Michel Burundi Fellow

Understanding and Adapting- Cultural Differences In Our Work

By Michel Ndayisaba, Tevel Fellowship

My name is Michel Ndayisaba. My colleagues call me Michimich. At university I studied Communications. Now I work as an intern at Tevel B’tzedek-Burundi in the Youth thematic. Working as a fellow in Tevel I added something new to my past experiences. Living as a group was familiar to me because I grew up in the boarding school system. But living together with Bazungu (white people) was something that I never dreamt of before. I learned a lot from the cultural differences: most of internationals fellows were vegetarians, but for Burundians meat is our favorite food. They liked to drink strong coffee and we drank tea or local beer, they would talk a lot while eating and we did the same in bed before we sleep and in the morning before getting up. They are open for discussion but for nationals it took time to share our feelings and ideas. They didn’t like to be helped unless you insisted which was strange for us: these are cultural differences.

I used to work with youth of ages in varying associations: secondary school pupils, university students, but in town. Village life was not something new but working there was a completely new experience for me. Nationals were viewed as rich because working with the white people (Bazungu). If your partner was a girl some people advised you to marry her to become rich. This is the village.

Working with youth is not always easy, sometimes it requires you to hide your serious face or to show it… it depends on the situation. Seventh and eighth grades are the most challenging groups but not only in Burundi: they are teenagers in the adolescence period, you need to understand their time and the language they speak during this period.

There are differences between the town and the village; when you do something in town people want to participate but in the village you need to explain to them why they should participate. At school students are not creative unless you activate them: we grew up in a system where the teacher uses sticks and keeps a distance from their students… I remember in primary school we would bring sticks on each week and each one his own stick. Collected, the sticks were like firewood in a classroom. This is something we inherited from colonization and which helps me to understand and tolerate some behaviors. We do not use sticks or keep distance from our students: we use games and we give time to the youth to express themselves. Before, they were reluctant to someone who wants to befriend them but now they understand that we are not their teachers but their friends.

My working field is an area deprived of electricity, as a result there is no TV, some people have small solar panels which enables them to do some basic activities. Not having a TV set or Internet for students during this century means a lack of information. At first I was surprised to hear that students ignore some people that I consider to be famous, but now I understand their problem and the cause. When I say something I need to explain again and again to make sure that they understand what I mean. Just to be able to connect the two worlds. (Village and town)

When working with youth I was embarrassed to see them sitting boys and girls separately and it’s the same from 5 to 7 grades, which is different in town. I tried to mix them one time, twice, but they repeated the same things and I used plan B. I encouraged activities and games in a couple (boy and girl). I created this game: facing each other one minute without laughing or smiling. Now this plan is bit by bit working but I am still thinking about plan C.

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