At Work

Who’s Lying?

Sitting on the shore of Heart Lake in the Adirondacks, the perfect spot for recovering from yesterday’s strenuous hike and for contemplating . . .  lies. It has been a few weeks since I returned from a field visit in South Asia for a pilot and training on data collection tools. We were assisting a large team of facilitators who would have pivotal roles in facilitating change processes within the respective villages. Before embarking on this process, they engaged in a phase of data gathering to know more about the lives of adolescent girls and if, why and where they were married at a young age.

In every life experience, we can choose to peel back the layers and look at it from a different angle. Most of the time we want to analyze and critique. I could frame this whole discussion around the contradictions that pockmark development practice. In doing so, it would be easy to rouse a chorus of critics – academics and practitioners – each with their set of reference points. But what I am about to illustrate is more self-revealing. And, as I found out, I was clearly not alone.

After a few practice runs testing the tools and the facilitator skills, it became apparent in at least one village – let us call it “Mango” – that some of the responses contradicted the realities they were seeing with their own eyes.  The presence of young mothers in the village was a testament to early marriage, but that’s not something the villagers wanted to reveal. We could surmise they knew that marriage under the age of 18 was illegal.  Why should they trust this NGO with this kind of information, even if the NGO had been working with them on other projects?

Back at the workshop venue, I was having a casual conversation with some of my team members. We were sharing some of our exchanges with villagers that occur on the sidelines. People are always curious and not afraid to ask questions like, “Where do you come from? Are you married?  How many children do you have?”  One of my team mates who is from this culture responded that she was married but had no children. The elder expressed shock and dismay and persisted in offering local remedies to improve her fertility. Her admission that she is a happy individual even without children was met with a wall of incredulity.  In the next village, she changed her reply, making her claim as a mother of two boys!

We laughed over a shared secret that, on different occasions, we all make up a storyline, hoping to be able to sustain the lie long enough to our inquirer without being exposed. If we could change the subject quickly enough, we could end the spin and hope we did not have to remember the names of our fictional children, should we meet the inquirer again. It is the same when I dare to tell someone in a culture where divorce is virtually unheard of that, that in Canada it is very common not to marry and to live (lawfully) with your beloved partner.  The reply, when I said this plainly, on this particular trip was, “in our country, that would be considered a sin.”

So who’s lying?  Like the villagers in Mango, no one wanted to be judged. But that’s not all. In my many years of travelling the globe, I recall countless incidents of being stuck in traffic inside a foreign megalopolis and being interrogated by my taxi driver. “So where do you come from?  What are you doing here? Are you married? How many children do you have? Where is your family?”  With a vivid sense of imagination and self-protection, I boldly conjured up the names of my spouse, my three children, their ages, education, and the fact that they would be arriving soon to join me.  None of it was true, of course.

So did my female team mates. While we laughed at our instant families, we were all aware of what we were doing – reducing our vulnerability to a way of thinking that would judge, come to false conclusions, cast aspersions, and possibly bring us harm. Yet, the villagers of Mango are also protecting themselves, in their own mind, from possible punitive measures, judgment or interference.

We have more in common with the villagers than we may think.  But perceiving that does not come about through more questions or more probing, on either side. After all, I know that can lead to a more grandiose lie. It is about looking inward at our selves first and knowing what it takes to be understood – that thick buffer of intimacy and trust that is free of expectation, judgment or some higher moral ground. If we think we are capable of that, then maybe we can inch towards genuine understanding and we can all stop lying.  A tall order.