspective, my knowledge about grassroots waste management has expanded exponentially. In the process of designing workshops and educational programs for students and community members, I have had to do a considerable amount of research on the health and environmental effects of burning waste. Prior to this summer, I only understood these effects on the most basic level. Now I understand how burning waste impacts local, national, and international communities in different ways and have more of a scientific understanding of how these effects are taking place. Additionally, I have much more knowledge of a diverse set of solutions for dealing with the waste management issues faced on a community level. Eco-bricking is only one of the solutions that organizations can offer to communities and through employing a number of solutions, we can figure out what works for each community specifically. This was something that I really understood once I moved from Livingstone to St. Lucia because the communities’ responses were so different even though they were dealing with the same issues. I found many of these solutions through reading academic reports that were published from other projects. Overall, I am very satisfied with the amount that I learned about grassroots waste management practices. This was something that I set as a goal in my personal contribution paper and my learning contract and so it was incredibly important to me that I dove deeper into these issues. Through pairing field experience with academic readings, I was more easily able to comprehend what I was seeing and how it related to the knowledge that I previously had.
One skillset that I did not anticipate learning/gaining was an ability to teach all ages and plan effective and comprehensive lessons. While I didn’t set this skillset as a goal for myself, I think it was one of the most important things that I walked away with. During the course of my internship, I was responsible for planning workshops and lessons for elementary, middle, and university students, women’s’ groups, government organizations, and several other groups of people. As a result of the differing age ranges and time allocations, I was forced to adapt many of the lessons to appeal to my audiences. I have had a lot of experience working with children in the past through volunteering, but I was never previously responsible for coming up with my own lessons. This was something that I initially struggled with, as each school and group had a different culture and different challenges. I realized very quickly that I needed to incorporate games and visual aids and spent a significant amount of my time creating these resources to use. In a context where schools do not have materials or printers/poster makers, I was forced to draw all of these games and tools by hand. Sometimes the materials/games/lessons did not work and then I went back and adapted them. By the end of my internship, my confidence in my ability to effectively plan and execute lessons/workshops for all of these age groups increased significantly. Moving forward in my career, I believe that an ability to adapt lessons and materials to a wide variety of demographic groups will be a very valuable skill.
Another positive takeaway that I gained from my experiences was a better understanding of the different cultures and norms that exist within different regions of Africa. By traveling prior to my internship and on the weekends and then working in several different communities during the week, I believe I gained a much deeper grasp of the variations of these cultures. Religion, economics, and political factors all play a huge part in how communities interact with one another and outsiders. They also influence communities’ ability to get things accomplished in certain time frames. Along with the differences between communities, there are overall similarities that communities all across southern Africa share that are not the same as ones we have in the US. These include a different respect for elders, gender relations, and a concept of time. Moving forward in my career, I will be able to apply this more generalized knowledge to other southern African communities if I choose to work in that region of the world again.
When looking back at my personal plan and contribution papers, the one skillset that I anticipated gaining and didn’t end up really homing in was a better ability to collect and gather data. I did not do a lot of quantitative community research while I was here and so therefore, I still feel that I am lacking in this area. Hopefully I can gain these skills in the upcoming school year.
Many of the skillsets and other lessons I learned from my internship were enhanced because I looked at my experience through a Jepson framework. One of the most beneficial classes for this was my Theories and Models class. Dr. Von Rueden focused a great deal on the Tsimane tribe as a case study for many of his theories on gender relations and developing countries. I found that many of his findings were also applicable to the communities that I was working with throughout Zambia and South Africa. One of the gender theories he discussed most frequently was the division of labor between the genders and how this affected leadership roles. Because men spent more time outside of the house in labor-intensive roles, they often took the most formal leadership positions. This was true in the communities in both South Africa and Zambia. Women, who had little access to maternal health and contraception, were often too busy in the home with their multiple children to be able to work a formal job outside of the home. Instead, they took on more informal leadership positions within the community, forming women’s’ support groups and working together to save money or help one another with family issues. We often found that our causes were most effectively spread through working with these informal leaders and groups because they had higher stakes in their children’s health and community’s development.
One of the most important workplace aspects of African Impact was the division of social and project groups. At first, I struggled to understand the ways in which these groups were broken up and how they functioned effectively but looking at them with Social Identity Theory in mind helped me to digest the dynamics. This was something that I didn’t quite understand until I wrote my first blog post. Socially, the volunteers were divided into regional groups, with those from similar countries and cultures joining together during free time. Their identities as a European, Belgian, American etc. would become more prevalent than normal and groups would often compare the cultures and mannerisms of one another to themselves. During work periods, however, these groups would shift into project groups. Medical, building, teaching, and the interns would often all sit in their groups right before leaving for projects and compare back and forth. Promoting these identities helped to break down geographic and cultural barriers but then made it so that it was difficult to get to know people who weren’t from your country or on your project. Overall, the promotion of project groups made for far more motivated volunteers and effective groups while the promotion of country/geographical groups broke down this sense of comradery and brought with it differences between volunteers.
Lastly, one of the most important observations I made about the organization came in my last blog post about transformational vs. transactional leadership. I had been struggling for a while to understand what about the organizational and leadership style was ineffective and while I knew there were issues, I could not completely articulate what was missing. I finally realized that there was too much of a focus on transactions. Money from the volunteers, compliance of the local staff with regional demands, and resources from the head office. Things were all focused on moving resources and money from point A to point B without an incorporation of motivation or a focus on long-term, quality effectiveness in the projects. This created frustration and turnover among the local staff, a money-driven head office, and a “voluntourism” organization rather than an organization that put the local communities’ growth and wellbeing first. More resources were spent on marketing and volunteer satisfaction than project growth and effectiveness. This left most ignorant volunteers satisfied but left little real impact on communities. As someone with the educational and experiential framework to process this, I had a much better understanding of these issues than most of the volunteers.
As a whole, my experience with African Impact was a deeply influential and eye-opening learning experience both professionally and personally. I learned a great deal about the positives and negatives of short-term volunteering organizations, organizational culture in an NGO functioning in a developing country, and the challenges of local communities around issues of waste management, health, and the environment. This experience was greatly enhanced through my Jepson experience and my IS courses which allowed me to get the most out of the experience.