Productive Chaos in the Face of Unemployment

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The scene is familiar to what we see in the states: A member of the group gives a PowerPoint presentation in front of the larger groups. The presentation is filled with statistics and findings from their area health center. Each slide paints a more detailed portrait of life and work for the presenting group. However, a harsh criticism hits the air.

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“These numbers are horrible,” he interrupts the speaker. “Where is the rest of your data?”

“Doctor, we collected all the information, and these are the results,” the presenter responds.

“Well it’s not good enough,” the doctor says. “We have to do better.” He turns to the group. “We are not playing here, we are working.” The group shifts in their seats. I catch eyes with one of the ICAP Mozambique team members. She gives me a soft smile and opens her eyes wide before returning attention to the doctor who is in charge of the group.

“What he is saying is that the information is all accounted for, it’s just lower than we want,” another member of the group says in support of the presenter. “But it’s all there.”

The group erupts in conversation, and the presenter patiently stands at the front waiting for the time to continue. The leader is now looking at his cell phone and smiling. Members of the nearly 20-person group are having loud, fractioned conversations about the data and presentation throughout the room.

There’s a name for this kind of environment: productive chaos.

In the United States (in most cases, or at least the ones I am most familiar), we are all about productive order. We sit, listen (or pretend to listen), smile, read along with the information, and wait for the appropriate time to ask our focused and polite questions to the presenter, the expert.

There is a somewhat artificiality to our system of presentations. The presenter knows what is expected of her or him, and the audience knows what is expected of them. With the exception of jokes and stories thrown in for effect, it is a polite ritual that goes back throughout our history.

As the only two Americans in the room, I lock eyes with another Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) who is sitting across the room. She and I shrug our shoulders but sit in silence waiting for the chaos to settle. We expect the harsh comments to draw criticism or spite from the members of the group.

Yet, the conversation never turns toward the negative. Instead, the environment feels productive, energetic, fruitful. While it does cause the meeting to go two hours over time, we leave feeling like we just witnessed something truly refreshing: a meeting filled with criticism that doesn’t leave the group feeling like a failure. A level of honesty from a culture that cuts through the bullshit and gets right to the point.

The Issue of Employment
In the world of international non-governmental organization (INGO) work, the pressure to provide results is sometimes overwhelming. The groups on the ground need to show that they are worth the paycheck they are receiving, or else the worst is possible: being replaced.

As a developing country, opportunities are rare and hard to acquire. The availability of open positions is limited (although with the export of gas and other natural resources, the demand for more labor is increasing). Even for those who have higher educations, it’s a battle to fill positions in hospitals or government offices. This is why many Mozambicans live far away from their families for months or years at a time.

My supervisor just had a new, baby girl with his wife who lives in Maputo on the other side of the country. He opens his phone and shows me a photo of her in a pink hat. It’s easy to tell from his talking of her that he loves and misses her dearly.

Another colleague is a newlywed. He took advantage of the holidays in November and December to travel to Maputo to marry his now wife. His wallpaper on his phone is an image of her standing along the beach, the wind blowing her hair.

For them, being in Namapa and working for an INGO is simple: a good job with good pay to support the families who they love, who they will be able to see again once their contract is complete. They understand the rarity of a quality job and will do their hardest to succeed.

While unemployment in the United States is always a societal concern, we often make the decision on where to work based on the location of our families, loved ones. We need their constant presence to keep us motivated, grounded. Mozambicans need this as well, but until the day comes that more opportunities are established, the work they often do separates them from their support networks.

Action and Accolades
The meetings with ICAP groups from around northern Mozambique comes to an end. Additional chairs are brought in, and the drivers of our groups join the larger group for one last item on the agenda: awards.

The productive chaos is replaced with a slow clapping as the names are announced of the community groups that produced the best numbers for the past three months of reporting. My team (header photo) is awarded three times, and each time they stand to receive a rousing applause. They shake hands, hug and kiss, and sit down to examine their reward: an expensive pen still in it’s box. Photos are taken by a professional photographer.

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The accolades come not only with a gift and feeling of success, but a sense of security regarding employment. While similar to the states in the sense that we perform to keep our jobs, employment and purpose for Mozambicans goes beyond earning money. It falls firmly in the strong national pride that all Mozambicans hold dearly.

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Questions? Comments? Contact me!

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