Out of Africa

Helen Monument shares her experience training young Maasai students in Kenya

Arrival at a training location is not usually an inspiring experience. I certainly never expected to be confronted by two young men dressed in bright red, bejeweled costumes, leaping out in front of me, brandishing spears. But this was a location with a difference and a reception like no other. The traditional Maasai welcome, with singing and dancing, took my breath away; I couldn’t stop smiling.

In September 2021, I spent two weeks volunteering at the Maasai Education Centre and hotel school in Kenya, the only one of its kind for 350 km. I had been asked by Mariska Appelman, founder of The Style Foundation, to give personal coaching and life lessons to thirty students ranging in age from 18 to 25.

Of course I agreed, along with my husband Robert, who, as a hospitality expert, would also be sharing his expertise at the hotel school. Our temporary home was The House of Hearts, which, in addition to a safari tent, offers comfortable guest accommodation in the compound.

Connecting to Yourself Through Storytelling

We all need other people. To prepare the students for their internships at the local safari lodges and resorts, I helped them understand the need to increase their self-confidence, to enable them to overcome their natural shyness and modesty and have the courage to engage with the guests they would be meeting. Connecting yourself is all about giving others the opportunity to gain experience all about you and being brave enough to have engaging conversations with strangers.

There is an age-old tradition of storytelling among the Maasai, and I used their love of the spoken word to explain to the students how they could build their confidence and create a story that would help them to connect with others once they get out into the world of work. A modest people, the Maasai don’t like to talk about their achievements or their strengths, so giving them an image of a traditional Maasai warrior’s shield helped them to create their own story.

Many Assistants I meet are also very reticent to blow their own trumpet, or to take credit for a job well done. We all need a boost to our self-esteem now and again, and being able to tell our story confidently must be a skill in every Assistant’s portfolio.

First, define your strengths and ambitions. Then share what you are most proud of and what your values are, in the form of your personal motto.

Once this is done, the next step is to build the narrative by stating:

  • I am committed to…
  • My personal mission is…
  • I am extremely interested in…
  • … (activity) is of vital importance to me
  • One of my strengths/best talents is…
  • It’s important for me to…
  • My biggest dreams in life are…
  • In five years, I’d like to be…

When developing your story, it is important to consider how you want others to see you. It’s important to clearly communicate what you do, what your strengths are and why you are great at what you do. The goal is to make sure that people you meet and talk to who do not know you will understand who you are and what you stand for. You want to make a connection with them. Once your story is created, practice it in front of the mirror or with someone you trust, until you know it by heart and have it prepared whenever someone asks you, ‘So, tell me about yourself.’

It’s not a one-sided conversation.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.”

African Proverb

Connecting to Others Through Storytelling

You also need to listen to other people’s stories and be interested in what they say.

Awareness

Make a conscious effort to be a listener; realise the other person’s need to communicate something to you.

Attention

This must be 100%. Make sure you are focussed on them and what they are saying, and that your body language reflects the amount of attention you are giving them.

Understanding

Don’t be afraid to ask questions if they say something you don’t understand. Be curious and you will find out more.

Remembering

This is the biggest compliment you can pay someone: you remember what they said to you, and next time you meet, you can refer to the conversation, showing you were fully engaged and what they were saying was important to you.

Paraphrasing

An effective way to show that we’ve listened is by paraphrasing. This means reflecting on what was said and repeating it back to the person by talking about what you’ve heard, but in your own words.

Resilience

The Maasai are at one with nature. Our guide, Sam, took us on safari to the Maasai-Mara, and we were amazed at the amount of wildlife we saw in just one afternoon roaming across the floor of the Great Rift Valley. Outside the school compound zebras and antelopes were running free, and Sam taught us many things about the animals and birds that we came across, as well as the healing powers of many of the trees and shrubs growing in the bush.

Today’s Maasai have learned to live in harmony with the wild. They never take nature for granted. It can be dangerous, it can give, but it also can take, so they treat it with respect.

They have a natural-born resilience to crises and adversity. Most people know the song from the Disney film The Lion King. ‘Hakuna’ translated from Swahili means ‘there is not here’ and ‘matata’ means ‘problems’ – ‘There are no problems here’, which sums up the overview I shared after our session on how to improve your resilience:

  • Keep things in perspective
  • Develop a positive view of yourself
  • Be your own best friend
  • Be grateful
  • Do what makes you feel good
  • Take action to achieve your goals
  • When the sky falls, your degree of resilience will determine how you deal with it
  • Create a positive mindset

It’s important to know your worth. Just because disaster has struck, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, so be kind to yourself.

Start a resilience journal. Every day, note down your successes, your strengths, all the compliments you receive, your positive emotions, the names of the people who give you energy and everything that you are grateful for. This is a wonderful reference tool for you to consult whenever you feel that things are going wrong.

Assistants often feel they have to please others, so remember to ‘put on your own oxygen mask first before helping others.’

A goal without action is just a dream, so make your plan – and yes, it may change. That’s when you use your resilience to find another way forward, or even take a completely different path.

Gratitude

Learning never stops. I wonder who learned the most in those two weeks, the students or me? During my stay, I was happy to share life lessons with the students on personal accountability, authenticity and communication, which they will put to good use when their schooling is completed. The biggest lesson I came away with was gratitude. We had to adjust ourselves to our new circumstances. The lights went off when it rained, there were strange rustlings and scratchings in the ceiling at night. The water was sometimes cold or didn’t flow at all, the lightbulb on the beamer failed just before the exams, the food was different. But the smiles on the faces of the Maasai students were huge and the support from the school staff was unwavering. I promised myself that on returning home to the Netherlands, I would never complain about anything again.

When compared to our life of ease and privilege in the developed world, the Maasai people have so little, and are beyond grateful for what they do have. They also freely expressed their gratitude to us on a daily basis for making the long journey simply to share our knowledge with them and for the modest school supplies we brought with us.

So, when you next turn on the tap and clean, hot water comes out, or you flick a switch in the kitchen and there’s power, take a moment to be grateful for this simple act, which is a luxury for millions of people around the world. It simply puts things into perspective.

“I cried because I had no shoes; then I met a man who had no feet.”

Mahatma Gandhi

The students proudly received certificates after completing the two exams that we set, and the graduation ceremony was as colourful and musical as our wonderful welcome.

If you’d like to know more about the Maasai Education Centre, visit the website of The Style Foundation.

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Helen Monument inspires and encourages Assistants to be the best they can be by sharing 30 years of experience as a management support professional. Her career has taken her from Secretary to Office Manager and Business Support Team Leader, so she ... (Read More)

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