Engineering Ministries International - Guinea Project trip, Sept 2012


Sunday Sept 16
Our last volunteer, Ruedi Tobler, arrived late last night. Ruedi is an electrical engineer who was also on my trip to Sierra Leone back in February. Ruedi had to join late as he had a work conference to attend in Switzerland the past few days. He is one of our most qualified electrical engineer volunteers and travels with EMI every semester, usually to a non-English speaking country so he can practice his other languages (he speaks five). Ruedi will be taking the data that KC and intern Brian have been gathering the past few days and working with them to create the electrical assessment and design report.
Volunteer Ruedi, reviewing the electrical data gathered by
KC (shown pictured right here) and intern Brian.
Since it is Sunday, the ship is largely in weekend mode. Some of our team headed into town to attend a local church service. The rest of us stayed back on the ship, working a little, resting a little, and then attending the ship church service in the evening. After four straight days on the site, I have to say it was a nice break to be in the air conditioning all day!
I wanted to expand a bit, though, on something that I mentioned a couple of days ago because I think it’s a good example of a potential cross-cultural misunderstanding. The meeting we had with the hospital director was very interesting, and a great example of something we call ‘low vs. high power distance’ in our cultural training session at EMI’s new staff and intern orientation. The USA is a ‘low power distance’ (‘LPD’) culture, but many of the countries where we do projects are ‘high power distance’ (‘HPD’).
In an LPD like America, the power distance from leaders to their subordinates is generally small. So, for instance, bosses generally don’t act like they are more important than their employees, and if they show their power over their workers it is seen as a bad thing. Also, workers in LPD societies will often have a high level of initiative, even to the point of suggesting new ideas and innovations to their boss. In this way, power is decentralized and there tends to be a team of people that lead.
Staying on the ship has its 'perks'...such as the Starbucks
Coffee Cafe.
On the contrary, in HPD countries, workers and their bosses are on two, very separate social planes. Bosses are help up in high esteem and status and would never associate with their subordinates in a social setting. Workers see it as a privilege to be able to work for their bosses, and would never think of doing anything other than what they have been specifically told to do. Power is very centralized and is rarely shared with even another person. (By the way, you can see from this brief description how African countries that are HPD societies can be very susceptible to military coups).
So back to our meeting, we were shown into the director’s office. It was a large room that was well insulated from the general public, with a secretary seated out front. It also had carpeting (the only room in the entire hospital with it, that I saw), a large screen TV (all the stickers were still on it from the store (probably to show off all the features to his guests) so I know that it was a 43” screen with three HDMI ports!), and air conditioning. There were plush couches and chairs such that our group of 9 plus that number again in local translators and maintenance workers could all fit inside, each with a seat to sit in.
Some of the team posing with the general director of the
hospital (he's the short guy in the middle in black and white).
The director spoke through an interpreter to us and welcomed us to his hospital. He then spent the next 45 minutes telling about all the things he’d done to improve the hospital, including some things paid with his own money. But he also spoke about all the problems that they still needed help with, including help for his workers who were poorly trained. As he talked, I could see from the looks on our team member’s faces that they were a little embarrassed that this director had seemed to just brag all about the great things he’d done while downing his ‘poorly trained’ staff. And yet, the workers didn’t seem bothered at all by this.
Unrelated to the text in this blog, but nonetheless an
interesting view into the hospital's state of condition. The
picture of this operating theater actually makes it look fairly
good. But in reality, it was quite unsanitary. There was blood
all over the floor and it looked like cleaning was not a routine
part of the room's schedule - let alone sterilization. It's amazing
to me that some people are treated here and end up fine, with
no infections. And then back in the US, some people contract
serious or even fatal infections during surgeries despite the
highest standard of cleanliness and sterilization technologies .
As we left, I was thinking about what we had just witnessed and had a talk with a couple of our team members about it as well since they had also noticed this. The more I thought about it though, I realized that we had just seen first-hand a typical HPD meeting. In fact, the director was right – he really has done a lot to help the hospital. We had heard this from other people even before the meeting. So why would this leader, who clearly is doing good things here and often sacrifices a lot of his own time and money, seem to not have the social graces aspect of his job figured out as well? On the surface, it really didn’t add up. But after thinking about it some, it started to make more sense.
So let me talk about how this meeting might have gone from the hospital director’s point of view.  Knowing that we are with Mercy Ships and are a team of engineers (which, as a profession, have a lot of respect in Africa) who have international influence and financial resources to offer his hospital, he wanted us to know that he was a good leader who was worthy of our time, energy and money to help. He wanted to show that he was doing things on his own, without the help of Westerners, so that we wouldn’t think he was the average person just looking for a free handout. He must’ve thought that if we felt he was doing his best, we would be more inclined to help him.
The needle depository in the operating room
- not ideal, but much better than nothing.
But he also wanted to look out for his employees, and he did so by letting us know that they want to benefit from us being there too. They don’t have any official schooling or even training like our team members have, so he thought we might be able to give them some pointers and would be more inclined to step in and help if we knew that they hadn’t received any formal education or training. The workers, who in their culture, value knowledge above most anything else, must have felt thankful that their boss didn’t forget to use his influence to try to improve their working situation as well. He could have easily ‘hogged’ our attention and efforts for his own wishes, but instead he was thoughtful enough to think of their difficult condition by specifically mentioning them and their needs.
As you can see, what in our cultural context seemed like a very boastful leader who degraded his workers in front of visitors, was in their culture a very proactive leader who was attempting to use his influence to the fullest extent to bring about positive change for his hospital and the workers who help him manage it.  What a different perspective - I think one that underscores the importance of not jumping to conclusions and judgements when working cross-culturally.
When we finally ventured off the ship Monday, the streets
seemed quiet and normal, with no sign of the craziness
reported earlier from just a few miles away in the city center.

