In a day of a social worker

“Each one of us can make a difference. Together we make change”. Barbara Mikulski

There are times you just bump into something (or someone) and know it was meant to be. I bumped into social work and in particular into gender and development work. There, I found my passion and my mission and my professional career path. Sometimes career path chooses you, but that is a story for another day.

Photo by Victoriano Izquierdo on Unsplash
One day I will document my experiences in social work, the good, the exciting, the scary, the bad, the ugly, but more so what keeps me at it. I have not imagined my life away from social work. There is something about social work that runs deep and builds me as a human being.

Whether engaged in development or humanitarian kind of work, social work can never leave one the same. It challenges one to a higher level of appreciating humanity and retrospection on what life is about. When doing social work you interact with different kinds of people and lifestyles but more so different levels of poverty and need. You strive to make a change, to make an impact and wish it was easier. I recall a lesson in sociology, that social change is difficult. It does not happen overnight and sometimes one has to really look deep to find out where and if the change is happening. Social changes are not like natural science which you can observe under a microscope and put the right measures of chemicals to enable the kind of change that is anticipated in a short while. In the laboratory we could easily put chemicals together and wait for a chemical reaction, a change in color, or odor or some gas is produced. Within minutes we could see some changes.

Not so with social work.

Sometimes you can barely tell the change is happening and in other cases the changes are not happening as anticipated. Human beings are as complex as they are unique. Many things are at play in one’s life at any single time that it is hard to predict the changes that can happen. Other times the changes we anticipate are different from the changes that we see. We try to predict what will happen if certain activities are carried out with certain persons. We use different social formulas, evidence, cause and effect to project the changes that will happen. However we do not control the environment in which person lives in, the circumstances in her/his life that are changing every day, the people s/he interacts with, what s/he listens to and what has influenced her/his life, what s/he experienced in school what motivates them. All those are like many different moving parts that we have no control over. Other social changes happen in the process and change the whole ‘formula.’

This can lead to frustration when we think that change is not happening. However, change may be happening in small ways or in different ways that we may not be able to see.  Allowing the persons to actually define the changes happening in their lives is always revealing. It is humbling to know that what happened while it was not planned was most useful for those people. 

Imagine for example a situation where you have provided some materials for women to make items. You leave them for one or two hours waiting to come and find some finished items. You know what you have planned with the women and how the items are important for their future learning. They participated in agreeing to this project and happily received the materials to set to work. Imagine then coming back to find the materials are untouched but women are talking and laughing. You may feel frustrated. But wait a minute…the women who were gathered because of economic needs had other needs. They needed social networking. They needed friends. They needed to vent and be happy. That there is the impact, not what you planned but that is what has happened.  The have found another purpose and you would not be surprised if the groups organically grow into some empowering initiatives you may never have conceived. However, there is the other aspect on accountability. Apart from the persons that are to participate in the activities, there is also accountability to whoever provided the resource; the donor.  There are some measurements by which you will be measure to see if you are achieving the set targets that were put on paper!

There are times that a lot of change has happened but we are looking for something else and miss out on it, or we think this may not be a big issue and down play it. Keep wondering if what we are doing matters, if we are making a different in people’s lives. Few times, we get feedback from people whose lives we have touched, but many times we will never know.  Dear social worker, as long as you wake up in the morning, and do you best for the hour, for the moment, there is some change happening in people’s lives.

More so, there is change happening in your life. Social work never leave anyone the same. You appreciate life more, learn more just by being in different social, political, climatic environments.
There are small things I have learnt about how other people live that has left me more humbled. I recall many years back when I was visiting Makueni County, then a district. We got talking, rather my colleagues got talking  and there was mention of the river we had passed. I was getting confused because I could not recall the river they were referring to. I kept seeking for clarity until a colleague laughed and said “Oh I realize the problem, Sophie does not know there are rivers that do not flow on top”. I was finding it difficult to understand how a place full of sand is called a river and people were fetching water. I was not being ignorant or arrogant, I had only seen rivers like river Kamunyu-ini that flowed on top and even when it was drying the only evidence of a river was the little water flowing on top of the red soil in Kiambu. It seems very basic until a colleague recalled that incident recently, those people who just recall the embarrassing moments. We are products of where we grew up.

Some few years back post the 2017 political crisis I was engaged in some interethnic forums and on the way to one of the counties we passed through one of the team member’s home.  He took us to his shamba and we were all except one lamenting how dry the land had become. The person who was silent listened and then after sometime laughed out and shook his head.

“Do you people understand what it means for land to be dry?” he asked.

“Of course we do, this place is rather dry “… but wait a minute! He was referring to where he comes from. There is no comparison with what we were calling dry, and he was actually wondering why we were lamenting about an otherwise fairly green land. That was a learning moment as we discussed how our upbringing and environment had shaped us and linking to inter ethnic coexistence and our often narrow views on life.

That for me is one of the greatest things about social work, you learn! You experience different ways of living and this never leaves one the same. The first time I saw displaced people in dire need, I could not sleep at night. I could not imagine putting a blanket over my head while I recalled people who were living in tents with only the palm of their hands as a cover. I recall waking up in the morning to take more action and what that meant for me in the follow up discussions and even inspired me to participate in moderating inter-ethnic dialogues.  It is no wonder that I found it hard to understand why the people around me were not understanding that peace was more important than maintaining the status-quo.

I am rich with experience, for having interacted with so many different cultures. I grow, I am humbled, I am challenged.

All in  day’s work.

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