Lome, Togo - International Literacy and Development (ILAD) Togo
Togo, Africa- ILAD Togo
Fishing for Lessons in Community Development
When packing for your summer project, do not forget your rain jacket. Perhaps your storms will be as literal as mine, or maybe they will consist of a rocky relationship with your local partner or a lack of cooperation from the constituents you are engaging, or any number of challenges. After two summer projects, my inner-idealist has begun to swallow the reality of unpredictable storms inherent to community development projects. In addition to actual weather, my storms consisted of cross cultural communication challenges, limited resources, and uninformed decision-making on my part.
Rain jackets do not prevent storms—they get you through them. Developing a 40-page plan during the school year as part of the Ingram Program mitigates risks, but it takes a commitment to flexibility to weather the unexpected. During my summer project, we experienced several weeks of unanticipated heavy rains that significantly slowed down our progress on the construction of a cement fish tank. By remaining flexible, we were still able to accomplish 80% of the in-ground system and 90% of the aquaponic prototype.
In the face of uncontrollable variables, I learned patience and flexibility. I learned the importance of proper planning and research. I redefined my understanding of what constitutes clear communication in a cross-cultural context. I learned the importance of balancing task orientation with relational orientation. For example, Johannes, my friend in the picture above, is an incredibly hard worker and innovator. He will be running the fish programs at the farm once the systems are stocked. Before we engaged in work each morning, I strove to gain his trust and respect by greeting him and his family according to cultural norms and expectations. To communicate my value of his friendship, I needed to do more than just execute a fish-farming project. Communicating a respect for human dignity cannot happen through a project devoid of human contact and so to ensure the sustainability of the fish-farming project, I needed to build relationships with my community partners in order to make it “our” project instead of “my” project.
I’m now confident that Johannes will feel comfortable asking me questions on WhatsApp about the tilapia operations because our relationship is deeper than business. I’m confident that he will take ownership of the project as he had a hand in its construction.
At the same time, for me, this summer was more than learning from challenges. It was rediscovering friendships, childhood memories, local assets, overwhelming poverty, the Ewe language, and what I called home for the first 10 years of my life. It widened my worldview and refocused my interests in global economic development. It was such a privilege to re-engage the community and culture that raised me, and hopefully in ten years fish farming will have become a source of income and protein for farmers throughout the region.