Learning How to Listen

The world is filled with doers — people who spend their lives doing, doing, doing because they feel it gives them a sense of purpose and a drive to live. I’ve noticed that so many of those doers are just afraid to stop, look around, and take in their surroundings. If they did, they might notice that what they are doing isn’t that important, or useful, or even interesting. It just is.

Many of us in development field make this mistake. We are always DOING things. Writing grant applications, rolling out new programs, organizing fundraisers. But do we ever stop and ask why? Is it to alleviate poverty? To provide children with an education? To bring clean water to a thirsty community? These are all lofty, heady, and abstract goals. We need to pause and take the time to begin to understand our role in the world, and to understand what things look like from the perspective of all the people we’re “helping”. I don’t mean rolling into a village and passing out some surveys. I don’t mean conducting focus groups and aggregating data into colorful graphs and charts. I mean listening. We need to listen, not just for an hour or an afternoon, but perhaps for a lifetime. We need to listen and to be, and to consider how we can grow as development practitioners and, more importantly, as human beings.

Going without running water or electricity is no badge of honor. But a lot can happen by long-term “being” with a community or a family or an individual whose life you hope to improve.

My background is in anthropology, and anthropology is about listening , so I am admittedly biased. It’s what I’m trained to do, what anthropologists sometimes self-deprecatingly call “deep hanging out.” But I truly believe that the most valuable insights we can have into the lives of others happen when we have no set agenda, no quota to meet, no donors to impress. It’s easy to scoff at this practice, or to dismiss it as frivolous or useless. After all, as many critics of development workers have pointed out, living in solidarity with an impoverished community doesn’t make that community any less impoverished. And the critics are right. Going without running water or electricity is no badge of honor. But a lot can happen by long-term “being” with a community or a family or an individual whose life you hope to improve.

I spent the past year as a Global Health Corps Fellow working for the Nyaka AIDS Foundation in rural southwestern Uganda, and I have struggled to write a blog post about my experience in a way that honors my personal values, my professional values as a trained anthropologist, and the values of Nyaka as well as GHC. To get started, I decided to sit down with one of my coworkers for whom stepping back and listening comes easily. 25-year-old Hope is the school nurse at Kutamba Primary School, one of Nyaka’s schools that provides support to orphaned and vulnerable children in the remote mountains of Rukungiri District. She is amazingly good at her job. Here are some excerpts from an interview I conducted with Hope in May 2016 where I asked her to tell me about her life as a nurse:

“I always wanted to be a nurse. I grew up near a hospital, and when I was still young I would see how smartly the nurses were dressed. They looked so important and I grew up admiring them. Then when I was around 10 years old, I was in a boda-boda [motorcycle] accident that left me in the hospital for one month. I was treated well. One thing I loved was watching how nurses gave injections. So later once I was back home I would give injections to those big banana flowers on our banana trees. I would sharpen a small stick and poke the flowers with it, just like I had seen nurses do on my arm. So you could say my practicing started early.

I wanted a career where I could come in contact with people, and as a nurse I come in contact with people all the time everyday. Nurses are interested in knowing what’s going on with you and how they can help you. They don’t give up. I think the nurse-patient relationship is very important, the most important part of being a nurse. Though nurses have their own inner problems, at home or wherever, they never transfer it to the patients. Or good nurses never do that. To be a nurse you have to be patient and trustworthy and curious. You have to be open to people, to let them come to you.

I almost never have problems with patients. Patients will never come abusing you unless they are mentally ill or drunk. The person who starts with the abuse is usually the healthcare worker. When nurses become rude there can be so many reasons for it, but we always have to remember that patients have their rights. If a patient says they don’t want an injection, you don’t give it to them! You can sit down, create a relationship with that patient, and gently explain and encourage them to take the treatment they need. Listen to them and find out why they are afraid. But you should never encourage patients too much, because it can backfire on you — even in court!

As a nurse, dealing with Nyaka’s children is the part I enjoy most. If you’re not curious enough you might fail to treat them. A child might come and say he has abdominal pain, but when you ask him to point to where it hurts, he touches his head! And you think, is this child sick? Why is he here? Does he just want some medicine, some sweet syrup? You have to investigate, keep asking questions, go to his teachers and neighbors. Go to his house and just look and see what is happening. I love asking all the questions. The challenge is with the small nursery children. They can’t explain well what they are feeling or what they need. When dealing with children, if you can’t be patient and explain things simply, you could end up slapping someone! Which you should never do as a nurse. So dealing with children is a challenge, but a challenge I enjoy.

I love this job, but I hope one day a Nyaka student will take my place. That would be so good to see.”

Nurse Hope teaches a woman how to give medicine to her grandson, who is suffering from malaria. May 2016, Nyaka AIDS Foundation Kutamba Primary School Clinic, Rukungiri District, Uganda. Photo Credit Madeline Moore.

Watching Hope work has shown me the value of patience and quiet persistence. Everything she does, she does 100%. She knows the life story of every child she cares for. She knows their families, what their homes look like, what they eat for breakfast on the weekends. Sitting and listening to her, both for this interview and in other more informal conversations, has taught me more than any survey or census possibly could. Hope is good at what she does because she knows how to sit back and listen. And I’m inspired to be more like her.

When we sit down and listen, we come to value people simply as people. And as development practitioners, what could be more important?

People are more than statistics, but they are also more than smiling faces on glossy annual reports. Our beneficiaries are not the “poor”, they are people with rich life stories, with likes and dislikes, hopes and desires. Our staff — even Nurse Hope — are not “heroes”, and to call them that is to diminish their humanity. These are the people that I work with every day. Just like you and I, they get frustrated and disappointed. They hate being cold and muddy during field visits just as much as I imagine you would. But that does not make them any less important to what my organization, or any organization, does. When we sit down and listen, we come to value people simply as people. And as development practitioners, what could be more important?

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