i received an email over facebook from a soon to be expat. what's your advice for a new guy he said? something akin to'waaa?' was my initial reply. but, heh, with the arrival of our new mental health officer, it's something that's been on my mind anyway these days... so after getting over the shock of being asked for advice, i thought about the things i've heard from other people in the field - and the advice that made a big difference for me. i came up with my top three tips for a first timer:
1/ 'be prepared for anything.' before arriving in the project,
chances you received reports from the field. this could include
the project proposal with objectives and strategies. it could
be the handover document. you may even get to read a blog or
some communications docs. if you are like me, you'll use these
documents to try to somehow peice together a picture of what you
are about to walk into, looking for clues to complete the images
in your head, and perhaps you will think you know what you're
getting into. and if you are really like me, you will still
end up gobsmacked when you arrive and are confronted with
everything, promptly forgeting all that you've read, and end up
still spending your first few days in a haze as you try to make
sense of the world again. this is normal.
2/ 'don't make any big changes your first month in the field.'
really really take your time getting to know the program and
your own department. if you listened at the door of the new
expat training, this is one thing you would hear repeated often
- and there's good reason.
when you arrive in a project full of ideas and energy and
passion, it is so easy to pinpoint all the things you think are
wrong, or inefficient or not logical. this is a good thing, it
promotes improvements and progress in the project... but it's
best not to push through right away. it's so useful to take
lots of notes, ask lots of questions, keep your energy high, and
allow some time to find out why things are they way they are.
there could be good reasons, or perhaps outdated reasons... but
usually there is a reason that is not immediately obvious. part
of working for msf is finding new ways of solving problems and
dealing with issues (ways that can best suit the context,
population, resources etc etc). you're not in kansas anymore
and if you don't know the context, you may repeat old mistakes.
so listen, ask questions and give it time before plowing ahead
with your brave new program. you're going to have to be
creative and flexibe in your approach, and this time allows you
to be best prepared. you don't want to reinvent the wheel only
to find out your beautifully streamlined program can't hold up
to the potholes and wadis.
3/ as hinted at, the last big advice is 'be prepared to suspend
disbelief'. there have been so many times i said to myself,
there is no logical way this can work... my canada brain was
like 'what the hell are you trying to pull off?? this is not
gonna happen!!!' but here's the catch, it did work. somehow, we
all make it work. and it may even make sense eventually... as
long as you don't think too hard about it.