In 1983, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer teaching English in the Central African Public. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of working in dozens of African countries, mostly in person. Whether visiting a country for several days or living there for several years, my experiences were richest when I worked side-by-side with my counterparts.
I have many fond memories of arriving at an office, seeing colleagues, sharing stories, expressing our astonishment over something mundane—the traffic, security, weather, or current events—then hunkering down to work. Being physically together, we were able to do good work AND be human in the process. We could laugh when someone would joke, commiserate when someone shared personal misfortunes, and sigh with relief when we learned someone’s sick child had pulled through. Weirdly, I also remember more specific things from times spent working together. For instance, I recall how someone else used Excel, what locals eat for lunch, how people walk, and why someone wore the same clothes several days in a row.
Much of my work has changed since the communications revolution of the past decade. As the internet has become more available throughout the world—and as platforms like Skype and WhatsApp become more widely used—work moved online. I remember buying a long-distance calling card in the early 2000s, punching in ten numbers, then the country code and number of my interlocuter in Guinea, only to get cut off after “Bonjour.” That ritual has been replaced by the “Doo dee doo” of the now ubiquitous Skype ring. Instead of in-person chats, I start my day with an inbox of emails. Instead of “chat, then work”—as was my MO in the 1990s—we share screens, go through work plans, and then make “to-do lists” that we dutifully enact after hanging up. And increasingly, instead of in-person events, we conduct trainings, data presentations, and document-editing sessions remotely.
To be sure, communication innovations have improved our work in many ways—even made some things possible for the first time. (The other day, I was on a call from California with team members in Washington D.C., Cape Verde, and a town in Tanzania—an everyday occurrence now that was a logistical challenge even 10 years ago). Yet, for all this connectedness, lost is a certain ability to understand one another and, in some cases, develop an affinity. Laughing, crying, and joking are patently hard via a screen, even harder via an email. COVID raised the stakes, making even the occasional visit sometimes impossible. It forced us to delay work; what we could do, we did by emails, Skype chats, and Zoom rooms.
To be sure, communication innovations have improved our work in many ways—even made some things possible for the first time…Yet, for all this connectedness, lost is a certain ability to understand one another and, in some cases, develop an affinity.
In 2019 I traveled to Tanzania to meet colleagues from our six schools and the local education office. In our initial WCM planning workshop, I found it fascinating following the conversations—albeit in Kiswahili, which I do not speak. I watched who took the floor, listened to whom, seemed the most senior, and word counted as final. After making a list of potential interventions, the group voted unanimously—three times—for teachers’ toilets. We expressed our support, although wondering if STS could afford them in the near term. Then an education officer stood and made an impassioned speech about the importance of improving literacy and numeracy instruction in “her schools” and the unique contribution STS could make. After several moments of silence, the group voted again—this time, unanimously supporting literacy and numeracy training.
I don’t know if we could have arrived at this outcome—or learned so much about our colleagues—if the workshop had been done on a screen.