Monday Sept 17
Well, today brought some potential excitement. Last night after dinner, we received an email from the US State Dept. warning citizens in Guinea that they had learned of a planned demonstration at the US Embassy here in Conakry and that the Embassy and American school nearby would be closed on Monday. About 5 minutes after receiving that email, the captain of the ship came up to me and asked me about our schedule for the following day. I asked if he was asking because of the Embassy warning we’d just received, and he said yes.

Me and my brother-in-law KC Morrow -
it was a lot of fun to have him around.
He was a natural at EMI trips too - very
comfortable regardless of the conditions.
 He then went on to say that they were not allowing non-essential crew on shore in the morning and wanted to hear if we felt we needed to be off shore. I explained that our electrical engineer had just arrived and therefore was very antsy to get to the site so he could catch up with the team on his work. He said that by mid-morning they would have an idea of whether or not things were calm, so I said that we’d wait for that all-clear before heading off ship.
So that was the potential excitement. In reality – nothing materialized in town. By mid-day we still hadn’t heard of any problems in town, and we were finally given the all clear to leave the ship by 1pm. Heading to and from the hospital and at the hospital as well, we saw no signs of anything different from the previous days, though I think we were all a little on edge en route. In the end, it’s thought that the people here who follow those particular beliefs merely wanted to participate in the current worldwide movement among some muslims as a way of supporting their overall cause, even if they weren’t interested in being violent. Anyway, it was a good thing that was the case. I was never really concerned about out safety on the ship, of course. We are, afterall, staying on our evacuation vehicle!
The team members who 'risked life and limb' to head to the
site. Despite dire warnings of Anti-American protests in
response to a You Tube video posted in the USA earlier in the
week, things were generally confined to a small area downtown. 


Traci Morrow said…
Incredible how perspective makes you either respect the man or think him smug and rude. Love learning about all this through your blog. Great writing.

I am especially enjoying the pics with that one guy from California with the silver, aka "blonde" goatee - what a handsome team member. ;)

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