Taking a bajaji to the post office

Somehow, it has come to my last week in Tanzania. Professionally, this trip has pushed me well outside my comfort zone. I came in quite (over)confident in my abilities to apply the KM processes I use in DC. Instead, I was forced to be creative as the challenges and realities out here rendered my go-to approaches to be utterly impractical. Scrambling to learn new languages, both spoken and professional, have added to the challenge. I’m discovering, however, what can be accomplished when, stripped of your life vest, you let go of the boat and start to try to swim. From what I can tell, learning how to swim sans lifejackets is where my Tanzanian colleagues are vikings. Today was a perfect example of that.

This morning, I attended a facility-based training on the electronic logistics monitoring information system we are rolling out across Tanzania. After training pharmacists and others at the district levels, we are moving on to train health facility staff to use this system. While many of the district teams are computer-savvy, a majority of the health facility teams we have trained so far have very little, if any, experience using a computer at all. The original training might typically begin with opening an email to access a link to the system; however, this training began with, “How many of you have ever used a computer?” Imagine trying to describe how to use a mouse or set up an email, in a language that does not necessarily have all of the vocabulary necessary to fully explain these concepts, to people who have never used a computer before.

It was impressive to watch my colleagues think on their feet and come up with an extended analogy that likens choosing a browser to go online to open an email box with taking a bajaji to go to the post office. I suppose it is not actually such an extended analogy, but I rarely ever make the mental connection between snail mail and email these days. The idea of going into my email to click on a link is something I take for granted, but the reality where we are working is so different. As my colleagues explained every detail of basic functions on computers (scrolling! It makes so much sense until you have to explain it in Swahili!), I started thinking a lot about how we communicate in public health, and how practical the digital tools that I’m often called in to advise on actually are in many of these contexts.

As my facility-level colleagues struggled to remember their email addresses and passwords, I grappled with how to find better balance between my trusty online knowledge management approaches and some of the challenges I am facing out here. It is amazing to me the gap between how people actually communicate out here–spoken word, sharing stories, and talking to each other–and how we are often forced to communicate–in writing. I am so used to communicating via the written word–take this blog for instance, or SMS, Twitter, and even longer reports–that expressing myself in these forms makes the most sense to me, whereas talking about my work might give me pause. However, that is not the habit or the practice for my colleagues and for many of the people we work with in the field; here, it is talk first, write later. While I don’t see written communication going anywhere anytime soon, nor do I see reporting requirements or other written products traded in for more oral forms of communication, watching my colleagues out here inspires me to try take a different route to the post office from time to tome.


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