Safety and respect are key to ensuring community engagement. This is as true in rural Ghana where I work, as it is in most places in the world. Here are some tips that I have found helpful for the African context:
- Understand the cultural dynamics. It is important that while entering a community the facilitator or community engagement person has a clear understanding of the “go and no-go zones,” as well as the totems and taboos of the community. These need to be honoured and respected during the period of work with the community and will increase the possibility of success.
- Stay away from party politics. In general, community members in Africa are passionate about their politics. In addition, many politicians have made huge promises and failed to deliver. They are not always trusted. To be safe, explain who you are and who you work for, and that you do not have an affiliation with any political party. Wisely and clearly decline political discussions and make relevant input devoid of politics.
- Know the religious dynamics. This is a sensitive area and should be managed carefully during your stay in the community. People are equally passionate about their religion as they are their politics, and therefore religious conversations or examples should be avoided. However, to maximize safety and respect honour people’s religious needs during your events as much as possible i.e. prayer time, food preferences, etc.
- Establish rapport. Entering the community should involve and engage all the relevant stakeholders in the project. Make sure your contact persons in the community are people respected and trusted by that community.
- Introduce yourself or team to traditional authority. The team/officer should introduce himself to the traditional authority on the first day of entry to the community. You will be more warmly welcomed and protected by the community when you are known by these leaders. Note: Meetings with chiefs sometimes involve you giving gifts. Find out what is expected and ensure you have exactly what you need to visit the chief or other community leaders.
- Know the community. It takes time to get to know a community. However, doing some research in advance can give you important knowledge about the people, their religion and culture, issues of concern and challenge, strengths and resources, as well as leadership practices. Do your homework.
What do you do to ensure safety?
Augustine N-Yokuni (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Ghana Program Manager of Canadian Feed the Children, based in Ghana.