Monday, February 27, 2017

Outsider in Zambia

When I decided to take the IDIN grant to travel and work abroad, I was not at all sure about what to expect from the experience. I asked my placement coordinator where my skills might be best utilized and most needed, and was immediately pointed to Kafue Innovation Center in Kafue, Zambia among others. I spoke to John, one member of 3 at KIC, soon after, and his excitement and interest in having me was overwhelming. I began looking at flights that same day.
About 2 weeks after beginning to work in Kafue, I spoke to John regarding how he thought things were going and felt about the work I was doing. I felt that I had been doing a good job of getting through what was asked of me and learning everything I possibly could about KIC, the projects, and future possibilities. He agreed, but he also wanted to encourage me to take more of a leadership role and share more of my opinions on everything I was learning about the center. Essentially, he wanted me to get tough with them. I was really glad to have that feedback, but also a bit uncomfortable. Thanks to my previous coursework in international development, the fact that actions and even simple suggestions may often have unintended consequences in this field was not lost on me. I was hesitant to cross the line between consciously doing no harm and making unique contributions even though that was why I had come. Moreover, without classmates, expert instructors, and a degree of separation that previously made real world problems seem more inviting than urgent, I felt extremely alone. 
Going from the classroom where stakeholder feedback and interactions are much fewer to basically unlimited access was quite overwhelming. My notebooks were inundated with new ideas and insights, but I was hesitant to pursue or even propose them without feeling more secure in my knowledge and understanding of the assumptions I was making and their ramifications. After talking to John, however, I realized misusing the best resource I had access to: the people I worked with at the innovation center every day. 

I came to Zambia acutely aware of my outsider-ness and actively avoided falling into any undesirable power dynamic. My friends at KIC helped me understand that they understood this concern and could handle it. They weren’t looking for an outsider to open up a whole new world of insights for them, but a contributor to bring useful feedback to the table for consideration. I didn’t stop assessing my assumptions, but I realized that picking them apart to the level I had been really impeded my progress. I think this is where my experiences in the classroom and working in Zambia completely diverged. I had become so used to attempting not to lead stakeholders to any particular conclusions about what I was presenting to them, that I forgot to even let my partners in. I wasn’t used to having so much access to them, and it took time for me to take advantage of what they had to offer.

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