Thursday, October 30, 2008

Lost (and Regained) in Translation

I conducted interviews two Wednesdays ago for two catering positions in the organization. I have never conducted an interview before--in fact, I've barely been interviewed before. I do know, however, the typical, cliché questions you ask in an American interview: "what are your strengths and weaknesses?", "give an example of a problem you've had on a job and how you solved it", "How do you feel about being a leader and working with a team?", and the crowning question, I thought, to figure them out: "Please name a breakfast, lunch, and dinner you'd serve to a Sierra Leonean patient and then what you'd serve to an American volunteer." I felt proud of myself for my level of preparation, especially after I'd read and reread their resumés, and any worry that I had that interviews would go differently here was assuaged by our Logistician, who told me that my questions were "very good." How wrong I was.

One person told me, with a blank stare, that he never had problems on the job, so he couldn't answer the question. I gave up asking about strengths and weaknesses after the first interview. All the applicants said that it was important to work nicely with everyone and that they would be very good employees, skirting their teamwork and ignoring their leadership skills entirely. My perfect menu question completely backfired. Some interviews said they didn't want to cook for patients. Others said they had no experience with European food. Every interview initially said, "Well, I'd ask you first what you wanted to eat." Upon being pressed, one woman said she'd make me shwarma for breakfast--a pita wrap with roasted meat, lettuce, and mayo--not really early morning fare. A man offered up his vast menu of "European" foods (including a Whopper sandwich and a Big Mac sandwich--the former has cheese and the latter two patties) and then told us he wanted a salary that is well above that of our nurses. Another woman selected "chicken and chips"--which was shot down immediately by the Head Nurse (Matron) of the entire hospital as an easy-out. "Chicken and chips is the national cake," she said. "Everyone knows how to make it."

No one understood a word I was saying. I was only vaguely comforted when the national staff on the interview panel repeated the questions again, rephrased and simplified or translated into Krio, and the questions were still met with blank stares. I think my favorite moment occurred as I was asking about the sanitary measures that an applicant took in the kitchen. Picking her nose, she answered that she was always very clean. Just to clarify, picking your nose in public is completely acceptable in Sierra Leone. But it was still pretty awesome.

Overall, I learned much about Sierra Leonean culture and comportment. People do not talk about themselves (a Sierra Leonean blog would be interesting...) and are not used to "selling themselves" like a product. Deference to "superiors"--no eye contact, lowered voices, no expression of opinion--are expected, not consistent eye contact, gregarious manner, and an attempt to demonstrate how much of a genius you are. These can be tough issues--as flattering it is to have someone almost curtsey to you because you're interviewing them, I feel very uncomfortable with the complex hierarchies, pecking orders, and superior/inferior relationships that make up life here and across West Africa. When I studied abroad in Senegal, I had a hard time watching my host grandmother, a terrifying matriarch, eat three fish and a large plate of fries and salad for dinner while the children, maids, and wives (plus me) pick at one fish. I'm happy I wasn't distinguished in that house in the way that I often am here (people try to carry things for me, clean up after me, and drag chairs around for me to sit in). All the same, as much as I tried to understand and to accept that this was how it was, and that my grandmother probably did a lot for the family that made her entitled, in their eyes and in hers, to that treatment, it was hard to understand.

Cultural differences are tricky—for my first month or two in Senegal, I suspended all (or most) judgement for a while. I even questioned the importance of education for a girl who would end up married in a rural village with many children and long hard hours of manual labor. Then, I came back around, finding a balance between understanding cultural differences and reaffirming the values I’d gleaned from my own culture and upbringing. And I again saw that education was imperative because it brings protection to those women and gives them the ability to fend for themselves. I understood that even though my host grandmother was the distributor of the family and should be treated with respect, the children needed to eat more. I again felt uncomfortable with hierarchies. And as for interviews, I need to continue asking what meals an applicant would cook and further request detailed preparation instructions, since I can determine leadership skills, cultural and nutritional considerations, experience with African and Western dishes, problem-solving and improvisation skills, and sanitary measures from the way he or she answers. In short, I can see all the applicant’s strengths and weaknesses. So, maybe my perfect question wasn’t such a failure after all.

No comments:

Post a Comment