Now there’s getting out of the office and then there’s really getting out of the office. Here’s one comms lead’s story of an experience of something completely different, life-changing even.
by Andrew Walker
For the first-time visitor to rural Malawi, the experience comes at you fast.
The sights, the sounds, the heat, the dust, a different culture and the extraordinary openness of people in villages, hospitals and classrooms.
So as someone who’s never more than an arm’s length reach from their mobile(s), being told to not to live this experience through my phone camera lens or immediately posting to social was a leap.
I travelled to Malawi with WaterAid to gather content about how Scottish Water employee fund-raising helps rural and poor communities with access to clean water, decent toilets and sanitation.
As the lead for the Munro Challenge 2020 – encouraging as many people as possible to climb Scotland’s highest mountains for projects in Zomba and Machinga districts – the purpose of the trip was to tell the story of how efforts here make a tangible difference on the ground and encourage participation.
I’ve experienced a fair bit of the world in my working life. I’ve always written extensive notes and taken plenty of photos.
But being gently advised that that best way to experience the visit to Malawi’s villages, early childhood development centres and maternity facilities, was to step away from my phone and let the WaterAid team do the content capturing meant this was going to be entirely different.
I’m so glad that I did.
At first it felt totally counter-intuitive. The trigger reaction is to take the phone out and start taking photos.
I’m taken to a rundown single room brick building where pre-school age children from the surrounding villages are learning their vowels and numbers by singing and chanting them led by their volunteer teacher.
The local chief there thanked us for visiting and said his land had been blessed by us being there. Not something you hear often on a Monday morning in corporate comms.
In other villages we are shown round medical facilities about to be connected to water supply for the first time, enabling women to give birth with an increased chance of both mum and baby surviving.
The medic in charge is un-sparing in outlining the challenges he faces without water and what a difference it will make when it flows through the taps.
We are accompanied by village chiefs, medical staff and local people and given a very real insight into life here.
To have been given that insight, and to have viewed it through constantly being glued to my phone taking photos and immediately posting to social channels, would have significantly devalued it.
The experience was all-the-richer for having followed the advice. Using the basic core human communication skills we all possess, but which often get lost the hurly-burly of the day-to-day tasks, allowed me to make the very most of meeting and listening to amazing, expressive people.
At the end of each day, invaluable knowledge, understanding and cultural context was added to those conversations by our host, Yankho Mataya from WaterAid Malawi.
Stepping away from the phone (and notepad) freed the shackles and allowed for conversations rather than interviews. Questions as part of a conversation unlocked stories an interview-style approach might not have. I’m trying to combine the two approaches more effectively in a work setting.
Language isn’t always a barrier: people are people, wherever they are and whatever language they speak. Our English / Chichewa conversations were necessarily and brilliantly translated by Yankho. But being able to tune in to the tone and body language between two Chichewa speakers allowed me to understand what was going on (including a particularly animated conversation about when a village was going to benefit from access to water as well as a joyful explosion of celebration looking ahead to the imminent arrival of water in the village of Kawinga).
An ethical approach to communications provides everyone with comfort around how content being gathered will be used and those who feature in the stories do so willingly. That matters as much in villages where we were photographing and recording women collecting water from holes in the ground but who have no access to electricity never mind the internet, as it in our day to day work.
Go beyond your boundaries. I recognised during this visit I was going beyond my day to day role: that of a corporate communicator and into one of advocacy. However, it still involved using the core skills of empathy, listening, negotiation and engaging. In Malawi, I was an advocate for my organisation and its work. On returning, I’ve been an advocate for WaterAid and the communities in need our support.
My filtering of the experience continues. At times I’ve struggled to explain the impact of the visit.
It’s perfectly summed up though by Lis Parham, of WaterAid’s trust and philanthropy comms, who was there too. She visited Malawi for the first time a year before.
She said: “I learned very quickly on my first trip just how important those relationships are with the communities, to look people in the eye and let them know they have your full attention.”
There is so much else we pick up when we don’t share a language and those are the facets of communication which are in our bones, really.
Andrew Walker is head of communications at Scottish Water. You can say hello to him on Twitter at @AJWalker73
For more on Water Aid’s work take a look here.
pic via Andrew