As in life, the key to living a joyful and productive Accion Ambassadorship is mostly based upon the relationships that you build around you. However the difference between an Accion Ambassadorship and other experiences is that you only have a short amount of life to win over the hearts, minds and respect of your peers. (I, for example, moved regions every month).
There is no other relationship more important to the success of your Accion Ambassadorship than the one your foster with your host MFI (microfinance institution). If you win them over, the details and bumps along the way will work themselves out.
I can’t lie and say that I wasn’t a little intimated at first by the challenge of how I (tall, white and gangly) was going to integrate myself with a tight knit group of inspired Guatemalans who depend upon each other to realize their work. There’s also the fact that my Spanish is not 100% fluent (like when I said “ox butt soup” instead of “ox tail soup”) and that my Q’eqchi is pretty abysmal. But after almost 3 months of working with Genesis in Petén, Izabal, Alta and Baja Vera Paz, I think that I can safely say that despite cultural obstacles, I am a member of the Genesis team.
How? I am going to share with your my secrets in the form of 6 tips. These 6 pieces of advice will help you adapt in your Accion Ambassadorship, your new job, or even score a first date.
1. Follow their Work Routine
On office days, I have worked from 8 am to when the guys leave work since the beginning. Take your tostada breaks and lunch breaks at the hours that they do. Half the battle is just showing up and being present. If you establish yourself in their routine, they will treat you less like a temporary visitor and more like a part of their team.
Going to the beat of your own clock can really back fire. For example, one capacity trainer recounted me about his shaky experience starting to work for Genesis. He was the first capacity trainer to join a team of credit officers in a regional office. Unlike credit officers who arrive at the office at 8 am and leave at around 5:30-6:00 pm every day, capacity trainers are free to create their own schedule as long they achieve their work goals.
So he decided to work on weekends and didn’t work other weekdays, or would work one week and take off another. But the credit officers felt like he was never in the office because they didn’t see him at the same time and so they called the central office for an investigation of whether or not he was actually working. Despite the fact that the central office did not find any errors, the credit officers still want him to resign. The point of this true life fable is that if you want to gain someone’s confidence, you have to be present.
2. It’s All about Timing
You will find out pretty early on that the Guatemalan clock runs ½ hour to 1 hour behind schedule, but that doesn’t mean that you should. The funny thing about this cultural occurrence is that if a Guatemalan shows up late for you, it’s no big deal. But if you show up late for a Guatemalan, then it’s not cool. I showed up early or on-time for everything and it got noticed. One capacity trainer told me “I am really impressed with Americans, they always use sunscreen and carry water, they are well organized and they are on-time.” His only experience with Americans has been observing tourists (hence the water and sun-screen) and me, so my on-timeliness must have made a good impression. Remember that in all things, you are an ambassador for yourself, for Accion and for your respective country. For better or worse, you are being watched—and timed.
3. Learn the language
Ling kaba ling Alexa! Ling Chin Chal Estados Unidos! (Hi my name is Alexa and I am from the United States). I would guestimate that 90% of the clients I work with speak Q’eqchi, a Maya language. No one expects you to be an expert by the end of your stay, but if you show some effort, it will win you some experiences (lessons in tortilla making and a marriage offer), respect, and rounds of applause.
4. Say, “Yes!”
I am going to apply this mantra to two common scenarios. The first is with food. While in the United States one can safely decline coffee or not complete the other half of a sandwich, in Guatemala these actions are classified as rude. If you turn down food, no matter how full or strictly vegetarian you are, you will likely never be offered food again. Once over a bowl of caldo, a client recounted me the story of a woman from Guatemala City who declined the same dish a year ago. They described how hurt they were, how rude it was, and how they no longer wanted her in their company. In short, pancreas might not be your normal jive, but you are going to have to make an exception.
The second ‘say yes’ scenario applies to opportunities. Compete in the best fan competition at the annual soccer game? Yes. Go on an over-night camping trip with the Genesis crew? Yes. Dance cumbia with a microfinance client in front of 300 people? Yes. Maybe you would have preferred after a long day in the field to snuggle up to Breaking Bad on Netflicks, but it’s the effort you show that helps you build bonds with your co-workers and furthermore, develop yourself as a person in a new environment.
5. Ask Questions
Don’t worry; you are going to look really stupid more than every once in a while. You are going to stick out. Embrace it. Sure it is much easier to sit, nod, and listen quietly for comforts’ or for times’ sake. But you are here for a reason—to build relationships, to serve as an ambassador, and to submit the most beneficial work to your MFI, which is why it is important to understand what is going on. Also, like in any culture, people assume that other psychically knows what’s up when in reality everyone has the same question. You are in the best position, as the confused foreigner, to illuminate the situation and create a dialogue. Furthermore, asking questions shows that you care.
*As a bonus point, Guatemalans give confusing street directions, because most streets are not marked: “turn at the tree and go up the hill, keep following the road until you see the laundry mat, which will be unmarked.” Don’t worry about asking for clarification a zillion times.
6. Be Yourself
If you are volunteering for one day in another country, you can be whoever your heart desires. But since you are building a relationship with your MFI, it is best to be yourself day one. For example, after 1 month when my boss asked for my honest opinions on politics, we shared a conversation and I gained respect despite us having various ideological differences. Be respected for what you can offer and who you are as a person.
And there you have it, 6 tips on how to win over the heart of your MFI. Now be free to the world, your ambassadorship, and your OK Cupid account—and make sure to report back in the comments section below!