One of the greatest challenges of being the Volunteer Supervisor at the St. Julie Centre is communicating with the volunteer staff. I continue to learn more and more Swahili every day, but it also seems important that I learn the local tribal language as well. The tribal language of Malava and the surrounding area is Luyha (LOO-YUH), after the tribe of the same name. So I have been trying my best to learn what I can of both languages so that I am able to speak at least a few words to the staff.
Besides learning the national and local languages to be able to verbally communicate with the volunteer staff, I also have had to learn a lot about the cultural of Kenya. There is an obvious dynamic between men and women in Kenya that isn’t as prominent in the States. In Kenya, there seems to be specific roles assigned to both men and women. There are certain jobs that seem reserved for men that women would not do. While there are certain jobs for women that men would not do.
An example of this comes into play everyday when it is time to clean the Centre before everybody leaves for the day. The volunteer women of the Center dilute cleaner in buckets and use rags to clean and sanitize everything from the play therapy toys, to the floor mats, and even the floor itself. While they do this Ryan and I sit and take tea and bread. It seems to be unthinkable to the Kenyan staff to allow us men to do such a job. It actually makes them feel uncomfortable to have us clean or mop the floor. On the other hand, Ryan and I don’t feel comfortable having these women do all of the cleaning, but, at least for now, it is their wish to do so and so we don‘t interfere.
Together, the language and the culture, have been areas in which I have learned the most about how to be a better Volunteer Supervisor.
One thing that drastically improved the communication between myself and the volunteer staff was the recent volunteer meeting. We have had meetings before where we reviewed contracts and various paperwork, but this was the first time that I feel I really had the chance to speak directly to the staff and also hear from them. I planned the meeting for March 30th and asked David, one of the occupational therapists, to help translate my English into Swahili. It made me nervous to think of how they would respond to what I said. At the meeting I spoke with the staff openly. I explained that there was a lot that we could learn from each other and that we had to work together as a team. I spoke, but then allowed the volunteers to speak, and one by one they did. I asked them to share stories about their experiences about volunteering at the St. Julie Centre. I asked them if they think the work that they do will actually help these disabled children. At first, it was quiet, but slowly each of them stood and began to tell of their best experiences at the Centre and why they know deep in their hearts that they are doing good work. They told of children that couldn’t walk and now are walking. They told of children that couldn’t talk and now are talking. By the end of the meeting I had forgotten how nervous I was and truly felt closer to the staff that the previous day seemed so foreign to me. We shared stories as well as concerns and slowly became comfortable with each other. I even receive many compliments from some of the volunteers saying that it was the first time that they had actually spoken at a meeting. It was the first time somebody asked them how they felt about anything.
Although, the volunteers still refuse to let Ryan and I clean the floor and I know there will continue to be language and cultural difficulties between the staff and I, that day many barriers were broken down and now what ever problems we will face in the future of the St. Julie Center we will face them together.