The MIT Master's Program in Engineering and Management
About the Author: Dave Schultz brings over 25 years of graphic arts, video, and photography experience to the SDM Program. He is part of the SDM office staff and is involved in media development.
Emerging from the travel clinic, my recently vaccinated arm was still tender, but ready for a West African journey. My hand held a newly issued passport and an airline ticket to Dakar, Senegal as I joined a group of 10 other volunteers traveling under the sponsorship of Shore to Shore Mission Network. We were about to step out of our "comfort zones" on a short-term mission trip into a culture not our own.
Shore to Shore Mission Network (SSMN) is a faith-based organization seeking to connect New England residents and resources in partnership with people and needs in developing areas to help improve physical, economic and spiritual conditions with opportunities for sustainable change and a healthier standard of life.
Sharing a similar vision, the Yoonu Njup Community Center, a small Christian community in St. Louis, Senegal, has developed a partnership with SSMN to be a positive influence in their local community, which struggles with minimal medical care and high unemployment. Focusing on affordable health care and education, Yoonu Njup Community Center has established a medical clinic open to local residents and is in the process of developing a vocational training center focused on sustainable occupational education. The partnership is an on-going effort, and the group I traveled with was divided between health care professionals to assist in the medical clinic and a construction team to work alongside local contractors and volunteers building the vocational training center.
As Americans coming from a culture that excels at identifying problems and engineering solutions, we often view accomplishing tasks as more significant than identifying with the people or the relationships involved in the process. The Senegalese culture, in stark contrast, highly values social relationships and views community relationships as a primary part of problem resolution. As a result, the first fifteen minutes of every gathering, whether in a social setting or with a jobsite construction team, were spent greeting every person in the group. Adopting the customs of our hosts was a high priority, yet coming from America, we were eager to start working while the Senegalese were eager to say, "Hello."
Building relationships was a key element of our trip to St. Louis. Learning basic greetings in Wolof, the language of Senegal, along with embracing customs such as eating communally from a common dish, while seated on the floor (although an effort on our part), produced large rewards in acceptance by the local community.
Observing cross-cultural differences was an interesting aspect of this trip that appeared in many ways. One example involved a Senegalese woman in the community we were partnering with. She expressed an interest in acquiring a sewing machine to begin a small business. In our culture, an easy resolution would be to send her a sewing machine, seemingly an effective solution. In the Senegalese culture, unless everyone in her social circle received a sewing machine, one individual being singled out like this would cause a detrimental social imbalance. Senegalese leaders explained that solving this woman's problem requires awareness of her social situation, not just her technical needs.
Although, this was my first trip to Senegal with SSMN, it was one of a series of trips that this group has made to St. Louis to work alongside the people in the Yoonu Njup Community Center. Evaluating a trip like this from an American perspective often focuses on "what tasks were accomplished," but perhaps the most significant indication of "what was accomplished" comes in a comment from the community in Senegal. "These are our friends from America, unlike some who come once and never return, these people come back, they remember us, they know our names. You are most welcome."