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Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Mtendeli Refugee Camp, Kigoma Region, Tanzania — My name is Kelsey and I’m a control freak. I admit it. I am a hyper-organized, immutable, Type A lady that once (…ok, more than once) threw a fit when my parents even hinted at moving the tree to a different location one Christmas (…ok, more than one Christmas). Clearly the only spot for the tree is in front of the window in the living room…for the rest of time…obviously. BUT over the years, and after being subjected to multiple Myers-Briggs tests by my overly-enthusiastic father (love you Dad), I have become acutely self-aware of my need to control everything.

Working in humanitarian response requires a lot of flexibility, being able to roll with the punches, and not giving up when things don’t go your way. For a stubborn individual such as myself, one would think that this might not be the best career choice. Over the years, however, I’ve managed to use these somewhat undesirable characteristics to my advantage. Being hyper organized has helped me to successfully deliver programs and run projects; being unwavering has helped me fight for things I truly believe in; and being detail oriented has helped me maximize the impact of my work in short bursts of time. But even at my best, my need to control everything can still stress me out.

This past week, I found myself traveling to the Mtendeli refugee camp in Tanzania on Monday to start the first day of a refresher training for Burundian refugee Little Ripples teachers. I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and so excited to reunite with these teachers who I had spent the previous year with. Everything was prepared, all the training documents were printed, and all the logistics sorted out…everything would go smoothly. After lots of hugs and smiles from the teachers, the training commenced without a hitch. That was, until things took a turn at the mid-morning tea break.

I was informed that the government representative who runs the camp (a.k.a. the “Big Boss”) requested my presence at his office. When I asked why, the Plan International Education Officers said they weren’t sure but I had better get there fast. We had a permit and approval for the training, all of my personal documentation was in order; there was absolutely no reason for this. Nevertheless, I acquiesced to his request and hurried to his office. I was granted a quick audience with the Big Boss who informed me I had apparently not followed procedure. “What procedure would that be?” I asked in the most respectful way I could, considering my mounting frustration.

He explained to me that a new procedure had recently been put into effect stipulating that all international NGO staff entering the refugee camps must receive approval from the district government offices. This would require me to travel 30 minutes away from the camp just to show my face and justify my presence in Tanzania and the camps. I explained to him that I was not new to Tanzania or the camps and that I had never had to follow this kind of procedure before. With a saccharine smile he informed me that, “policies do change every now and then my dear” and that he was doing me a favor by allowing me to continue with the training that day. However, it was clear that I had better stop by that government office on my way to the camp the next day, otherwise, the training would have to be postponed. I swallowed my frustration, smiled politely, thanked him for his generosity and raced back to the training venue. I apologized to the teachers for making them wait and informed them that the training would start a bit later the next day due to my impromptu field trip to the district office.

For the rest of the day I was in a bad mood. We weren’t able to complete all of the training content I had intended to cover that day, and I knew the following day would be the same. The blasted government had thrown off my training schedule and I was frustrated, stressed, and annoyed; not for myself, but for the teachers. They were so looking forward to this training and I felt like I was failing them somehow. That night I agonized over how I could re-arrange the training schedule in order to cover the most important concepts and ensure the teachers got the support they needed. Would Gabriel and Sara-Christine be upset that I wouldn’t be able to cover everything we had planned together last month? The iACT team trusted me to run this training on my own and I felt like I was letting them down.

After more polite smiles, handshakes and explanations at the district office the following morning, I raced to the camp to get the training started. As I walked into the training venue — a child-friendly space — a group of little ones, not more than 4 years old, ran up and hugged me around my legs. Immediately the tension in my shoulders started to ease, my eyebrows began to unfurl, and I couldn’t help but smile and laugh as they accompanied me to a classroom where the teachers were all waiting for me. When I walked in, I was met with beaming smiles from faces who were happy to see me and didn’t care that we were starting an hour and a half later than planned.

In that moment, I realized that these teachers were not in need of a finely scheduled training that ran like clockwork. They were already doing an amazing job to create a happy, peaceful, and safe space where the children in their community could come and receive the support and care they needed to grow, learn, and just be children. While it was helpful for the teachers to be refreshed on the basics of the Little Ripples program and to clarify some key questions they had, we spent the next two days having fun, playing games, sharing ideas, and problem-solving together. The conversations, sessions, and activities flowed naturally and, at the end, the teachers were thankful to have had the time to come together as a group. They learned some new mindfulness activities, brainstormed on different ways to use a Hoberman Sphere, and discussed some tips and tricks on how to improve their storytelling techniques. We had a great dialogue about child rights and the importance of gender-equality and inclusiveness. They showed me new games and songs, and I showed them how to do the Hokie Pokie (much laughter ensued).

The Little Ripples program is all about building on the strengths, knowledge, and experience that individuals already possess and identifying ways to use those assets to create opportunities that ensure children are able to exercise their rights to education and healthy development. It’s about bringing people and communities together to share ideas, collaborate, and create a culture of peace, helping, and sharing. And let us not forget that Little Ripples is all about play and having fun; every child deserves to have a childhood. At the end of the training, I looked around a room full of happy and giggly teachers congratulating each other and checking out their training certificates. I reflected on the core elements of Little Ripples and felt a happy sense of achievement wash over me, erasing the frustration and worry I had felt that first day. The training might not have gone exactly as planned, but then again, things in humanitarian response rarely do.

As I prepare to deliver the same training to another group of teachers in the Nduta camp next week, I am now reminding myself to breathe, focus on the core things that really matter, and to not sweat the small stuff.

Though, I still fully expect the Christmas tree to be in the “correct” spot this year.


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