In 2017, I worked with the Colombian Government on policy research at the Department of Education in a municipality called Sabaneta. I went to Colombia with a lot of apprehensions. I was worried about cultural differences, communication problems and missing home. After taking four flights and flying nearly 47 hours from India (my home country), I arrived at Medellín International only to realise that no one really spoke English. I was jet-lagged and hungry. Yet, I couldn’t even buy a bar of chocolate because I was too nervous to try out whatever little Spanish that I knew. Looking back, this pattern would have determined most of my encounters in Colombia if I hadn’t met my co-workers.
On my first day at the office, I was absolutely terrified to find out that apart from my supervisor, no one else in the office could speak English. However, I knew that I had to at least try to communicate if I really wanted to find opportunities for growth. So, with patience and a little help from Google Translate, I managed to socialise with my colleagues. I was receptive, but also very self-conscious and stressed. I remember rehearsing my greetings and directing my actions and speech. Every word I said was intentional and carefully weighed. Even outside my workplace, simple actions like getting a taxi or even buying groceries had to be learned through trial and error. At some points, I felt that Colombians, whom I previously regarded different, were the norm in our situation, while I was the peculiar one. The one who was performing, as opposed to actually living through the moments.
It all changed on the third day. That morning, I walked into my office to find my co-workers greeting me in English. They had all downloaded translators on their phones to talk to me. This is my most treasured memory from Colombia. Once it became evident to them that I was making an effort to communicate, they also took the time to return the favour. They were friendly, accommodating, and mostly, warm. Soon enough, our conversations expanded beyond hellos and goodbyes. Birthdays were celebrated and snacks were shared. The more comfortable I got, the less mechanical I became. I was encouraged whenever I tried speaking in my broken Spanish. As it became clear that I was not being judged, my words and actions became less deliberate, and perhaps, more real. In the following weeks, I would become confident enough to converse freely, slipping in and out of English and Spanish, and even innovating words when I got stuck.
I was put on a project called Sistema Local de Educacion, where my main responsibility was to find policies and strategies that could be implemented to improve schooling in Sabaneta. This meant having to conduct research on how education policies in other countries could be utilised in Sabaneta’s context. The task was harder than I thought. I had all these ideals about education- it being a human right, a pillar of justice, a precondition for peace. Yet, apart from a half-hour briefing provided by my supervisor, I didn’t know much about the ground realities of Sabaneta. There I was, trying to import my intangible beliefs and expectations of how education ought to be, onto a place that I knew nothing about. This didn’t get me very far. I decided that I needed to move beyond surveys, statistics and success rates of other educational systems. I couldn’t simply impose recommendations that worked elsewhere. It was important to find strategies that were context relevant. Non-complimentary interventions could mean a tectonic shift in the very identity of the place. For moving forward with my research, I needed to interact and get involved with individuals who truly know the system- the students and teachers.
So, I started visiting the different schools around my office in hopes that I could have some informal conversations. It was surprising to realise how responsive the students were when shown genuine interest and enthusiasm. Most of them were patient in giving me elaborate answers and were also eager to learn about my schooling and university life. We shared ideas and stories. I also learnt a lot more about the challenges to education- from high dropout rates, lack of classrooms and apathetic teachers to the increasing disparity between public and private schools.
In exploring challenges pertaining to the educational structure, I was made to think about the policies employed in my own country and draw out cross-cultural links. Most of the issues faced by students in Colombia were similar to difficulties prevalent in India and elsewhere. It made me think how people from seemingly different places battle similar obstacles. After learning more about the political climate of Colombia, I was able to see the impact of my work more clearly. The spillover effects of an improved educational system are vital for the establishment of a stable government. From that day on, I worked a lot harder. Colombia is going through a silent yet powerful revolution and I wanted to contribute as much as I could!
Minimizing discontinuities between schools, communities, and families also meant promoting awareness about the matter. So, after submitting my nearly 50 pages long policy recommendation, I was asked to provide a presentation regarding the same. On the day, the room was mostly filled with unfamiliar faces. There were members of NGOs and charities, officials from schools, and some of my colleagues. It was challenging to explain something to a group of people who were from various backgrounds, having diverse opinions and different agendas. However, this presentation was about transcending such barriers and working together towards our united goal of improving education in Sabaneta. Straightforward language and slides of diagrams aided in conveying my ideas with ease.
Every Monday and Wednesday afternoon, I would go to the adjacent library to meet with some of the locals to share our common interest in the language. I would teach them English, and they would teach me Spanish. In the process, along with language, our stories, dreams and histories were also shared. Talking explicitly about a culture’s beliefs, phobias and values help create a degree of awareness and solidarity. I learnt more about the Colombian way of life, and the collective aspiration they held to move beyond the narratives of their past.
Something I learnt along the way is that Colombia is not the violent, war-torn country that many popular shows like Narcos make it out to be. Unfortunately, a substantial measure of our understanding and perception of a place is moulded by existing stereotypes and prejudices. I remember my friends and family expressing concern for my security when I told them I was going to Colombia. When talking about ‘Colombia,’ people immediately conjure images of poverty, civil unrest, crimes and drug cartels. However, as Marcel Proust once said, ‘the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new lands but in seeing with new eyes’. By undertaking this journey, I was able to see the real Colombia, one beyond hearsay, one with vibrant cities, untouched wilderness and diverse cultures and people.
As global citizens, we are all shaped by the same problems and promises. In a way, being abroad, I was made to think more deeply about this than ever before. One late night, I received a frantic call from my mother. An attack had occurred that day at a mall in Bogota, and my mother’s immediate bleak thought was that her child is dead. I remember going through a similar ordeal, just a week earlier, when I heard about the London Bridge attack and worrying for my friends at university. We are at a time where we could all be victims, where we all fear the absolute worst. In a time where there is a lot of miscommunications and misunderstandings, it is more important now than ever that we remain open and appreciative of intercultural understanding.
Knowing what I know now, I would have reassured my parents about my safety with more confidence. Not because Colombia is entirely safe. Simply because it is only as unsafe as everywhere else. I would have also urged more of my friends to change their opinion and join me in Colombia. Being sensitive to another culture comes with realising how we are all bound by the same challenges of climate change, security and scarcity. I am not suggesting that we flatten out all differences and homogenize everyone and everything. Instead, we can acknowledge the existence of differences, peculiarities and idiosyncrasies without exercising a dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Ultimately, born under the same sun, fighting the same things, and yearning for a better world, our stories are a lot more similar than we think.