Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Key

Language is key. Over the past few years I’ve written a few times about how words can open doors. “Finding My Way” explored the vocabulary of the streets of Johannesburg. “BULA!” shared my thoughts from Fiji about how every culture seems to have a magic word that means everything and nothing at the same time. I’m still not exactly sure what that magic word is here in Barranquilla, but one possibility might be “listo.” Technically, “listo” can mean “ready” or “prepared” (estar listo) or “smart” (ser listo). But here in Colombia, “listo” seems to be a word that gets thrown around in so many different situations that it is near-impossible to define it. By my count, it can mean “great,” “OK,” “word is bond,” and a few more things for starters.

Admittedly, “listo” has not seeped into my vocabulary, so the jury is still out on how magical this word actually is. Instead, another word has captured my imagination in the last few weeks. As a child of the Bay Area, I've always appreciated the beauty of slang,—the good, the bad, and the outlandish—and in my mind there are a thousand ways to call a friend a friend. Just in case you think I’m exaggerating, I’ve compiled a short list to give you a taste...

A - Amigo, Ace
B - Boy, blood, Brother / Bro / Brohan / Brah, Bestie, Boo
C - Cousin / Cuz / Cutty
D - Dog / Dawg
E - Ese
F - Family / Fam / Fam-bam
G - Guey
H - Homie, hermano
I - Igloo
J - Jump-Off, Joker
K - Kemo Sabe
L - Loc
M - Main Man, Mate
N - Nupe, Ninja, Nizzle
O - O.G.
P - Potna, peeps
Q - Queen
R - Rellie / Relish, Roll-dog
S - Sister, Son
T - Team
U - Umbrella
V - Vato
W - Weebles, wingman, whodie
X - Xylophone
Y - Youth 
Z - Zebra

Unfortunately, the vast majority of these terms of endearment would fall on deaf ears if I tried to use them here in Colombia. Luckily, I’ve come across a new one for the list—one that just my be my favorite to date. Here, my main man is “mi llave”—my key. Think about it... isn’t that perfect? Plus, since there is no letter “ll” (double-l) in English*, there was an open slot on the list!

I’ve been in Colombia for about six weeks now, and as of today there are two folks who I would (and do) call “mi llave.” The first is Javi, another Peace Corps Response Volunteer who works with Fútbol Con Corazon. So far he has been key—a solid work colleague, soccer and basketball teammate, wingman, and overall P.I.C.** Can I get a chest bump?

“Mi otro llave” is Alberto, my counterpart at Fútbol Con Corazon, the organization where I work. To clarify, every Peace Corps Volunteer is paired up with a counterpart—a host-country national with whom we work side-by-side during our service. Our counterparts are not our bosses or our subordinates, they are our teammates. Our primary responsibility as development workers is capacity-building, and ideally, that process starts with our counterparts. As you can imagine, this is a lot easier said than done. Establishing and managing the counterpart relationship may be the most complex, sensitive and challenging aspect of Peace Corps service—for the volunteer, for the counterpart, for Peace Corps Staff and for the host-country organization. In a word, the counterpart relationship is key. In this sense, I have been blessed.

Last week I had the opportunity to attend a weeklong workshop on Leadership and Project Management with my counterpart. The workshop was facilitated by the Training Staff from Peace Corps Panama, who flew in from across the border to work with us for the week. I’ve long had an interest in Project Management, so I was happy to attend. While I took some practical nuggets of wisdom away from the experience, what I really appreciated was the opportunity to develop the counterpart relationship.

I won’t bore you with a summary of what we covered. What I will say is that it was obvious that my counterpart was pleased to participate, and that he got a lot out of it. On the second day of the workshop we all designed envelopes for ourselves and posted them on one of the walls of the conference room. Over the course of the next few days, we all wrote short, positive notes to other participants and slipped them into their envelopes. At the end of the week we all took home our envelopes and had the pleasure of reading what people had written to us—sometimes anonymously, sometimes not. Corny? Yes. Effective? Definitely. The idea is that everyone needs some love, even at work. I’ll be the first to admit that I loved reading the notes, even the ones that were downright ridiculous. For example, Javi “thanked” me for not inviting him to hang out with me and three young ladies. Perhaps my favorite note was an anonymous one, with just two words scrawled on it... “Mi llave.” I see you, Alberto.

Pura Vida,

* In Spanish the double “l” is considered a single letter, and is pronounced like an English “y.” Or, if you’re Argentinian, you would pronounce like an English “y” with a mouth full of peanut butter. So, “mi llave” is pronounce “mee yah-veh.”

** Partner-In-Crime... please do not take this literally, we have been extremely well-behaved.

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