Starting a blog is like starting a book – you know you can begin in any place and you know you can take it in any direction. The only barriers are the ones that exist at as far as your imagination can dare to roam.
I’m about to depart for a journey on the other end of the world. In a few days I’ll leave my life in Canada for another one in Cambodia. I’ll lunge myself in a new project to share knowledge with the aim being to contribute to poverty reduction, good governance, civil society building, and whole check-list of other idealistic hopes and goals. I’m told that I’ll be working with a nationally well-known female director who has achieved substantial success in a region where men still run the show. At this time of serious reflection, I can’t help but remember a related experience over 12 years ago.
I want to start this so far undirected and potentially curious piece with endless possibilities by introducing you to a mentor and inspiration in my life. Jutla Ayala was my boss in my very first volunteer placement abroad at the Hospital Patronato San Jose in Quito, Ecuador. Jutla ran the information systems department of the hospital and instantly welcomed me when I arrived through an exciting new Canadian programme that was connecting IT people with partners in developing countries to boost technological capacity. Mind you, I certainly didn’t consider myself an IT expert by any means. I spoke Spanish, knew how to basically use the Internet in the year of 2001, and was deemed a worthy candidate.
Jutla was, dare I say, a vividly flamboyant lady that could make you laugh at a joke before you even heard it. She was a master at using her charm, her intelligence, and her sense of humour to glide through any situation with ease, and make anyone around her feel instantly comfortable. I arrived at the department with notes on possible ways to improve IT systems that I had no idea about since I had developed my talking points based on scavenged conversations with real IT people. I felt that in a short time period of the three months I’d be there, we needed to start producing and get down to it right away. Jutla wouldn’t have any of it. She told me some jokes, began a painfully slow process of introducing me to every single person that breathed in the hospital, took me for a long lunch in the cafeteria, and tried to get me to mimic expressions that were said to be particular to that region of Ecuador. This routine became part of a daily schedule that I’d grow more and more accustomed to as time went by.
Jutla told me that we were privileged in that cramped little room with three computers to be the small elite hospital force of Internet users. She asked me to teach others how to use it in a way that could improve their jobs and their lives. We developed a plan to bring in small groups everyday. With the Internet connection down about 60% of the time, I became an expert at drawing an Internet browser on the chalkboard– which at that time was the beloved Netscape Navigator. Jutla made sure that every person in the hospital who wanted to join was able to. Doctors, nurses, administrators, cafeteria staff, cleaners – they all came in droves. I found myself telling jokes to break the ice, able to know each of the students and often about their families, meeting with different groups everyday for lunch in the cafeteria, and busting out some local expressions at times needed to impress and amuse the cohorts. We all became closer than I could have ever imagined sharing successes and failures of learning and teaching. I later realised that Jutla’s approach to fully integrate me in the hospital before I even dare begin teaching something as whimsical as the Internet was crucial to succeed.
Fast-forward 10 years and like many in the depths of a busy lifestyle, I hadn’t much contact with Jutla or the staff at the hospital other than an occasional email. I received a message from a hospital employee telling me that Jutla was quite sick with cancer and it would be great if I could give her a call. I felt strange to pick up the phone and call suddenly after over 10 years with sporadic email contact at best. When I heard her answer, it was almost as if no time had passed. Without much surprise that I had suddenly called, she went right into a joke. She told me about every person we could think of at the hospital and gave me their latest news. She told me she was quickly improving and things were getting much better. I was relieved.
Jutla passed away a couple weeks after that phone call. I was shocked. Her cancer had rapidly progressed and it was known that she would likely not survive. Although I hadn’t known that at the time, it made perfect sense that Jutla wanted to maintain her character with me and probably everyone else right until the very end.
Jutla taught me so much about working with a new community. She taught me that certain social etiquette must take priority over any loftier professional objectives. She also showed me that getting acceptance of the group you are sharing skills with is far more important than any strategy you choose to transfer your knowledge. Just taking the time to to eat with colleagues and getting to know about their families can have major impact. I think it’s very appropriate at this moment I think of Jutla and I share her memory with you. I know that she will be in my mind often as I embark on this upcoming journey.
Dedico mi participación en este trabajo a ti, jefa querida.