Pictionary in Tanzania: Bridging Cultural Gaps at the Touch Foundation

I am a Program Analyst at Touch Foundation in Mwanza, Tanzania. Over my time at Touch the program team has consisted of 2 Australians, 1 Bulgarian, 2 South Africans, 1 American, 1 French person, 4 Tanzanians and 2 Italians. Not only is there a variety of nationalities but religious backgrounds, professional backgrounds, and socio-economic statuses vary greatly throughout the team. Needless to say there are a lot of cultures working under the same roof towards the same goal: strengthening the health care system in the Lake Zone of Tanzania and more broadly the country. This diversity manifests itself in a variety of different ways throughout our open-plan office. On the main whiteboard there is a section for Dutch words, Southern phrases and Kiswahili numbers.  There are three languages spoken at any one time in the office, and it is commonplace to hear intelligent conversation about world events showcasing opposing perspectives. At first I was overwhelmed by this culture driven by diversity because I could only understand one of three languages. However, after spending 7 months immersed in this unique environment I am able to understand Kiswahili and I have become accustomed to our team dynamic. Especially now, given the current global political climate, and after my initial time here at Touch I am energized by the vast perspectives and challenged by how to positively influence the team dynamic.

A true test of adapting and facilitating team dynamics in a diverse group appeared when I was charged with planning the office holiday party. Naturally, I wanted to have a game for all of us to participate in to facilitate conversations and team cohesiveness (the Davidson Outdoors group facilitation skills course (GFSC) taught me well). The situation was made all the more complex because it wasn’t just my colleagues (that are already a diverse group) but their families as well. The game needed to be equally accessible and entertaining to people who cannot speak English, people who do not work for Touch, people who are very skeptical of games, people who cannot read, people from various religious backgrounds, and people aged 4-60. After a brief time on the internet I only found appropriate behavior for an office holiday party (pretty entertaining but irrelevant) and games that were specific to the white American Christian holiday experience. While some of the games were appealing and familiar to me (as a white American woman raised in a Christian household) there were no games that met all of the criteria. To involve everyone I needed to step outside of my familiar cultural context and be intentional about inclusivity and tap strongly into my sense of creativity.

After laboring over it, I finally developed a unique activity. The result was a Pictionary type game which required everyone draw a depiction of what they spend most of their time doing: personal or professional. Then, we passed the pictures around and individually had to guess who drew each picture.  While the game was not flawless (communication barriers still existed between English and Kiswahili) it was successfully completed and everyone seemed to enjoy it. For all of the Touch employees, it allowed us to communicate about the work we do in a different form other than spread sheets and power points (a sometimes cold and inaccessible form of communication) to our colleagues and families.

I could have easily picked a game like “name your favorite Christmas memory”, but the majority of the party guests would have felt isolated making for an uncomfortable evening. Instead, the team and our families connected across all of the cultural lines, allowing everyone to contribute and feel included. While this was just for a holiday office party I have seen this situation manifest itself in different ways while working here. I have come to know that being a part of a diverse team is challenging and it is easy to fall back on familiar culture norms. However, when the diversity is embraced and everyone’s perspectives are equally valued, the team works more efficiently and thinks more deeply.

I am lucky to be in an environment that pushes me to think beyond the white, Christian context I was raised in. It is not always easy and comfortable but exposing oneself to “foreign” perspectives and experiences is necessary in today’s world. Working in this diverse environment with atheists, Muslims, Christians, men, women, etc., I am able to empathize with people who are continuously discriminated against and targeted. This empathy is missing in our world today and is something that should be prioritized throughout the United States and the world.

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