When in Rome. Or Africa.
Whenever I find myself in front of a group of students, or young people aspiring to work in development, I’m usually asked to share one piece of advice with them. I usually go with this: Get out there while you can and understand the context of the people you aspire to help. As you get older the reality is that it becomes harder to travel for extended periods, or to randomly go and live overseas.
In the early days of ICT4D and m4d – and development more broadly – it may have been seen as a luxury to understand the context of your target users (many solutions were seen as “universal”, after all). Today I’d say it’s become a necessity.
In my earlier days I did a lot of travel, mostly to and around Africa. (One thing I regret never managing to do was walk across the continent, something I started tentatively planning a few years ago). As our organisation has grown and my role within it changed, I spend more time today travelling to conferences giving talks than actually doing the work. My last major piece of extended fieldwork (i.e. longer than a week) was back in the summer of 2007 when I spent a month in Uganda consulting with Grameen’s fledgling AppLab.
There’s more to it, though, than just “getting out there”. What you learn, sense, pick up and appreciate about the place you’re in and the people you’re with largely depends on the kind of traveller you are. The truth of the matter is you’ll rarely get a real sense of a place staying for just a few days in the capital city behind the walls of a four or five star hotel. Quite often the more you get out of your comfort zone the more you learn.
I’ve been hugely fortunate to have lived and worked in many countries – mostly in Africa – since I set out to work in development almost twenty years ago. And during that time I’ve developed quite a few “travel habits” to help me get the most out of my time there.
Here’s my Top 15:
1. Stay in a locally-owned or run hotel (or even better, guest house).
2. Spend as much time as possible on foot. Draw a map.
3. Get out of the city.
4. Check out the best places to watch Premiership football.
5. Ignore health warnings (within reason) and eat in local cafes/markets.
6. Buy local papers, listen to local radio, watch local TV, visit local cinemas.
7. Use public transport. Avoid being ‘chauffeured’ around.
8. Take a camera. Take your time taking pictures.
9. Go for at least a month.
10. Visit villages on market days.
11. Spend time in local bookshops, libraries and antique/art shops.
12. Read up on the history and background of where you’re going. Buy a locally-written history and geography book.
13. Be sure to experience the city on foot, at night.
14. Wherever you are, get up for a sunrise stroll. It’s a different, fascinating (and cooler) time of day.
15. Don’t over-plan. Be open to unexpected opportunities.
Rebecca Harrison (@rhrsn on Twitter):
16. Seize any opportunity to visit homes, especially at meal times.