From the Field: Global Perspectives Dispatch 2

Caitlin O’Donnell, ’16, Reporting from Kigali, Rwanda

This semester, Innovate@BCSW is following the experiences of four BC Social Work students who have embarked on international field education placements in Latin America, Europe, and Africa. Stay tuned during the spring for ongoing updates through student-crafted blog posts, video diaries, and photography.


Blog 2: The Placement
By Caitlin O’Donnell

At meetings in Rwanda, writes O'Donnell, "we don’t coordinate or work together. We harmonize."

At meetings in Rwanda, writes O’Donnell, “we don’t coordinate or work together. We harmonize.”

I thought I knew a thing or two about meetings when I arrived in Kigali. Meetings, meetings everywhere at BCSSW! Meetings with academic advisors, student group meetings, student collective gatherings, group project meetings, meetings at our field placements. Maybe this is just a facet of adult life I have to get used to, maybe it’s just the nature of grad school, but I suspect our nature as social workers is a factor. I digress.

As it turns out, I am not such a pro after all. In the meetings department, the BCSSW meetings schedule is like amateur hour compared to what the NGO community has going on in East Africa. Here, the meetings are longer, the speeches are loftier, and the free food is far superior (when was the last time Student Collective snacks were served on porcelain dishes? I’m just saying).

The craziest difference to me in the beginning was how formal these meetings can feel. I’ve attended presentations with 40 people in the group, and each one of us has had to introduce ourselves to everyone, announce the organization we’re from, and explain why we were present. Invariably, there’s a complimentary water bottle waiting at every seat when one arrives to a meeting. Usually a guest of honor is named, too, and meetings almost always close out with a speech of gratitude and hope for future opportunities to “harmonize”, as they like to say in East African English over here. Because in Rwanda, we don’t coordinate or work together. We harmonize.

I admit there have been times when all this harmonizing has felt a bit off key to me. Is it really necessary to know everyone in this room by name, especially if I’ll never see them again? This meeting already went over time by 45 minutes; can we skip the oratory and wrap this up already? The hyper-productive, Google Calendar-loving, punctuality-obsessed grad student in me comes to life at times like these, and I grow impatient with the formalities.

A view of Kigali.

A view of Kigali.

But this is what I mean when I say I thought I knew something about meetings, because in this context, I clearly have much to learn. I have to remember that the Rwandan mindset values community more than the individual, and that the introductions and lengthy remarks are not merely agenda items here. I have to remember that this culture cares about the whole story as much as it cares about the upshot, so answers to my questions are going to be on the long side. I have to remember that meetings aren’t just about getting things done, but also basking in the beauty of togetherness for a little while, and putting that powerful collective mindset into action. Quite possibly that is the true meaning of “harmonize.”

Caitlin O’Donnell is spending the semester working at Catholic Relief Services in Kigali, Rwanda, with a specific focus on child development and education programs in that country.

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