Pre-departure training (aka pre-dep) has been crazy, formative, emotional and beautiful. It’s been more than the sequence of its events or the sum of its parts. Feel free to check out the schedule above and ask me questions about any part of the experience. I’d love to have conversations about any and all of it. However, for the purpose of my blog, I’ve realized the best tool I have to convey this experience (and my whole placement) is storytelling. I can’t explain everything, so I’ll stick to the stories that really touched me.
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the head”
Nothing ever goes quite the way we expect, and pre-dep is no exception. On our first morning of training, we confronted our intentions for our placements. We considered what we wanted to gain from this summer. This was unexpectedly HARD. I know why I applied to be JF; I know what my venture does; I know the purpose of my work. But my intentions – my personal mission statement, my goals and desires for this summer – were not something I had concretely defined. My friend (and VOTO co-worker) Alex summarized this confusion eloquently while were were brainstorming our personal mission statements. He related it to an old boxing saying: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the head”. It was such a perfect description of this JF experience and of the development sector. We have such logical plans and mission statements. We think we understand what’s about to happen. We forget that our lives and our systems are actually complex, and might just punch us in the head.
“Five foot post”
Art can be incredibly powerful. For one of our training sessions, a group called Spoke N’ Heard lead us through a workshop based on spoken word poetry, improv, deep listening and meditation. The session opened with the workshop leader, Jordon, performing a spoken word piece about a baby elephant. This baby elephant is living happily in Africa when one day, his parents are killed and mutilated for their tusks. The baby is then shipped to North America, where he is trained for circus performance. He is trained not to escape by being tied to a five foot post. As he pulls away from this post, a chain around his neck tightens, choking him painfully. He fights and fights to the brink of death until he gives in and accepts his oppression. As he grows older and larger, he evidently gains the power to break the five foot post to which he is chained; however, he does not understand and can never understand this power, and so he remains trapped, a victim of his own mind.
This is the story of racism. The baby elephant is first the African people kidnapped into the colonial era transatlantic slave trade. He then becomes the modern African diaspora, trapped in oppression by barriers which seem surmountable to an objective or privileged mind. The barriers are predominantly psychological; however, this does not affect the reality of oppression.
Everyone has five foot posts. In the spectrum of privilege and power, we are all restrained by different social and psychological factors which are just as real as any physical barrier. This spoken word piece made me cry. It beautifully tied together the psychological reality of oppression which is so widely misunderstood.
“We’ve all been in our underwear”
Another one of our training sessions focused on the power of storytelling. Four of my lovely cohort (or the “JFamily” as it was coined this week) volunteered to tell a five-minute story to the group. Their prompt was to explain a story about a memorable encounter with a stranger. Each of them told fantastic stories, at turns hilarious and reflective, beautiful and blunt. After the stories were told, each listener told the storyteller what they loved about their story. After one particularly wild story, one of the JFs made a comment that stuck with me. The story in question involved one of our cohort abandoned in a hallway in their underwear, then watching movies with strangers in a sketchy neighbourhood in Germany. The comment made about this story was that while we all had definitely not had this experience, we have definitely all been in our underwear, and so at some level we can all relate to the story. This really rang true for me in relation to our placements this summer; while we are all going to be living very different experiences and doing very different work, on a fundamental level we can still all support each other and empathize with each other’s experiences by finding the commonalities in our stories.
“Nothing happens in a vacuum”
Another powerful session we did was a history seminar with an African Studies prof. We discussed colonialism, neocolonialism, the UN, AU, IMF and the progression of development history in Africa among other things. While I had some familiarity with all of these topics, what really struck me was the direct connection between colonialism and the current dependence of African countries. I knew about this connection but often shied away in the past from confronting it head-on. The discussion that ensued on this topic made me question: what’s the difference between imposed governmental rule from a colonial country and imposed economic rule through the free trade system? Western leaders are still ensuring African people remain oppressed for their own economic gain. I feel now as though an artificial divide has been created between the exploitive neoliberalist practices of the Free Trade economy and the dependence of the African people.
Basically, my worldview got real shook up. I began to realize that even within the supposedly informed development sphere, including organizations like EWB, there are still assumptions and narratives that we accept as fact and instead need to question. Is the UN inherently good? Who funds international organizations of this nature? Is the west any more ethical in its dealings with Africa now than it was in colonial days? Is the foreign aid system holding African nations dependent in the same way governmental control did in the colonial era? I’m going to work on embracing these kinds of paradigm-shifting questions.
“Equality is giving every kid a book. Equity is making sure blind kids can get their books in Braille.”
We had a great anti-oppression workshop. It was such a safe, inclusive and yet realistic look at identity, privilege and power. I highly recommend the little video above – it’s 3 minutes long, cute as heck, and a great explanation of privilege.
“Does anyone know how to two-step?”
While the vast majority of this week was spent in intense learning and discussions, we also took the time to decompress and have fun. Our Saskatchewan JFs made valiant attempts to teach us to two-step; we sang our hearts out; we toasted each other; we laughed a lot and slept a little sometimes. While I was already friends with the whole JF cohort before arriving at pre-dep, I can now confidently say these friendships will last a lifetime. I’m so inspired by all the other JFs and I can’t wait to see the amazing things they will accomplish, not only in their placements but in their lives to come. I love these guys.
I head to Ghana with 5 other JFs on Monday. We arrive in Accra on Tuesday and then will do a couple days of in-country training. As a little preview, the schedule for that training is below. I’m sure I’ll have more stories to tell about this in a few days.