“I didn’t see you this morning,” Jean said. “You just parked the car and went upstairs without greeting me.”
My brain was full after another day of conversations in a non-native language and a thousand small things to attend to. I quickly searched my mind for the events of that morning and then remembered that he was right—I had got out of the car and went directly into the office.
“Oh I’m sorry,” I said apologetically which I followed with the first lame excuse that came to mind.
There was no excuse really. I simply forgot to greet a friend and co-worker that I greet most days. Although this wasn’t the first time I had forgotten, he was quick to forgive.
“That’s okay,” he said with a grin. “I’ll see you Friday because I’m off tomorrow.”
This recent conversation served as a clear reminder that I am living and working and serving and operating in a place where your social ‘network’ (don’t read social media here) is highly valued and is for many their most prized possession. Since this network is a priority, people’s choices and way of life reflect this.
And I had forgotten that. As a part of my friend’s network I had, in a small way, broken this important yet unwritten social contract. I didn’t mean to. I honestly do not remember consciously choosing to not greet him. It just was not on the forefront of my mind that morning, and as I’m learning, it certainly is not a part of my cultural ‘DNA.’
Haiti is a great teacher. Sometimes its’ lessons are harsh and sudden, other times they are more gentle and subtle. This time it was gentler but still a lesson to ponder and the lesson was this—people must come FIRST.
Personally I know I am not quite there. I want to be but if I’m honest with myself, I know my love of beating deadlines and creating beautiful spreadsheets and solving logistical problems and writing compelling stories, stand in the way.
Now I realize completing tasks are a necessary part of life and work and ministry however it shouldn’t be what comes first—people should come first.
The truth is I come from a culture that demands productivity at all costs (including relational ones) and that is hard to shake. Thankfully my Haitian brothers and sisters are patient and forgiving.
This is a lesson for those of us who work in community development as well. How many well planned and financed projects have failed because the people the project aimed to help were not put first? It is easy to get swallowed up by logframes, impact evaluations, baseline surveys, proposals, and many more things that occupies our minds and demands our attention when running a project.
However we need to remember the ultimate purpose for all these tasks—to help people live safe, healthy and productive lives. And how can we achieve that without putting people first?
As a well-known developmentista recently put it on Twitter, “It’s not about the data, it’s about the relationship stupid!”
So what’s the application for development workers and agencies? Listening is certainly one practical step that those in development can take and it is getting some traction. Projects like “Time to Listen” and the recent focus on feedback loops are encouraging signs.
Listening is important for me personally as well as I attempt to break free from my tendency to go and do first instead of putting people first. Ultimately I just need to value these relationships more than my list of to-dos. A shift in priorities and a ‘renewing of the mind’ is in order.
I’ve been blessed with good relationships in Haiti and I want to see those continue to grow and develop because in addition to benefiting from these relationships myself, that’s really why I’m here—to invest in people.
A couple days later I saw Jean, faithfully guarding the entrance to our office and greeting people as they came in the front door. I didn’t forget to say hello and ask about his family this time. I’m learning, albeit slowly