What you see when you step out of the ordinary

To step out of your comfort zone, out of your silo, and completely embrace a new culture is extremely powerful. You start to see the world in a different light, see new ways of doing things, and realise that we in the West probably don’t have all of the answers.

We’ve just finished three hugely inspiring placements: AK Parker (BBH) in Malawi, Chris Kelsch (Wieden+Kennedy) in Namibia and Jessica Lehmann (WPP’s Brand Union) in Sierra Leone.

In our final placement evaluations we asked each of them to tell us what insights they saw and what meta-level patterns they noticed leading transitions in each of the countries they worked in.

Their answers are fascinating, and we wanted to share them with you.

Enjoy a brief insight to what you start to see when you step out of the ordinary and into the unknown from our brilliant TIE alumni!


“There is a lot we can learn from the simplicity of their culture. A lot of the children I met appeared a lot happier than the children I see in the UK glued to screens because their parents are too busy to spend time with them.

We should not impose our lifestyle on them, it should be a choice. E.g. I heard a story about a woman who kept on breaking the well in the village. When questioned why she did this, she explained that she and her friends never asked for this well. Fetching water with her friends was an important social opportunity and helped some women escape abusive relationships. We must listen to communities and provide them with what they want and not what we think they need.

It seems it would be good to develop ways for the people in Malawi to not rely on aid so much. I believe education is key, so supporting charities like Joshua who provide education is important.”

AK Parker, BBH London
Joshua Orphan & Community Care (Malawi)

“The world is big. Going to Namibia made me mentally escape the NY thought bubble. It’s easy to feel invisible in NY, but being in Africa, everything that makes you invisible in NY makes you very different and visible in the third world. After experiencing what I did, I really wish more people in the west would escape their routine and think greater. I wish more people would be able to drop their guard and have open minds and honest debates.

I wish more people would realize if you don’t ask or you don’t try, then you don’t get. You don’t have to go against the flow, but stepping outside of the flow allows you to see everything that is going on around you. And on a simple scale, seeing all the plastic bags in the middle of the desert will continue to drive me to live a more sustainable lifestyle and encourage others to as well. ”

Chris Kelsch, Wieden+Kennedy New York
Giraffe Conservation Foundation (Namibia)

“When I was on TIE I discussed with my friend and co-worker, Joseph, what Africa might have been like if it hadn’t been colonized. I think Lupita Nyongo had been on a segment speaking about the same thing, and I was fascinated by it so wanted to discuss the idea with him as a writer and intellectual who understands the US as well as West Africa. We spoke about the influence that the West had had, and that given its grip on the society for so many years, the only way progress seemed possible was with the Western way of more education, infrastructure and development for Sierra Leone. If the British had never been there perhaps there could be a different way of existing for this society, and perhaps there would be other ways for people to live happily and peacefully than educating and earning in the Western model?

Many people want to reject the paternalistic forms of cultural influence that they perceive as threats to tradition and culture, though – an example is that of FGM in Sierra Leone, some people think it should be allowed if the girls chooses it, in the same way that you can choose to change your sex in America, for example. A return to traditional cultural traditions that were lost during the war – a whole generation who now have no connection to them – is seen as fundamental to Sierra Leone finding its feet again and being able to inspire a new generation to do things differently. It’s true in many cultures that a disconnection from our past, our own story, can be responsible for feeling adrift and not understanding who we are.

But when it comes to money and power, there seemed to be a disconnect between what would help Salone society and the entrenched systems that benefit those who control them. If you’re in power then you can make yourself richer, and you can enrich the people from your village. When you’re not, you’re ignored. Roads go untended to and whole communities are left without any support.

There’s a feeling in Salone that development and change have to happen, people want something different. The hard this is uprooting and overturning years of the same practices that saw politicians stealing money from aid efforts (billions went missing during Ebola and the mudslide last year). And when societies have come to expect that from their government, there’s a trickle down effect into every other echelon.

I don’t know if I’m really answering this question, but I guess I was struck by two things while I was there: firstly that it’s not our place as westerners to dictate how and what change happens, and force people to see the world how we do. And secondly that taking action to support a people with change and development must be done through means which make that change sustainable and reliable. The worst aspect of our paternalism is creating an expectation that can’t be sustained. I think back to the three wells at Mile 6, none of which worked… We can’t let communities be in that situation when they’re already being so let down by their own government. We have to help empower people and find their own way, but not be part of the same problem. Patting ourselves on the back for action that’s not making a true difference”.

Jessica Lehmann, WPP & Brand Union
Purposeful Productions (Sierra Leone)


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