Peace Corps

Finding “flow”

I’m stressed, which means the last thing I should be doing is indulging my twin additions: nicotine and caffeine. Unfortunately, sitting in a café (sort of), drinking coffee, smoking, and working on my laptop is strangely comforting. It’s . . . familiar. There is one public (read: not my house and not Peace Corps property) place in the ENTIRE country where I can plug in my laptop and work. It’s a restaurant that caters to foreigners and really fucking rich Beninese. Normally I avoid it like the plague (no atmosphere!), but it’s a great place to get work done. And nobody fucking BOTHERS me (the reason it’s hard to get work done in the office and at home). And the food’s really great.

So I’m here working. It’s absolutely insane to have this much to do. I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer! It’s kind of polemic, because I’m supposed to be teaching people how to do this stuff instead of doing it myself, but at the same time, I have to sell people on doing it WELL and RIGHT the FIRST TIME (you’d be surprised at what a big problem this is). Getting that idea across means showing people that doing it the “Theresa way” gets real, fast, profitable results.

It’s so strange. There’s an enormous debate about what volunteers “should do” and “should not do” for their work partners, but in the end, I don’t feel like I’m actually teaching SPECIFIC skills (outside of computer related stuff, of course). Sometimes I feel like the best thing I can do as a Peace Corps Volunteer is just to set a good example. Good work habits. Project management. Conflict resolution. Time management. Work flow. Personal organization. Critical thinking.

This isn’t to say that my work partners don’t already have some or all of these skills. They do! But when do you apply them, and how? How do you integrate all of that together to find that magical state of “flow”? How do you take what many see as “Western” work habits (which, unfortunately, is all I know, and thus, all I can teach), and make them work in a Beninese context?

A good example of this: I’ve talked about salutations before. They’re daily greetings and they’re enormously important here. Skipping a salutation is fucking rude. On the other hand, it’s perfectly acceptable to have a 5 minute conversation every morning, instead of 15 or 20 minutes. Besides that, it’s normal for coworkers to stop by and have a chat, just like in the States, and just like in the States, they’re likely to last 20 minutes if you’re not careful. It’s not a big deal to spend 30 minutes in the morning reading the paper as people filter into the office. The only difference is that management doesn’t really frown on these breaks. And people don’t realize how much time they spend chatting each day, so they don’t plan for it. My coworkers plan for an eight hour work day, but the reality is somewhat shorter than that.

I really enjoy the social aspect of my workplace, and I understand that taking that away would make for an unpleasant work environment. Never-the-less, I’m still not used it, and I still like to plan for eight-hour days. And for the first few months of work, it drove me nuts when I’d be really into a project, and one of my coworkers would stop by and talk for half an hour.

My solution was to take all of the chairs in front of my desk, move them behind my desk, and stack books on them. If you want to sit down and chat, you have to move my books, move the chair, and most importantly REALIZE THAT YOU’RE DOING IT.

A few weeks ago, someone I work with started doing the same thing. The point is not to stop the chatting. That’s a necessary part of life here, and Africa wouldn’t be Africa without it. The point is to make people stop and think about how much time they’re spending doing it, so that when we set deadlines and plan meetings, everybody knows how much time they’re REALLY going to have to prepare, not just how much time they THINK they’re going to have.

It’s made an enormous difference in the way some of my coworkers think about their time and their work flow, and that’s probably the most important thing I can do as a volunteer. Teaching people skills is all good and well, but it’s not knowing how to use a computer that helps people become better entrepreneurs. It’s knowing HOW and WHEN to best APPLY those skills that makes the difference.

But first I have to convince people that this mentality is worth having, which means that I have to prove it before I can teach anything.

Fan-fucking-tastic. Working over the weekend it is.
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