Monday, November 16, 2009

A different kind of spirit and intoxication

myConst-final-face3 These days, the right words used to describe me would be, zombie-fied and kelam-kabut.

In the last month, I have been completely engrossed in a project which has inevitably driven me to physical and mental exhaustion. Being sleep deprived, I have unwillingly arrived at work late in a dishevelled state. I’m almost always late for meetings held in-house and above all, I’ve committed one of the biggest and most embarrassing professional crime - giving the wrong name to a very important government minister while drafting a press statement!

I should be fired, but deep down I hope I won’t for two reasons. I’m psyched about what I’m doing and I’m driven by the pool of people working around this project.

A good marriage is really hard to come by these days but this article is not about marriage. It’s about team work and it’s as equally rare. Mom used to tell me this, “If you marry the right man, half of your life’s happiness is secured.”

In the context of a job, I would say that if you get to work with the right team, at least half of your day’s happiness is guaranteed. When combined together, I guess I’m a really happy woman despite the sleep deprivation and long hours of slogging.

Not too long ago, a fellow writer informed me that she doesn’t believe in Committee. She told me that it’s easier to get things done by herself. I do agree with her because there have been many occasions where I end up doing a job on my own simply because it takes too long to wait for others to act, especially if they are unreliable. Also, when there’s more than one person, it usually involves having more than one opinion and this means more time needed to take a collective decision.

In a marriage, it takes two to tango. In a team, it takes a whole troop to perform that awe-inspiring Shaolin acrobatic formation. All members need to lean on each other for support, be willing to take a fall and last but not least to sweat it out together so that their goals can be achieved.

However, these are not just the essential ingredients. It takes much more to become an exceptionally good team.myConst-final-face7

The spirit of team work was first introduced to me when I worked in Afghanistan. My wise Italian friend taught me the first lesson of being in a team: loyalty. Loyalty in his case does not mean to submit to one’s leader blindly and unequivocally. A team needs to be challenged. Otherwise, how would you know that it’s truly a good one when everything works like a bed of roses?

Loyalty here means to sort out disputes fairly and transparently, without backstabbing one another. If things get really difficult, you don’t just jump ship. You stay and work things out together.

I remember when I had just become the newest member of an electoral team in Bamyan, I did not appreciate our Coordinator. We had different working cultures which made it difficult for me to adapt.

Whenever I expressed my dissatisfaction towards the Coordinator, my Italian friend would remain impartial, refusing to partake in any of my personal observations. Instead, he would provide objective views and advised me to communicate my frustration to the Coordinator.

I find this to be a constructive and effective method of solving professional disagreement. If anything, it improves and builds working relationship because of better understanding through open communication.

myConst-final-face6 Secondly, to be a truly good team, it goes beyond showing professional commitment. Since, we’re essentially human beings, we all come with emotional baggage. We all have needs to feel included, appreciated and respected. We don’t just value ourselves as a worker, but also a human being, deserving of respectful and dignified treatment.

Bamyan is one of the coldest districts in Afghanistan. During winter, the temperature often drops to minus 30 degrees celcius. Again, being new, I was unable to adapt to such harsh condition and subsequently fell ill with mild pneumonia. My colleagues quickly took to the task of nursing me back to health.

During this time, my health condition had been brought to the attention of those working in the headquarters. In order not to further jeopardise my health, decisions were quickly made to offer me a transfer to a warmer district in the East of Afghanistan. Resisting the tempting offer, I decided to stay on in Bamyan and it was the right decision I made.

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I would eventually brave winter together with a group of colleagues whom by then had become friends. We would huddle together, all wrapped up in thick fleece jackets, scarves and mittens, sharing a simple meal while being fuelled by a solitary burner situated in the middle of a poorly equipped kitchen. Everything else was frozen in the kitchen but our spirits were kept sizzling hot by the solidarity we had for each other.

Last but not least, when the going gets really tough, good team members support each other despite the adversities and risks they have to take, even if it means compromising themselves.

After about six months in Bamyan, we had a shocking but pleasant surprise. A Japanese colleague of ours brought her baby boy from Japan to Bamyan. The whole adventure of how she managed to bring her baby there was a different story altogether. Suffice to say that her act was in breach of the United Nations’ employment contract. As an unaccompanied duty station, all staff were not allowed to bring their partners or children to Afghanistan, unless they were being employed by the UN or other organisations, in the case of their partners.

Being a single mother and combined with other undisclosed reasons, she had to bring her child there. We knew that it was not the best decision made, bringing a child to a war-zone country. However, we understood that whatever reason that had prompted her to do so must had been difficult and perhaps necessary.

In the end, what we did was to support her. We welcomed her baby into our humble home and treated him as if he was a part of the family. We were fully aware that if the baby was discovered by the UN authorities, we would all risk disciplinary action and our Japanese colleague, her job.

It hit upon us that it was difficult trying to conceal a baby in a small district like Bamyan. Eventually, our colleague had to pack her bag and leave the country but the memory of that moment we shared together will continue to stay with all of us for the rest of our lives.myConst-final-face4

Perhaps I would never get to experience such surreal circumstances again but I am fortunate enough to relive the joy of working in a team where all of us grow together and feed on each other’s enthusiasm, strength and encouragement to cross that finishing line.

The writer would like to dedicate this article to those working on the MyConstitution Campaign, as well as those who have been supportive and understanding of her during her moments of zombification and kelam-kabutness.

This article was first posted on The Malaysian Insider on 15 November 2009 under the same title.

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