Big Change

Change endeavors (“change work”) can come in big or small packages. Change work can take place in far off places or in your front yard. For a two-year period, my change work involved efforts big and small, far and near.

In 1999, a global social change organization, the Peace Corps, offered me a deal:  They would set me up with a small house in a rural village in the West African country of Mali, train me, and give me a stipend if I agreed to be a change agent for health. I took the deal. 

In taking the deal, I began my biggest change project. The village of Nankorola was my territory. The goals were three-fold:  1) to teach a women’s health committee about disease prevention such as malaria and malnutrition and to encourage the women to teach their families and neighbors; 2)  to help the village midwife document pre-natal consultations and 3) to give presentations on endemic disease prevention in a health center in town.

It sounded straightforward but I hadn’t factored in a few things: the women’s work in the field, the care of their children, their domestic labor such as gathering firewood and cooking. I hadn’t factored in the difference in power relations of women in a village and the constraints on their education and literacy. I hadn’t considered that between the hot and wet seasons. sometimes it wasn’t convenient to meet. I didn’t think to offer economic incentives. In brief, it was difficult to offer health information based on prevention— information as a commodity—to a village that was poor and in want of material and physical goods.

So in the final year of my work, I looked inward and looked at the change needed in my own yard. In this case, it was the front yard leading to my house.t

illustration credit: Maria T. Do

illustration credit: Maria T. Do

Small Change

My house looked like a ruin. It was the original house Peace Corps used to host generations of educators like myself in the village. Battered by sun and rain, it fell into disrepair. A smaller house was built directly across this one to contain my bedroom. I used the non-dilapidated parts of “my ruin” as an open kitchen—cooking while viewing the baobabs trees beyond.  

The house became a small change project and allowed me a break from my work in the village. Here I attempted a restoration project.

I purchased bougainvillea and flowering plants from towns nearby and planted them along the portico of the house. I resurrected the trellis. I imagined the portico to be a Mediterranean villa. I planted shrubs throughout my enclosed yard. I took precautions and surrounded the seedlings with scaffolding and wire mesh knowing that goats lived nearby. 

I was defeated by the sun in dry season, the rain in wet season, and eventually by voracious goats. I re-planted and was re-defeated. The goats in the village leapt on my fence (a fence of made mud-brick I had raised and fortified for this reason) and eyed me when I worked in the yard. When I looked away, they jumped into my yard and ate everything that was green. I felt anger but more than that I felt loss.

continued on next paragraph: “Change is Loss”

Change is Loss

Years after leaving Mali, I realized that the change work in the house and yard mirrored the change work in the village. Both entailed forms of loss.

I felt personal loss when the dream (or illusion) of a Mediterranean-like portico was destroyed by forces of nature and animals. When the plants and shrubs died, especially through my own efforts to ensure their survival, I felt a small portion of me that harbored  the vision of the Mediterranean portico died. 

Years later, I understood that the loss I felt when my change attempts didn’t work was the loss that villagers would feel if they had to make a change. 

In other words, if I wanted villagers to adopt new disease prevention practices, they would need to depart from their previous beliefs.  When I asked them to use mosquito nets when sleeping or put long sleeves on their children at sunset or ameliorate their porridges with peanut powder to add protein, I was in fact asking them to say goodbye to what they knew in order to say hello or take new information to adopt new practices.

Later back in the US, I would learn about Williams Bridges, a thought leader on change. Mr. Bridges wrote that change requires transitions. He said change makers of all kinds have to allow for a bridge to occur—in time and space—for people to cross from old to new, to leave old thoughts, old behaviors to adopt new ones. He said in these transitions people can feel loss, even grief.

Had I known then that change involves loss---personal loss or any loss of knowing/being, my experience in Mali might have been different. I might have been able to take a wider view of change in the village. I might have been able to take a long-term view of my change efforts in the yard and house. I might not have felt better about having been defeated by goats, but I would have felt more sanguine:   After the rain, there always come the sun.

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Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes. William Bridges