Posted by: mhirdyounger | June 4, 2012

A Lesson from my Dad

If you always think of yourself as the expert that knows everything, you will never learn anything.

A few summers ago I went on a trip with my Dad to visit our Pennsylvania relatives and my Dad’s home town of Mount Top. We stopped through New York to see one of my aunts and (of course) fit in a few visits to Hindu temples while we were in the area. So there we were, Dad and I, searching for a Mariyamman temple that Dad found online in Flushing, New York. We were in an old residential neighbourhood, tiny roads crammed with small houses and small shops, a lot of which have boarded up windows.   While we were searching, Dad was telling me stories of my grandfather who grew up here, starting to work at the age of 11 to support his family after his father died. Never having met this grandfather myself, I’m always interested in my older brothers’ and cousins’ stories of him.  I add this one to the bank of stories of my Dad’s parents, alongside the stories of Dad watching my grandmother’s father and brother coming out of Pennsylvania’s coal mines soot-covered everyday.

Finally, we find the street we’re looking for and the house number. Nothing really distinguishes this house, except for a 20-something guy with cornrows and an intense look about him who opens the gate and goes inside.  We follow him and knock on the gate. He opens and my dad asks if this is a temple. It is, and we’re led inside to wait at the side door of what looks to be a family home. A middle-aged woman comes out and introduces herself. My Dad introduces himself as Paul and says he is interested in visiting the temple. She leads us to the garage, which we find out has been fashioned into the temple, the walls lined with dieties. The young guy from before (apparently the women’s son) follows us inside.

Did I mention that I found this whole experience a little awkward? I mean, by this point, I was used to following my Dad into temples and walking around as he talked to the priest. But this, we were in some residential Carribean neighbourhood, an old white guy and a young white girl showing up, coming into these people’s home, just curious about a temple? What did they think of us?  Shouldn’t we explain ourselves? There seemed to be no context to what we were doing.

Anyways, the woman gives us a tour of the temple, explaining each diety. Ever the scholar, Dad asks her questions about how she has arranged them, why this certain order (I find out later that Dad was especially curious because the order was of a Guyanese style, but this woman had learned the workshop style in Trinidad).  The woman tells us her story, where she comes from and where she learned her style of worship. After awhile she sent the young guy for something. He comes back with a young Ghanaian girl who then performs a song for us. We don’t stay too long after. The older woman gives us a small elephant statue as we leave.

When we got into the car I railed at Dad, why didn’t you tell them who you were? Why didn’t you tell them that you’re a professor? Taught Hinduism for decades? Travelled the world studying it? Even been to Trinidad to study it? That was so awkward, they had no idea who we were, why we were there and what we wanted.

Dad responded with one sentence that floored me, and has continued to floor me ever since.

“If she thought I knew everything, then she wouldn’t have explained anything.”

He was right. Why had she faced the dieties in certain directions? Put them in that order? Why did she practice the way she did? Why did she establish herself here? Where had she learned what she worshipped? My Dad could have provided answers to most of these questions and guessed at the answers to others, but what would have been the point of my Dad coming all the way to Flushing New York to tell her about her own temple and her own story?

Providing the space for her to tell her story and answer those questions herself gave my Dad an opportunity to learn something new from her, learn from her own personal story. He learned about how a woman from Trinidad learned a Guyanese style of worshipping that comes from South India, why she had taught a Ghanaian woman to play for her, who came to worship at the temple, why she was in Flushing New York. Now this woman had quite a story, and by listening to it rather than telling it himself, my Dad learned a lot from that visit.

My Dad has taught me many lessons over the years (as I’m sure my brothers will testify to as well!), this one in particular has always stood out. That thinking you are the expert and telling others that you are the expert will not actually help you to develop a relationship in which you have as much to learn from others as to offer them. Yes, this may be difficult sometimes and even awkward, but in the end it builds stronger relationships and more openness to learn and try new things.

This is something I try to apply in my own work and life here in Ghana. If I think that I have all the answers of agricultural development or development more generally and that my role here is simply to impart that expertise, well, then I’m really missing out. Richness and depth in my work, knowledge and impact comes from working with my partners and learning from their own expertise, asking questions rather than telling the answers.

Working in development, and any field for that matter, is not simply a process of imparting your own knowledge and expertise, but a partnership, working together for change and learning from each other along the way.


  1. A lovely lesson for us all in all our interactions! Thanks

  2. That is a key life lesson, Mir! And something too many development workers have taken too many years to find out.

    Great to catch up on all your news!! Love from us all in CT — Joc xo

  3. An important message, and great delivery. Especially the awkwardness…

  4. Beautiful post Mir, and great tribute to your Dad!

  5. Beautifully written, love. And it’s got me thinking about how to apply this to my work now…

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