Long Meetings in Dimly Lit Rooms

April 14, 2013

When asked to reflect on what he thought about his first trip to Ethiopia and personal experience with our partners and initiatives, Noah Wardrip commented, “I didn’t realize there’d be so many long meetings in poorly lit rooms.” His comment wasn’t about the rationing of electricity in the developing world but the unexpected series of confabs that took place during this so-called ‘mission trip’.  Noah followed up with this statement: “I see their importance.” While we spent a fair amount of time ‘in the field’, the meat of our trip took place in offices and across dining tables. In fact, several anticipated village visits were cancelled after touching base with our partners. For example, Paulos Temesgen, General Manager of Selam Awassa Water Drilling Works indicated it was best foreigners not show up to see potential well sites to avoid creating unrealistic expectations within the community. This meant less time absorbing rural Ethiopian life and more time dialoguing with the leaders who have the greatest potential to serve as catalysts for transformation in this region.

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Few people like meetings. Some people hate meetings. Meetings are meetings. We travel 9000 miles for a trip that costs about two grand per person to have some meetings. People are dying from contaminated water in villages that look like they could be two thousand years old…and we’re having meetings? What the heck is going on here? What’s going on is an approach to development (which is another word for discipleship (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=disciple) guided by empathy. We begin with information gathering. Despite the technological innovations in worldwide communication, each face to face visit requires an assertion that all our facts are straight. (“So you’re saying the well stopped working less than a week after we left in October? You’re sure? OK.”) These sessions bring to life the Skype chats and emails and what hasn’t been shared over the last few months.

Without a healthy dose of ‘back and forths’ where our partners can share opinions, desires, hopes, and frustrations, we just impose ourselves like auditors conducting a performance review. We’ve found that accountability, while necessary, comes easier when we trust each other as friends. This process reveals the challenges and obstacles to moving in the right direction although problem-solving is still a few steps away

Following our fact-finding, we progress to understanding. Why is this strategy working and not that one? How can we encourage this behavior or try this concept? How can we (Americans) play the most helpful role in this process?  From here we can identify what ‘issues’ need to be acknowledged and addressed.   Is it culture/worldview? Is it an individual? Are we on track with the organization as a whole? Do we need to change our approach? Is there a missing resource that will help? If so, who’s going to pay for it? An example from this recent trip – Several weeks before our arrival, the Cooking School Graduates should have received a small loan from a revolving fund we created and begun establishing their own small businesses. The loan was to be administred by Pastor Lako Bedasso and the Full Gospel Church of Ethiopia’s Shashamene office. Akelt Girmay, General Manager at Selam Awassa Business Group was going to help the girls set up their business. When we arrived, Lako explained why the process had stalled. We were a little confused but at least we knew why. Later that night, after dinner, Atkelt met us in the hotel lobby and shared his frustration over working through this with Pastor Lako. Lako hadn’t shared with Akelt the explanation he gave us. We’re still not sure why. How were we going to bring resolution and get the graduates started on their business? A meeting. So we gathered a few mornings later and worked it out. By the time our sometimes contentious two hours were over, we had covered significant worldview issues that needed tweaking, a reset of everyone’s role, a new timeline, written agreements, and a decision to make a local hire to facilitate the project. And strong bonds of friendship and commitment to the prosperity of the communities in this region.

This story demonstrates the obvious reality that at some point we do move to planning and ‘next-steps’. The significance of a strategy that focuses on empathy and is accomplished largely through meetings is the belief in the capacity of Ethiopians to embrace the abundant life God holds out and accomplish their own development. We don’t make decisions for our partners and try hard not to think for them either. We limit our practical suggestions and emphasize the ideas that produce prosperous and just communities. Our hope is that the ‘dimly lit’ meeting rooms we occupy are just a pathway to the bright destiny that awaits Ethiopia and the Arsi Oromo people.