A Long Day In The Field

Posted on 28th March, 2022

 Connecting Vision With Reality


Those of you who know me may be expecting me now to write about a literal field with vegetables or agriculture of some form happening. But no, this field is different it is something quite unique but something I have unwittingly become involved in without realising it until this week. 


I have had the privilege of working with both development and mission in the more marginalised parts of the world. In this work we have two groups of people, the leaders and funders who are based in capital cities and distant countries and we have the people in the ‘field’ the beneficiaries and implementors (my term). The people in the field are if you like at the ‘coal face’ they are implementing the decisions of others and they are the experts on the ground who try and make a difference to the world they live amongst and the people they know personally. This is true of many  NGO’s of many sorts and also Christian mission and academic researchers too.


This last week we made a trip into the field to see what was going on. I will remove all references to individuals and places because I think it reflects a common experience of many people involved in this work.


It’s an early start we are supposed to meet up at 7:30 the car having already collected our leader. He calls me just before due time from Starbucks to ask if I need a coffee. As we arrive at the pickup the car is waiting but one of the ladies is having trouble finding an Uber. We get into the car’s back seat which is slightly obscured, as the only westerners in the car we will be less obvious in the back, this matters as we are to find out later. We set off to collect the missing lady. Having found her we are now 6 people, the driver and the visionary leader in the front, the two ladies from the country office in the middle and us two westerners in the back. The others are all native speakers of the local language, while we have only a few words, this is a fairly common experience too, while everyone else can speak good English it is not the natural language of the day.


We are on our way now, it is expected to be a nearly 5-hour journey to our destination on good roads which is a blessing that is not always true. We are running a little behind (also normal) the two ladies are well prepared though and after a few hours they open up the bags and start sorting out food for everyone. This we eat while driving and it is very welcome no one has yet eaten breakfast.


The sights beside the road are foreign to our English eyes and we enjoy learning more about the way this country is put together and the small businesses along the road all tell stories. While the rest of the car are busy talking enthusiastically about their lives and what is going on. The leader shares some ideas at one point and we discuss things together. There may be some discussion about what we expect to see and the important people to look out for in the destination when we arrive.


Eventually we navigate off the fast highway into a provincial town and down ever smaller roads to a door in an insignificant wall in a dirty scruffy street with many poor people around. We are welcomed through the door to visit the new field office, the leader has not seen this before so there is a lot of talk about how it is working and the difficulties they had to overcome to set it up.


There is a team of about 6 people based at this office we are introduced to each one. Now we try and navigate the greeting rituals, some people speak in English but some can’t or don’t, some just do a handshake, others do the air kiss on each cheek 3 or 5 times and some hug it is all very confusing, and somewhere in this confusing jungle there were some names which I desperately try to remember. Some names are very English like David or John others can be easy for us to say like Hannah or Ali but others can involve sounds we find difficult such as Ghassan or perhaps Adedagbo, these latter ones are almost impossible to remember my brain just can’t hold them maybe because my tongue refuses shape them correctly.


We sit down and let the talking wash around us, all we can gather is the happiness from meeting up and seeing the leader, sometimes concerns are shared we don’t know what but we can sense the feeling. Maybe a bereavement or a sickness or some political decision which is making life difficult, funny how these political decisions rarely make life better, anyway it is normal team bonding the meeting of colleagues or brothers and sisters in the faith.


After a while there may be a formal meeting, though last week there wasn’t and then there would be more translation so we can understand what is being reported and how the decisions are being made.


Then it’s time to go for a meal or coffee and cakes, this may arrive from caterers but for us we ended up at a nice restaurant with a wonderful view over a river. More people join us and more discussion takes place, we learn more names that we also forget quickly. The local food is discussed and landmarks around are discussed. People point out where they live either locally or 'over there beyond that hill'. These meals are always pleasant and a great atmosphere.


Then two more people arrive that the leader was expecting, though I knew nothing about it beforehand. This become more interesting for us as one of them is an English speaker from America with another NGO, there is quite a lot of shared experience to talk about and shared challenges working in this particular context.


Before we know it, it is time to eat again and for this we go to a more indigenous eating house and eat the main meal of the day. After this the other NGO people leave and we start to say goodbye to people, there is more discussion about future plans over coffee and now it is getting late and we have a long journey home, this time it will be dark. As the sun sets we hear there is a conference happening nearby that is related to our project and we must call in on the way home, just for ten minutes.


Off we set as the sun is setting, we have collected another lady who is catching a lift with us back to the city, and after about 20 minutes we find ourselves driving through a large gateway into a guarded compound and we all get out to find our way into a hall with about 60 people attending. They are just regathering for the next session, our leader knows all the organisers here and there is a lot of greetings going on, we are introduced again and common interests shared. The meeting starts and our leader says a few words, we are summoned to the front to be greeted by the whole audience. It is very embarrassing for us shy westerners, but we have been in this situation before and it is very normal. We don’t have to say anything this time and we are grateful as sometimes we have been asked to speak without any warning whatsoever.


Now we really must go but we can’t find the driver for a minute, he appears and gets the car out and we get in, but there is a problem. What is happening? We ask. Apparently the security guards on the gate have reported that there are two westerners just arrived at the conference centre. The rules are that all westerners must have an armed police escort in this region. We therefore have to wait for the police escort to arrive and this will take some time. The area has been known to have problems with kidnappings though not for many years, rules are rules and should be followed. We sit tight waiting and after maybe 45minutes (I don’t really know how long) eventually the police pickup with armed guards arrives and we follow him down the slow road, for some reason avoiding the fast highway. After maybe 20 minutes we stop and now we have to wait again for an escort from the next police station to appear before we can continue. Thankfully we do not need an escort for the whole distance just within this region.


I really feel bad because we have caused our friends to be delayed returning home, if we had not been spotted at the conference we would be well on the way by now, as it is we are sitting waiting for a police escort that is really not necessary. Eventually we are done and we set off. Very late that night we arrive back in the big city and find our apartment and even better our bed.


The long journey back is useful for debriefing and understanding what we have seen during the day. Questions arise, discussion often goes on into what is the relevance of what we have seen, maybe there are problems where we need to be actively involved in finding resolutions. If we have grants or funders to report back to we need to be sure we have the specific answers we need. Also the journey allows for much reflection on the deeper issues of the projects seen. And often there are situations that can be very disturbing, especially where poverty and injustice are present and a need to process the emotions encountered. Always for us there is the need to process the cross-cultural issues and translation of this information into a western view, we are forever bridging the gap between cultures.


A long day, a lot of people, a lot of language we don’t understand and something like 11 hours sat in a car. But this is the only way to see what is going on in the field to join the vision with the reality.

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