Learning to Swim - Back in Brazil

I've been very happy with how far my Portuguese has come, especially after having been gone from Brazil for so long, yet my ability to communicate here is like being able to swim in a gentle sea, enquanto tudo tá tranquilo, tudo bom! ("While everything is calm, no problem!") But while sitting in on CatComm's open forum, a meeting for feedback from community partners and constituents, I experienced a very different world of linguistic aquatics; visualize the crashing waves at Ipanema, Brazil's most famous of beaches, where the people are beautiful but the weak stay out of the water.

Last night, a dozen of us met inside the Casa do Gestor Catalisador, CatComm's home and technology hub in Rio, located on the edge of the downtown, in a historic district by the bay and the center of the old slave trade. Around us on the Casa walls, on mounted wood or printed t-shirts, hung windows into the world of the favelas, the works of Brazilian photographer Maurício Hora, a man with an incredible capacity to capture the spirit of place on film. Maurício sat to my left, Theresa to my right, the rest were spread out in a circle around the room, community leaders and artists, passionate Brazilians all; not quite what my beach and bar Portuguese had prepared me for.

It wasn't so bad at first, when Theresa began speaking I was able to follow along, she had prepped me before hand (in English) about the proposal she would present, about CatComm's new strategy for partners and growth. Muito tranquilo. However once people started responding, once bodies leaned forward and hands started churning, my bearings slipped out from under me and the sea became choppy. At times I would grasp the topic of the conversation and understand its flow, but then just as suddenly a new wave of words, sounds, and Brazilian passion would descend upon me, and my head would be plunged into the deep, tumbling out of control and comprehension lost, finally clawing my way to the surface only to think "Meu Deus, como a gente veio pra cá" "How the heck did we end up here?"

The Brazilian love of talking on top of one another means a whole different set of cultural cues apply here, how do you tell if someone is staying civil and respectful, how do you tell what is a constructive conflict and what is not? Brazilians are a passionate people and many debate with animation and emotion, loudly at times, which are all traits that I can relate well to. How many times in Kenya did it appear that Erik and I were about to come to blows, when in fact, we were only just getting warmed up?

However it's clear that for us to do Protocol work here, guiding a creative collision of world-views, will require a lot of preparation, both in our language and in our ability to train and support other people. The language barrier makes proactive leadership absolutely necessary. I can continue to improve my Portuguese, but the only effective way forward is to make sure that more appropriate people know what they're doing and supporting them, there's no other choice. Which, if you think about it, is really the only way our work in the Base of the Pyramid can come alive, working with others, training new people, supporting them, and then to some degree, letting go. It's hard to imagine us doing here exactly what we did in Kenya: Erik, and I directly facilitating exercises and discussions. Here we would have to plan for miscommunication, slow down for better understanding. Though in truth we did not always understand what was going on in Kenya either, our Kiswahili was worse than my Portuguese, and patience was always key.

It's funny to think about what has become one the defining aspects of my life, the constant search for uncomfortable situations and new things to be ignorant about. There's something a little crazy about that, something a little strange about someone who has to go so far from what he knows to find meaningful work, to feel content yet not comfortable. I suppose it's all a search for meaning and growth and as Erik loves to say, "If what you're doing feels comfortable, then you're probably not doing something new!" Optimal ignorance is another phrase we love to throw around: optimal is when you know enough to be respectful, but not enough to know what is impossible. You're able to do things in someone else's backyard that you could never do in your own. You just don't know enough not to try. A clueless gringo has his uses after all, but at the very least he does need to learn to keep his head above the water.

Time to go swimming again.


Notes for the unfamiliar:

  • Theresa -> Theresa Williamson, founder and executive director of Catalytic Communities
  • CatComm -> Catalytic Communities, an amazing organization in Rio that provides spaces for community leaders to meet and exchange ideas, both physical spaces (the Casa) and virtual spaces (http://www.CatComm.org), inpsiring and empowering a global network of community leaders and solutions.
  • Favela -> a Brazilian slum or shanty town, the word's origins are from a particular slum in Rio, the first, historically known as Morro da Favela, but today known as Morro do Providência, where photographer Maurício Hora was born and raised. To view Maurício's work visit http://www.favelarte.com/ An exposition of Maurício's work is currently on display at CatComm's Casa in Rio.
  • Erik -> Erik Simanis, Co-Director of the Base of the Pyramid Protocol and team leader of the Protocol pilot team in Kenya
  • Protocol -> Base of the Pyramid Protocol, a process by which multinational companies can engage poor communities to form new partnerships and to co-create new business opportunities for the communities and the company. For more on the protocol and pilot see http://www.bop-protocol.org and http://www.BRINQ.com/kenya/
  • Me -> Patrick Donohue, a recovering computer scientist and MBA, refugee from the rapid to riches dot-com culture, and member of the BoP Protocol pilot test in Kenya; in Brazil to write a case study of Catalytic Communities and to practice swimming in Portuguese.


[...] Learning to Swim - Back in Brazil

[...] Learning to Swim - Back in Brazil [...]

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