This is the stuff that field workers dream of. It’s what organizations spend time training their frontline staff for, and it’s when and where the magic happens. I’m talking about that super elusive, “successful” community visit. The photos from these successful field visits, are usually what NGOs display on their promotional material. I asked myself, what makes a visit successful?
Since my organization has our cool house office, and is not a full-service campus, most of my project is dependent on these community/field visits. The outcomes of these field visits can range from coming back rejected by the community and empty-handed, maybe only one or two people show up for a meeting, or sometimes we get the full support and engagement that we are looking for.
The community that we intend to do life-skills in, is about a 20-minute ride away from the office, depending on traffic. This is probably the first time in my development career that I don’t live directly in and frequent the community where I’m implementing interventions in.
What I’ve experienced is there’s a definite separation, physically and culturally, that I’m currently trying to navigate, between the community I work in and the community the office is in/where I live. However, gathering from my past experiences of doing all kinds of field work, in different countries, in different communities, there are some constants that I’ve come to know as essential to the “formula” for having one of these successful community visits.
First, one needs to become the master of navigation. In the community, sometimes the pathways become blocked, and knowing where to turn and how far to walk is essential. Sometimes an address isn’t on the map, so Google is no help. A huge help to the necessity of navigation, is making friends with the local kids and having them be a guide. They know their area best, and sometimes they show you shortcuts to places that you’ve never been before. When all else fails, asking the random people that pass you by (if you know the language) can work wonders and sometimes you meet people who may become your biggest ally.
Second, sometimes you need to interact with the population that you weren’t targeting. I’m talking about the babies and the young children. The age range of the girls in this project are 12-21 years old, but it seems like many of the interactions I’ve had in the community are with girls much younger. Also, in this community there are a lot of babies/toddlers. It almost feels like a test of my character, if the baby likes me (or at least doesn’t cry), then the mom can trust me. However, much like adults, kids have their moods and sometimes the right timing is all it takes.
Third, this is very closely related to the previous point, but knowing how to engage with people of all age ranges. Growing up in a big family, I think my babysitting skills are slightly above average, and ome of my favorite conversations in life have come with talking to 5-year olds. In fact, I prefer chatting with kids rather than adults. In one such case, I was out in the community waiting for our meeting to start, and a girl holding her baby sister, came up to talk to me. Now, my Assamese is basically non-existent, but I will not ignore a kid just because we don’t speak the same language. I spoke to her in English and she looked so surprised. I asked her to give me a high five, and when she did, we started laughing. With kids, sometimes you don’t need to speak the same language to understand each other, and I’m fortunate to have this opportunity to hone that skill when trying to relate to them here. Also, most times if the kids can introduce you to the aunties and grandmas, it usually breaks the ice for when you need permission for something from the adults.
Speaking of the adult women, they are the heart of the community. They are the ones that show up to the meetings that we call, the ones that listen with open minds about the program we are trying to establish, and ultimately the ones that will make or break the work we are trying to accomplish. Even the mothers that don’t have daughters, showed up, and asked questions. With their buy-in, we were able to at least establish a presence in the community.
Lastly, being patient and letting the people operate on their own time, goes a long way. From an organizational standpoint, we schedule meetings in a time that works within our office hours. However, those hours mean nothing when operating in the sphere of the community.
In a memorable mobilization meeting, we were there early. We waited and waited. After half an hour, only one mother showed up. At that point I felt that it was a waste of time. My mentor said let’s just wait. Another ten minutes passed, and two more women came, then four more, and more women came, eventually to the point where we had a crowd formed. Mothers, their daughters, infant siblings, and community kids came to see what the fuss was about. It was kind of amazing. We were about to leave, because we waited for long, and we had work to do in the office, but because we stayed, we were able to talk about the program with stakeholders. Even a few men came by, who were fathers, and wanted to know if their daughters could join. In my eyes that was a successful visit.
Field visits shaped my thinking, gave me insights that no reports, books, or documents ever could. There were times that these visits were emotionally taxing, often the reality that is other peoples’ lives broke my heart but gave me the motivation to keep going back. The success is purely subjective to the field worker, to the organization, and to the funders, but all that doesn’t matter if nothing changes within, for, and by the community.