I started work on Wednesday of this week. Just like first weeks of work anywhere, my first week has been quite slow, consisting mostly of looking through material in the office and getting my bearings. I can't really say I've "learned" anything exactly and I'm still not quite sure how I'll make a contribution, but I'm confident that things will start unfolding in their own time.
Here are a few observations from my first week:
1) It's really difficult to understand context or gain any concept of what people are doing in the office when they're speaking in a language that I barely understand and within a cultural context that's completely different from my own. People come in and out of the office. I don't know who most of the people are and why they've come to the office. Do they work in the building? Are they seeking services? No clue. I also have no idea where my colleagues are going whenever they leave the office, which is constant throughout the day. Are they doing work stuff? If so, I would like to tag along to get an idea of the kind of work being done out in the field. Or, if not, is it just okay to pick up and leave the office to run errands or take care of personal business? I get the feeling that it's the latter of these two things, but there's no way to be certain without constantly asking someone "Where's so-and-so going?" And I know that can be annoying, plus, at some point I figure it's probably not even my business.
2) Time is structured very differently here. Things just move slowly. I may have a meeting on a given day, but I come into the office and the person I'm supposed to meet with isn't even in town, so the meeting gets put off to another day, only to be reschedule again and again into the future. This is not uncommon.
3) I am more comfortable when I have my own space. I was amazed at my good fortune when, on my second day of work I was given an office and a working computer! Up until that point any time I went into the office I sat in my colleague's office across the desk from her, which got really uncomfortable when we exhausted my Swahili vocabulary and had nothing else to talk about and no work to do.
4) It's extremely difficult here to do any work without resources. There's just no infrastructure in place to help out. From what I can gather, my office is currently working with limited or no funds. No money to put gas in the car to get out to the villages where programs are running. Heck, there's no car. No money to pay salaries for staff. Etc. We're really fortunate that we have pretty good computers, but there is no internet unless you personally shell out the cash for a portable modem (which plugs into your thumbdrive. It's how most people get internet here) and service. There is no land-line office phone. So when an intern came to me the other day and said she had nothing to do and was going home, I asked her if it was normal for there to be nothing to do. She said yes, they have no money so there's nothing to do.
I could go on and on, but I guess I'll stop here. I've got much to learn and I don't want to make too many sweeping generalizations yet. I will say that I've read a fair amount of the material that's in the Women's Desk office and it looks like we've done some good work in the past--started micro-enterprise and micro-lending opportunities for women, acquired wheelchairs and crutches for the disabled/handicapped children, trained village and local leaders on gender equality, etc. And there are some really cool national and regional organizations (many of which are faith-based) that have been working on gender equality issues in Eastern Africa for over the past two decades.
So, I have every hope that if we can get some funding we'll be able to become active again and accomplish a host of really great initiatives. I'm sure that will be on my list of job duties-to secure funding. But I've got a ways to go yet before I can really feel confident to do any work anyway, so until then I'll keep going in, practicing my 1st grade Kiswahili and trying to glean little bits and pieces as I'm able.