“Any man who knows a thing knows he knows not a damn, damn thing at all,”

– K’naan

The lyrics above from K’naan’s song “Take a Minute” have been going over and over in my mind since I’ve arrived in Sri Lanka. In fact, they’ve been in my head every time I’ve traveled anywhere, including out my front door in Regina.

Some might say this points to a problem with my self-esteem, and maybe it does, but it also speaks to how none of us have any real idea about what’s going on in someone else’s world – and to pretend otherwise is foolish and often dangerous when it comes to implementing any sort of change.

Take what I’m supposed to be doing now in my volunteer role in Sri Lanka, which is basically to help reduce stigma attached to mental illness. Okay, fine. I’ve got plenty of ideas and I’ve researched plenty more that other countries have used. I’m confident that my past work and life experience have prepared me to be effective here.

But, it took me over a month to take the bus and not get lost. I’m still not exactly sure where I live in Colombo. At the hospital, no one uses computers or email and setting up meetings is done in-person and are most often spur of the moment. Of course, all of this I can learn and adapt to. But this is the relatively easy stuff.

When you start talking about changing people’s perceptions and attitudes, that’s another story. There are so many different layers you need to contend with – religion. education, the past civil war, gender roles, family practices, and the list goes on and on. It’s clear that what’s worked before, won’t work here.

So, you might say, how about some research? Well, first, there’s no money for that, and second not much appetite politically.

So then you might say, f-it, why not come home and volunteer in Canada? Well, first off, to live in Canada is just too damn expensive to live on $350/month. Second, in all honesty, this hopeless challenge is what I signed up for. If I had all the answers and could have changed things instantly, what would have I learned by coming here? This type of work, change and development is supposed to be tough.

History is full of one group of people trying to change another group of people instantly – and many times by force – the results are never good. You don’t have to go any further than Canada’s history with the First Nations to see how that type of development works out.

At the end of the day, the changes that I help institute here in Sri Lanka will be infinitely small. I have no allusions about that. But like most things in life, the richness of the experience will be in the relationships I make along the way – and finding my way home on the bus.

Shaun

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