Engagement Through a Common Language Goes a Long Way

10 11 2012

By Jen Rackliff, MSc-GH student
from her fieldwork location in Rwanda

jen-rwanda2012Every morning, I come to the porch, also known as my “office”, and sit perched atop the hill overlooking the beautiful hills of Rwanda (pictured here). It’s a painting-worthy view and one I never tire of, but it is not quite how I envisioned my fieldwork to be.

For my self-designed internship, I am helping an international global health organization move its community health research agenda forward – both in supporting their current research and through my own research project. I envisioned regular field visits and closer interactions with community members and health care providers – seeing community health delivery firsthand. I quickly realized that was not quite how it would play out.

Though I learned in my first couple of days that I wouldn’t be so intricately involved with the surrounding communities, it still seemed as if I would be doing some incredible things, like helping identify study designs and methods for developing impact evaluations of community health programs. But, even this wasn’t quite as glamorous as I had envisioned. What it actually meant were days filled with conducting background research and literature reviews, which made my days a bit humdrum and unexciting. I knew I could not sustain a four-month internship this way – I needed to get more involved and be more active!

So, the first step was asking my Rwandan co-workers for ikinyarwanda lessons. Even just learning greetings and conversational phrases has helped me interact with local Rwandans, both at work and in the villages. I have developed closer relationships with my team and others throughout the organization that have opened doors for me to become more involved at both the organization level and the community level.

I now support my team on their current projects from back-translating study tools to conducting general research on current studies. I have been to the field to observe data collection and I regularly get invited to community health meetings held throughout the District. All of the field visits, data collection, and community meetings are in ikinyarwanda, which I don’t understand, but just attending is a learning experience! I’m thankful that I am able to properly address people and introduce myself.

Many places that MSc-GH fieldwork will take you will have difficult languages to learn, but the best lesson I have learned is how many doors can be opened by attempting to learn language – both professionally and socially! I often get laughed at when pronouncing (or, rather, mispronouncing) words and phrases and when I don’t understand the responses that people give me. But, my small arsenal of ikinyarwanda phrases and words is ever-growing, and the learning and laughter that comes from them, are what brings me closer to my friends and coworkers. It may be embarrassing at times, but I wouldn’t change it for anything!Many of my non-Rwandan coworkers and friends have commented about the things I have done and the opportunities I have had after having only been here for a month. I owe most of my experiences thus far to being able to engage, even if only superficially, through language.

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