Taking the Initiative

Today I stayed in Korogwe with Lizzy for an extra day after our group meeting to do some housekeeping (of the charging-electrical-things, blog-writing, and provisioning kind.) This weekend, through a combination of circumstances, I was charged with buying most of the things on our shopping list. Now, I have a weird relationship with the market here. I always dread the idea of going out into the market and shopping on my own, especially if I’ll have to go to shops I’ve never been to before. I’ve hit the market solo multiple times, but every single time I have to force myself to step out the door, take leave of my fellow project coordinators, and head marketwards on my own. But as soon as I enter the market and start hunting by myself, I love everything about the experience.

The Korogwe market is a semi-orderly warren of side alleys and rutted dirt roads enclosed by small shopfronts. It’s a bit of a maze, but for the most part shops are grouped together by type of merchandise. So after wandering around a bit you get a sense for which street you’re likely to find khangas, or peanut butter, or avocados. Korogwe is definitely a place that rewards the browser, though. Every store on a given street sells the same general things, but the actual stock is slightly different, so there’s always the sense that the perfect whatever-you’re-looking-for could be just around the corner. And since many people have an eclectic selection of merchandise to start with, you can experience the joy of finding precisely what you’ve been looking for, precisely where you would never have expected it to be. Last time I was in Korogwe, I found a shop that sold winnowing baskets, wooden spoons, steel cooking implements, and pumice stones. I’m not sure what the logic of stocking the pumice stones there was, but I was delighted to find them anyway!

What’s interesting is that the idea of buying things in a foreign language, in a foreign country, still stresses me out, but the reality is now a lot more relaxed. I know the protocol. I know the greetings, I know how to ask for prices, I even know what the prices are supposed to be. And even though the terror of not knowing what I’m doing is gone, the thrill of personal discovery remains- whether I’ve found a phone voucher booth that sells them wholesale at a 5% discount, or stopped to chat with a vegetable seller in the market during a rainshower and made a new friend. I love having time and reasons to explore the market… once I’ve dragged myself out there, kicking and screaming.

My reluctance to take the initiative (unless pushed, by myself or others) is a characteristic of mine that I’ve become more and more aware of, and also more and more alarmed by, over the course of my time here. Unfortunately, I’m not very good at diving straight into things I’ve never tried before- I need other people to go first, an extended warm-up time, the dawning conviction that a wonderful opportunity is about to slip away without me, and/or someone gently but firmly pushing me out of the nest.

It’s not that I’m incapable of ever taking initiative. When I’m comfortable- for example, when I’m dancing- I put myself out there and start kinesthetic conversations with anyone who will listen. But the strategy of taking initiative in order to become comfortable with my surroundings is one that I’ve definitely been having to learn here. It’s a strategy that has applications both with regards to speaking a foreign language and harmonious living & working with two people I didn’t choose.

At least in terms of learning a foreign language, verbal communication in that language is to making translations of things you’ve read in it what rock climbing on real rocks is to climbing in the gym. The gym has a lot of very technical routes, but you’re inherently limited to the holds they provide- you’re not supposed to lean on the wall. It’s a test of skill and it’s good training, but it’s very different from climbing on real rocks, where you use every means at your disposal. There, what matters most is that you got to the top- that you got your point across- and whether it was messy or elegant is less important. I’ve realized that it’s helpful to open conversations, rather than waiting for the other person to do so. If you start, you at least know what the conversation will be about! It’s also useful to take initiative on opportunities to practice; if you’re afraid of getting in over your head, you’ll never be able to swim in the shallow end, let alone the deep end.

Knowing what you want and need, and being able to articulate that clearly and honestly, is another huge part of effective communication that I’ve been struggling with. I don’t like asking people for help unless I feel that I know the most effective way to approach them for it, or I believe that I absolutely have to ask them. For instance, when I don’t understand all of what’s been said, and I feel like I’m the only one who didn’t, I’d rather latch onto what I do understand and ask about that, rather than admit to a conversation-stopping gap in my knowledge or understanding. However, confirming my guess with a question, or just admitting my ignorance and asking for a repetition or other wording, would probably frustrate people less than recieving responses that reveal I didn’t understand after all.

In light of this, I’ve been trying to ask for the things I want or need more directly, instead of hoping that other people will offer them spontaneously (or with enough subtle hints.) Being passive about getting needed or wanted assistance or information leads to a lot of missed, wasted, or misused opportunities, which is something I hate. My team has called me out on my habit of making other people ask me what I want, instead of telling them in a straightforward way. When I’ve got something to ask, I need to take the initiative and ask for it. If you don’t ask, you are much less likely to recieve!

So to sum this all up, I’ve realized that I need to be more involved with, invested in, and informed about the Kijungumoto community than I have been thus far, if I want me, my team, and the Kijungumoto Project to reach their full potential. To facilitate this, I will be pushing myself out of the nest and meeting and talking with more people on my own. If I find myself holding back, out of fear, I’ll tell my teammates that I need a shove, and that I will certainly thank them for it later. And so will they, when I bring back a (metaphorical) basket full of goodies!

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