There was a moment, after the introductions and just under an hour into the training session, when I thought that I could fail competely. I was looking at a room full of confused, even stunned, faces. I was standing in front of them, talking – doing what lecturers and experts and foreign consultants sent by international agencies usually do. I’m not sure that they could hear me properly or understand my accent, but nobody said so. So far, all was normal.
And then I told them that they were the ones who knew the answers, not me. I made an attempt to direct them into groups, handed them a list of questions with a flip chart and pen for each group and then… confused faces. I know it was partly my kiwi accent, but it was also because I was trying something very different.
I am here in Kerala as part of a larger project funded by the FAO (UN Food and Agriculture Organisation) to improve the capability of several Asian countries to manage invasive species. My part in this project is to train people in South India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka on how to manage established invasive species, especially weeds. In some ways this is very familiar ground to me, I’ve done plenty of invasive species management and training, and while my tropical botany is a bit rusty, in a few days here it was all coming back. But I’ve never been to India – or any of these countries – before. The idea of arriving in a strange country to tell them what to do feels entirely foreign. In fact, I have written previously about why foreign consultants and international agencies with generic solutions often do more harm than good. I don’t want to be a part of that problem.
This is why I have told my group of trainees that they need to bring their knowledge to the training. I can give them some ideas and tools and show them ways to make better decisions, but their local expertise is essential. So I walk around each group and try to explain why I want them to do. When my accent confuses them, Dr Sankaran, a retired scientist who is leading this project (and who doesn’t know the meaning of “retired”), explains for me.
I walk around the room a little nervously, and watch. They are reading my questions. They are talking to eachother, discussing the questions. I wander by and the groups are writing their answers. They look interested. Not confused. When I ask for volunteers to report back on what they discussed, there is no hesitation.
I relax just a little. I think this is going to be okay.
(Photo of me during the training. I’d love to post pictures of the students really getting into their discussions but I would need to get permission.)