Last week I completed the Cuso International pre-departure course in Ottawa on “Skills and Knowledge for Working in Development”. Here’s my report on the training:
Day 1 We nervously introduce ourselves outside the course venue and start discovering people who are going to be in the same placement country. Phew! I’ll know somebody. Four of us are going to Laos, three to Tanzania, one to Myanmar, one to the Philippines, Mozambique, Kenya, Indonesia and Zambia. Thirteen in all. As the day progresses I’m a little overwhelmed by my very capable classmates. Then I remember we were all selected using the same criteria. We review Cuso’s mission, gain more insight into our role in creating local impact during our placements and our responsibilities to Cuso stakeholders. There’s a sigh of relief after lunch when we learn that we can bring two checked bags to our destination and the rest of the afternoon is spent conceptualizing culture.
Day 2 Thinking this morning about intercultural communication which I have always found fascinating. I learn that we also filter how we make conclusions about other people based on our experiences, education, priorities and age. Yes, age. I am the oldest person in the room. I’ve written a reminder to myself in my notebook about the need to adapt my communication style. I find out at lunchtime that the second oldest volunteer in the room grew up on the same Toronto street and we had the same playmates. In the afternoon, we play a simulation based on the International Trade Game. The outcomes are disturbingly accurate and reflect what’s happening in the real world. It’s Saturday evening but my brain is exhausted and I fall sleep early.
Day 3 Another simulation to start the day and this time the focus is on building a bridge. As we discover, it’s more about bridge-building and during the feedback we think about whether time is wasted or invested, definitions of success and the realistic expectations of volunteering. In the afternoon we spend a couple of hours with our respective country resource people. Those of us going to Laos learn that it is the height of rudeness to display the bottoms of your feet and you must never touch anyone’s head. When you meet a person for the first time you nopand there’s a whole hierarchy associated with this gesture. My favourite takeaway from talking to our resource person? She knows somebody in Vientiane who paddles dragon boats and will send me the contact details.
Day 4 You can feel that we’re all processing information. We’re tired. I’m in charge of reviewing yesterday’s material and the Cuso International CEO is sitting in the room during my presentation. It goes well. We have a short session on fundraising (have you donated yet to my campaign?) and another on “storytelling”. Cuso has very clear guidelines on the creation of true and honest stories which do no harm at any level and, as volunteers, we are bound to them. We talk about our conflict managing styles and, given that anger, raised voices and displays of aggression are taboo in Lao culture, my “harmonizing” response to conflict might serve me well. Much of the afternoon is spent in a “participatory facilitation” exercise which we design in teams and present. This is when it hits me full on what an experienced, skilled and knowledgeable cohort I am part of. And three of them are coming to Laos with me! I feel more confident than I have at any previous point.
Day 5 I’m going to miss these 12 people who have impressed me so much since meeting them last Friday. And I’m especially going to miss our two exemplary course facilitators, Manuela and Enid aka Madame Nathalie. All of you have helped me to a better understanding of who I am not just as a person but as who I will be as a Cuso International volunteer. Does it sound corny to say that I’m proud to be Canadian? I sincerely stand by that sentiment. Our final topic areas today include a safety and security briefing followed by a session on how volunteers can work to advance gender equality and social inclusion, both a Cuso program area and one of its cross-cutting themes. I need to be aware of these moonwalking bears. As part of the summing up and saying good-bye we each have to talk about another course participant’s “blind self” based on the Johari Window. The insights and comments say as much about the observer as they do about what has been observed in the other person. And that's when I learn that I'm a badass. I'll take it!