In May 2022, volunteer Daniel Lavin was Winrock’s first volunteer to travel from the US to West Africa for the Farmer-to-Farmer program in over 2 years. Dan traveled to Senegal to assist the Fass Jom Association in Financial Farm Management. He, along with country staff, trained a group of mostly women on managing their farming practices so they could take part in the development of their community and improve living conditions. Fass Jom Association’s goal is to establish a modern micro-enterprise capable of generating sufficient income and creating sustainable and economically profitable activities for its members.
Why did you want to volunteer?
For the last few decades, my focus has been on my children and my work. My kids have moved on and my work requires much less time. I continually recall memories of my service in the Peace Corps and wished there was a way to get involved with international development. When I learned about Farmer-to-Farmer and specifically saw that their mission was to teach, I knew I had to get involved. I’ve been working independently in Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Kenya, but hoped to find organizations that had greater reach to other countries and connections to communities seeking to empower themselves. In the United States, even big “efforts” seem to have little effect. When serving with Farmer 2 Farmer, even small “efforts” seem to have a big effect. The appreciation from the host organizations, from the in-country staff, and from all those I come in contact with feeds the soul.
What was the highlight of being back in the field?
One big highlight from my experience in Senegal was a response from one of the students, a Muslim woman who surprised even herself. Our focus was on teaching financial literacy, giving the students a chance to learn how to analyze business concepts and make educated decisions to improve profitability. This woman returned to the training with a “spring in her step,” anxious to update the others. She had returned home to educate her husband on the concepts of tracking revenue, identifying labor and material costs, comparing financial models, and creating a budget. Even though he ran the family business, they both realized that her new skills would serve them both and help improve their financial situation. It wasn’t our aim to create a cultural “shift,” but the result was amazing. The other students applauded with delight.
What advice would you give a new volunteer?
The most important skills you can bring are flexibility, respect, creativity, and humility. The more you can encourage active participation, questions instead of answers, and the willingness to “pivot,” the more likely you are to achieve success. Don’t try and solve all problems prior to your arrival; you really need to see the issues in context and listen to the host prior to making even the most basic suggestions.
How do you feel that your volunteer assignment has contributed to creating a shared understanding across different cultures through person-to-person interactions?
As I grow older, I realize how little I know, but I maintain the willingness to learn. I believe I contribute to a shared understanding from culture to culture by having everyone become a student and a teacher. We all have something to share, and a lot to learn.
What, if anything, has surprised you on your assignments?
The world has become very small. In 1988 it took me 54 hours to travel to Sierra Leone. Letters took three months to arrive, and phone calls were reserved for emergencies. World events meant little unless you were able to hear a faint BBC broadcast. Now, travel takes half the time. Emails are instantaneous, pictures and videos can be shared in real-time, and news reaches even the most remote villages. This new reality allows me to participate in amazing communities, and share events with friends and family all over the world. When the assignment ended, friendships built are maintained.
How does your experience affect your worldview?
Americans often think that development means “how do we make the world more like us?” That is NOT my worldview. Everyone lives with different challenges, unique cultural approaches, and solutions that make the world interesting. I feel fortunate that I get to witness such differences, and then share these experiences.