Young professional far away from home: learn at least these three things

I remember taking part in a mandatory two-week training organized in Finland for all juniors leaving for their first long tasks abroad. It was an intensive course on a variety of topics ranging from the history of Finnish development cooperation to the most common development jargon we would run into in our work.

It was useful for me back then, but in retrospect, maybe not all that useful taking into account the realities of my life and work here today. I would add one or more clusters in that training to deal specifically with story-telling and social intelligence in your duty station-to-be. Because no one here has, not once, been interested in hearing about the detailed history of Finnish development cooperation – I don’t think many Finns would even be 🙂 Instead, I advise all young experts to learn these three things, at least if heading to Ethiopia:

1. Do you have anything to say? Do you want to say some final words?

If your work will consist of visiting different rural offices, cooperatives, households etc., you will hear this question often. After a lengthy discussion, this question indicates to you that it is time to wrap things up (you might have missed part of the conversation since it is mostly done in the local language) and now is your time to speak up. This is your time to show courtesy to your hosts. You are not (ever!) supposed to say ”Well, I don’t have anything to say, let’s go”. So learn to make nice wrap-up statements, such as: We really appreciate the fact that you hosted us today. You are doing nice work, it is encouraging, (here you can add a challenge you think they need to solve), and we will see you again in the future. Add a handshake and thank-yous. This is important.

2. What are your impressions about Ethiopia?

This is by far the most common question posed to me in the past 1,5 years. I hear it everywhere. When coming back from travels abroad: What are your impressions, how was it different from Ethiopia? Or when visiting the doctor, we might spend 2 minutes talking about my flu symptoms but 10 minutes discussing about my impressions on Ethiopia. What do you think of Ethiopia? The doctor asks me with a serious look on his face. When driving in the countryside, a colleague asks me, pointing at the farmers: what are your impressions about Ethiopia? To this date, I must say, I am puzzled with this question. I am puzzled because I am not sure whether it is a genuinely curious question or whether it has a hidden meaning or a curiosity about a foreigners’ prejudice of a poor country. Still, you have to learn to formulate your impressions on Ethiopia!

3. What is your religion?

Here’s the thing. No matter what your standing on religion is, maybe you think Jesus didn’t exist and it is all made up, maybe you think Buddha is your teacher, maybe you don’t like churches. Set your opinions aside and learn about the most common religions in your duty station. It is very likely that religion pays a tremendous role in the lives of local people. You will receive a huge amount of weird looks if you can’t a) explain what your religion or non-religion is b) explain the most common religions in your home country. Get your facts learned. Atte wrote an interesting post about it, find it here.

Good luck!

2 thoughts on “Young professional far away from home: learn at least these three things

  1. 🙂 You’re so right! But don’t they ask about food there? Have you tasted _the food_ (matoke/ ugali/ nsima etc, probably injera in Ethiopia)? How do you like it? I’m starting to believe that the correct answer is not the honest Finn’s: “It’s ok, but it doesn’t really taste much at all” but something like: “I love it! I’d like to get it with me to Finland!”.

    Another question would be: What do you eat in Finland? Or what do you grow/dig? (It took me a while to get the “dig”, but then again, they’re always digging in the field.) Although I’m not in agriculture at all, my dad is a farmer so I know some basic practises. And potatoes are always Irish potatoes.

    …and the last question in your list is everywhere! Luckily I’ve got that sorted out for me, I’m a Christian. So I kind of enjoy having this conversation, it’s refreshingly different from Finland where all religion/faith -related issues are more or less a taboo in everyday chit chat. But I do feel for fellow Finns who get very frustrated trying to gabble something about I-don’t-really-know-what-I-believe-in-maybe-God-exist-or-maybe-not day in day out and getting some weird looks in return.

    1. Anna, forgive me for the delay in my response!! Well yes, indeed they ask about the food. How do you like injera? You don’t like it? WHY? WHY? 🙂 The question is easy for me because I love Ethiopian food.

      I love the ‘dig’ question! Haven’t heard it here. It has proved difficult for me to say what our Finnish food culture is like, so I always say: a lot of potatoes!

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