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.
Powerful reminder of how fortunate we are in the west — women and men alike. Of the need for entrepreneurship training and for the communication work you do. Thanks for sharing this
We really are blessed in so many ways, Valerie. And yes, this trip really drove that home for me. I was struck by the differences between cultures…and also by how much we have in common when it comes to being able to own the value we offer.
A great read Catherine. It reminds me of the sudden flowering of women in the USA during wwII. it was out of
the lack of men in their usual roles which led to phenomena like Rosie the Riveter. Creativity blossoms when one group does not insist on the subservience of
another group. By magic, the sadness for relationships between male and female in Senegal, has a real silver lining. The sudden vacuum created with men’s departure
opens all sorts of freedoms and excitement as life must
go on even with the lid blown off leaving flailing women behind. Fortunately for them, someone knew of a short cut to help smooth the way towards self sufficiency: get CJ on the case. Someone experienced in not being held down and in creating a path forward is such a great role model!
Have you kept in touch with any?
That’s a good point, Marita–it is similar to the situation American women (and American companies and even American baseball teams) were in when the men went off to war. Of course women in the US were sort of sent back home when the war was over and the men came back to assume what were considered their rightful places. It will be interesting to see what happens in Senegal. The male emigration there might be a much more lasting shift…unless Europe closes its doors to migrants seeking work.
A couple from Dakar came to visit this summer. She was in my workshop at the church there and he was my translator. It was good to catch up with them.
Thank you for sharing your experience. It’s clear learning occurred both ways and you and they will never be the same. Cultural exchanges grow us in ways we can’t imagine and are often dependent on intermediaries like interpreters to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. Good for you for joining God’s outreach (with Carol’s nudging). Very inspirational!
You are so right, Jackie! I was beyond grateful for David’s work translating my English to French – and to the people who translated his French into Wolof or Serer. And even in those settings where we were teaching and learning in three different languages, in many ways we were all on the same page.
It was a wonderful experience in spite of, or maybe because of the rough patches. Turns out, for example, that I have a very different sense of time from our hosts – there were many opportunities for me to stretch in the direction of patience. You know me, you can fill in that picture! Glad you enjoyed taking the journey with me here and on Facebook. Thanks for the affirmation.
That was a very good experience at the same time also a challenge for us. You did a wonderful job.
Thanks, David. And YOU did a wonderful job too – I’m so impressed by your fluency in both French and English. By your willingness to add the gestures and facial expressions I was using, so people could really FEEL what I meant. And by your patience with me. I’ll look forward to teaming up with you again. Many thanks for all your help.
Loved that you shared your deepest feelings about this trip…. communication is the key to success it seems!
We all need to keep working on that skill, all of the time,
Thanks, Cindy. It was such a good experience. And yes, I had an opportunity to see the many ways we communicate and how critical they all are. I think of myself as a word person. But I had whole interactions where the only mutually understood words were “Bonjour, ca va?” And somehow we managed to get an idea across anyway. It was a terrific experience.
I really enjoyed your comments on your Senegal experience – especially your “rough patch” of different understandings of time. Thanks for sharing and working with the women.
Ah yes, time seems to be a much more fluid concept in Dakar than in Chicago, Tony. And space is different too! I’m a WASP–I like my personal space. The Senagalese stand closer to one another. They pass each other on the street (or sidewalk when there is one) so close that their sleeves brush each other. To say nothing of the drivers; the roads are so narrow often the side-mirrors kiss as two cars pass each other. It was so interesting, noticing the differences and gradually adapting to their way of being.