An internship in food systems & empathy

Here in Tanzania this semester we are a team of six women, all in our 20’s, all studying in different fields, all with varying amounts of international experience, research experience, work experience, and all with different personalities, triggers, annoyances, likes and dislikes.

Prior to leaving, our advisors tried to explain to us how it might be difficult living and working together – how sometimes you need to critique a colleagues writing style and then cook dinner with them – it is a unique situation that can be great fun one day and infuriating the next.

This first month of our internship we have been meeting with various individuals from both Ardhi University and University of the Fraser Valley attempting to discover a pathway for our research. As you can imagine, doing this with six interns, all who are excited about looking into different aspects of food systems results in a lot of talk and very little action. On any given day you could find us gathered around the coffee table in our living room, hashing out the same questions that we had the day before: what makes sense, what is feasible, how are we adding to the discussion, I’m not interested in that, what about this, that won’t work, let’s ask Professor Kombe first, what if we did this instead, etc. etc. etc.

All this to say, although our first month here in Tanzania has not been as productive as I might have wished when it comes to research, I have been learning a lot, specifically about empathy. Communicating with empathy is not easy, but it makes every other aspect of one’s life a lot easier.

One way that we as a group are trying to create an environment of empathy for our work and life together is to have weekly “feelings meetings” where we discuss our highs and lows for the week. This gives us each an opportunity to hold the floor for as long as necessary, to express honestly how we are doing; what has been exciting, and what has been really frustrating or difficult. Sharing these things with each other helps to create empathy – for example, it is more difficult to be angry with a colleague when you know that they have had a difficult week with their family at home, or that they are struggling with anxiety over their work-load, or simply they didn’t get a good sleep last night!

I have a long way to go (like, I get annoyed when people chew their food loudly long way to go), but my hope is that during this internship, each of us can really grow in our understanding of each other. Going home not just with an incredible international academic and cultural experience, with great things to add to our CV’s, but with a deeper understanding of ourselves and the many ways that we interact with the people who surround us. That we could go home with different and better tools to transform the conflicts that will continue to plague us throughout our lives would be, to me, a great achievement.

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