The art of doing nothing

When we were first planning to move into a slum, the OG’s who advised us on how to get started kept repeating the same refrain.

“Don’t do anything.”

For the first year or two, don’t do anything at all.

Don’t start a business. Don’t start a school. Don’t start a service. Don’t start a project.

Don’t do anything.

Just be there. And learn.

In a way it was culturally difficult. Especially being “the man” in the family, it was hard to explain to people why I was just hanging out, without a job or anything like that. It wasn’t easy to explain that even to people in my own culture. But we soon learned that it was absolutely necessary.

We didn’t know the language. We didn’t know the culture. We didn’t know how to take care of ourselves in a slum. We didn’t know how to wash our dishes, our clothes, ourselves. We didn’t know what people did with their time and why they did it. We didn’t know what people’s needs were. We didn’t know why they did the things that seemed strange to us. We didn’t know what their hopes were either.

Most importantly, we didn’t have any relationships. We didn’t actually know anyone. And we were told, over and over, that it was very dangerous to start a service, a project, a ministry, whatever if you didn’t know the people yet.

So that’s what we did. Or, I guess, what we didn’t. For the first two years we lived in slums, split between two cities and five different homes, we didn’t “start up” anything.

We found out, though, that there are a LOT of things you can do when you’re not doing anything.

You can hang outside the wall of your room while the trains go bya

Learn to wash clothes in a bucketb

Get assaulted by strangers on a holidayn

Attend an NGO’s class in a neighborhood homef

Get invited over for dinnerh

Set up your kitchenRose in our kitchen

Work with a neighbor on your language skillsg

Hold babiescc

Go to a birthday partys

Help your host family with cut threads off new jeansc

Hang out with guys visiting for a festivalJon with random guys he doesn't know outside of the festival

Break your kneecap carrying buckets of water back from the welll

Watch neighbors gather after a man passing through was hit by the traini

Hang out with the family that makes purses in their homed

Go to a weddingt

Get sick enough to lie in a kiddie pool in Januarypp

Learn to wear a sario

Be a place for the neighbor family’s overflowq

Hang out in a tree at the local tourist attractionk

Learn to sew on a manual machinep

Entertain small children in your roomj

Go with an NGO on its visits to a slum projectr

Watch Scientologists do their thingv


And a thousand other little events that make up life. It’s amazing how much you see and learn when you stop trying to “do something” with all your time and sit in a new place for a while.

2 thoughts on “The art of doing nothing

  1. Karen Vallaire

    Building relationships – so important! A very wise decision.

    Entertaining small children in your doorway – one of my favorite daily occurrences on our visit.

    Were you in a cool pool, bringing down a fever?

    Liked by 1 person

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