If we’re connected on Facebook, you know I was in Senegal last week (and if we’re not, we should be, don’t you think?) It was a mission trip to Eglise Methodiste Unie au Senegal and my mission was communication training, mainly for women who desperately need to earn some money.
How desperately? Get this:
About 20% of Senagalese women have paid employment, and they’re taxed at a higher rate than men. Companies pay child allowances only to men, because they’re considered the head of the household.
Fewer than half of the women in Senegal are literate. Many girls don’t go to school for more than a few years, some have no formal education at all.
When a married father in Senegal dies, each of his sons inherits a full share of his estate. Each daughter gets half a share. Each wife? An eighth of a share.
Husbands, fathers, brothers, even uncles have rights over women and what those women earn or produce.
And yet, in much of Senegal, more and more women are supporting themselves and their children. They’re running farms and shops and scrounging for jobs because the men they’d be depending on have left for Europe hoping to find work.
So Senagalese women need skills. And jobs. Education. And a voice.
That’s what brought me to Senegal. A chance to support women in developing that voice and the personal presence to be heard and counted.
Not so different from much of the work I do at home, right? And then in many ways, very different.
Like the workshop in Pointe Sarene. The participants: 20 or so women, many with little children in their laps, plus two translators, three goats and a donkey. One interpreter turned my English into French, the other translated French to Serer. (I learned “thank you” and “that’s right” in Serer – they found my awkward pronunciation hilarious.)
The church gives these women micro-loans to start a business selling pigs or chickens, vegetables or firewood. Like business owners everywhere, they need to persuade potential buyers that their pigs or chickens, vegetable or firewood are the ones to choose.
And, as in workshops everywhere, there were role plays. Here, a woman is “selling” her neighbor a special powder used to season couscous.
And in the other photo, the purse on the ground represents the cultured milk another woman offers—in very clean bottles, she said, so we stay healthy. And we will like the taste.
In Mbour, the women were a little more sophisticated. And the workshop was inside the church—no livestock in the audience. But the issues were the same, and again they mirrored the challenge for business owners and professionals everywhere. How do we set ourselves apart from others who offer the same product or service?
We build a relationship with our customer, right? And make sure they trust us. How do we create that trust? It has a lot to do with what the French-speaking women in Senegal call “comportement.” It means behavior and when they say it they gesture at themselves top to bottom, the way I might when I describe body language. It’s everything people see and hear when they interact with us.
And so we practiced. Being fully present, talking about our work with confidence, standing our ground when the customer challenges the price.
The church’s goal is for every one of these women to develop a project that will allow them to earn some money. And some respect.
The United Methodist Women in Dakar see themselves as leaders in their church; they’d like everyone else to see them that way too. That means stepping into more active roles. Making themselves heard in meetings. Joining the finance committee instead of the social committee. And amplifying each other’s voices.
They embraced Power Poses as a way to build confidence, practiced with gestures and voice and eye contact, and they were enthusiastic about becoming more masterful speakers.
Young women and girls are learning to sew at the Dakar church’s Women’s Skills Center; they’re doing beautiful work. But how will they ever get jobs with tailors and dress shops? They’re too timid to talk and they can hardly bear to answer a question about what they’ve learned.
They went home after our first session with an assignment. Write down three things you will say about yourself or your work to persuade someone to hire you.
No, “I like to sew” won’t cut it. And be ready to stand up and say those three things out loud. No whispering, no wiggling, no giggling.
They made some remarkable progress. There were treats for everyone, and prizes for those who stood out for their confidence, charisma or clear statement of their value. There was also a lot of laughing—always a good thing in a workshop.
What did I learn from the women I coached?
Some issues really are universal. Whether we’re selling consulting services, website design or a live chicken, if we want to do business with anyone, we have to create a connection with them. Make sure they understand our value to them. And trust us to deliver that value.
Some of us are naturally better at that than others. And, all of us can master the skills to create stronger relationships.
Communication is the key—not only the words we say but everything else we convey lets someone know we have (or we are) exactly what they need.
I sometimes use the phrase “speak the same language” metaphorically. It’s useful in the literal sense too. And when we don’t speak the same language? Then we really need an interpreter.
David Makobo was mine. He was wonderful.
Share your own story about communicating across cultures in the comments below.