A few days ago, I was in the Bosfam office with just the weavers, as both Beba (the Director) and her sister, Djefa, had gone out to run errands. Two potential customers arrived, and I had to try to act as the friendly saleslady. They were a bit confused by the fact that Bosfam seemingly had a foreign salesperson, but they let me try to show them around the shop. I am getting better at pulling out various tiny shirts and dresses and telling women that they would look fabulous in a Bosfam creation.
We sat waiting for Djefa to return (they wanted to make a special order and I had no idea how to take their measurements), and they began to ask me where I was from and what I thought of Bosnia. I always give positive responses to this question, but decided that as I was trying to make a sale, I should be extra enthusiastic. I told them that I loved being in Bosnia and that sometimes I wished I did not have to leave Tuzla (all true) and one of the women turned to me and exclaimed, “What the hell is the matter with you? You are from New York! This is only Tuzla!” I explained to her that the women at Bosfam had been very open and trusting with me and that I felt welcome in Bosnia. Indeed, Bosfam staff had left me to answer the phones and deal with any visitors to the store. As the youngest, they have even begun to ask me to do certain tasks, like serving coffee or running to the phone when it rings. My status as foreign guest is starting to rub off, and I am becoming the youngest member of the group.
I arrived at Bosfam with a new computer that had been donated by the Advocacy Project. I explained repeatedly to Beba and Djefa that I had brought a laptop for myself, so they could begin to use the new computer right away. They continually responded that I should use the new computer. They were content to use the old ones and I should benefit from the computer that I had carried across the Atlantic. I brought my laptop every day, and the new computer remained unopened in the corner. Finally, after I had been coming to the office every day for about a month, Djefa asked, “When the hell are we going to open the new computer? My computer is terrible!” She no longer felt like she had to keep the good computer aside for me, nor was she too embarrassed to ask to use it herself.
When I first arrived here, I was introduced as “our volunteer;” now, I am often introduced as “ours.” “This is Marta. She is ours.” Being one of “ours” makes my work easier. I am more able to say things like, “I disagree,” or “It is important that we finish this right now.” At the same time, my colleagues here feel more comfortable telling me that they want to use the new computer, or that they disagree with me.
Indeed, working side-by-side with local NGOs (rather than as a donor) is in some ways more difficult. As one of ‘theirs,’ I can only express my opinion; I am not able to say that Bosfam must or must not do something. While this may sometimes be frustrating to me, I see the advantages of a partnership rather than a hierarchical relationship. My presence is helping Bosfam to accomplish what they seek to accomplish, instead of what some well-meaning bureaucrat in Brussels or Washington decides Bosfam should achieve. Building the capacity of civil society means enabling activists to express their opinion and to effect change, not telling them what their opinions should be.
I am enjoying my time as being one of ‘theirs;’ I am learning through osmosis what their priorities are. My goal is to be a member of the team and to contribute by helping them work toward realizing those priorities.
Posted By Marta Schaaf
Posted Jul 12th, 2003