MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

Mis-Frustration

Some individuals could find their way in any place with others who speak any language and find a way to connect, I however, find this extremely difficult. Even though, Ninajifunza Kiswahili (I am taking Swahili classes), I still find many instances where there is a significant communication barrier.

As part of my internship, I am currently managing our call center of four employees. When I started we had two employees in the call center collecting data from our retailers in the North and South on how many nets they have in stock. Now, due to donor demands on data that should be collected, we have four employees collecting data on retailers in the North and South, hard to reach retailers, eVoucher redemptions and clinic voucher stock outs. As the manager, it is my role to train the new employees, create the calling lists for each, monitor and analyze the data retrieved. This is all new to me in English never mind Swahili.

As I am putting together these different lists, I confuse myself over the different retailers and clinics, whether they’re eVoucher or Paper Voucher clinics and who is collecting what data. Meanwhile, as I’m only confusing myself more, I am trying to teach one of our new employees what I am looking for her to do. As I ramble on, back and fourth she continues to nod her head and accept the tasks I have given her. I finish my explanations, ask her if she has any questions and when the answer is always, “No madam” I return back to my desk. A few hours later or some times even at the end of the day when I am looking to collect the work from the day to review, I receive an email in response that explains that she is unsure of what the task was and was not able to collect the data. This is not ignorance or lack of wanting to work, this is a conflict in communication.

Growing up and studying in North America, I would expect if someone did not understand the task, they would ask for clarification but that is not the case here. I have started to learn in many circumstances that Tanzanian people tell you what you want to hear. Tanzanians are extremely polite and this is simply a part of their culture as they do not want to offend you so they tell you what will make you happy. When asking a waitress to get you something the correct phrase is “Naomba maji?”  which directly translates to, “I beg you to get me some water?” The cultural universals are based off of politeness rather than efficiency. This allows me to appreciate the way of communication a little more but it is most certainly not an easy adjustment for me to get used to.

I am learning that is difficult for me to understand many things until I am able to actually experience them. Even through all my communication studies during school I don’t think I really understood the frustration of miscommunication. I am embarrassed to say but initially I was quite frustrated at the situation but that is not fair or right. It is up to both me and the employee to work together to be sure the other understands what is being said. It is up to us to learn to work together to accomplish the tasks. It is up to me to embrace the culture for what it is and rather than being upset of time lost, take the time to use these as moments as teachable opportunities. I am learning, it is difficult but I am learning both Swahili and communication norms.

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