Learning the Local Language: A Confession
Our workers get a lot of flak for being lazy, often deservedly. Or we couch the accusation in anthropological terms—that taking advantage of those with more resources than you, viz. the employer, is an essential aspect of the Karimojong culture. That way, instead of saying “Look how lazy these people are,” and getting angry, you can say, “look how backward this culture is,” and be sad—a much more sanctified emotion.
In any case, as one who oversees workers for the mission, this is a constant thought on my mind, a behavioral expression that I have to evaluate a hundred times a day, deciding when to let it go and when it becomes worth it to fight a battle over and when I’m just flat out wrong in my perceptions.
Yesterday, I had given instructions to one of our workers, we’ll call him David (since that is his name) to go to the other side of the compound and get a bag of cement. In the mean time, I began mixing a fresh batch of plaster from the remaining cement that we’d be able to finish when he got back. When he arrived, I told him in Ngakarimojong that the mix needed three more shovels of cement to be finished, and then proceeded to add the proper amount.
I looked around awhile later to see what he was doing and he was not to be found. This agitated me, but I figured perhaps he was taking a latrine break. Another ten minutes passed and I saw that we would soon need another batch of plaster, so I again looked for him to tell him to make it. He was gone. I asked the two other guys on the crew where he had gone; they didn’t know. I waited. By now I was starting to work myself into a fury and was gearing up to have an impromptu employee evaluation meeting and it wasn’t going to go well for him. As I was finalizing my remarks, he comes trundling up with a wheelbarrow carrying a bag of cement, and as I look over to the storage area, there are two others stacked on the ground, and I realize that my instructions weren’t as clear as I had thought. Suddenly the quizzical look he gave me as I was explaining the cement mixture to him begins to make sense, and I have to appreciate his willingness, in the absence of understanding, to do what he thought I had asked.
While there is certainly laziness in the hearts of our staff (which problem I’d probably also have seen had I ever been in management in America, or done some honest self-reflection) I’m learning and constantly relearning that there is an interior logic to the patterns of our workers that I often fail to understand, but that the harder I work to grasp it, the less friction there will be in my role as a manager. And it probably won’t hurt to learn the language well either.