Thursday, November 6, 2014

Tortillas and Treatments

 By: Kelsey Sumner

            Tortillas. Whenever Nicaragua is mentioned, these are what I think about. This past summer, I spent two months in Siuna, Nicaragua working in a domestic violence shelter. This October, I had the opportunity to return, working as a medical volunteer with VIDA in Masaya. Throughout both of these trips, I was exposed to a variety of different cultural practices, one of which being the art of making tortillas. Now to me, tortillas signify the importance of cultural sensitivity when working with communities.
            Cultural sensitivity is a vital part of global health interventions. Cultural sensitivity is defined as "a set of skills that enables you to learn about and get to know people who are different from you, thereby coming to understand how to serve them better within their own communities" (NACHC Community HealthCorps 2008). In order to ethically work with and serve cultures different than your own, you need to embody this definition. You need to be aware of how others' world views might differ from your own. This is especially important in research, business, and even medicine. In research, before any project is implemented it needs to be adapted to the culture in which it will be conducted to ensure that no participants will be harmed or misled throughout the study. In international business, cultural sensitivity can help corporations cater to their consumer populations. Cultural sensitivity can also affect physician-patient relations in medicine. Because of different cultural perceptions, people can have varying perspectives about illnesses and how to treat them. This can be problematic when trying to treat someone if she believes her illness is caused by something outside of the realm of biomedicine. 
            Tortillas are a way I have become culturally sensitive of the Nicaraguan community and customs. One day this past summer, women in the domestic violence shelter taught me how to make corn tortillas by hand. I had been working in the shelter for a few weeks, but it wasn't really until after this day that I started to really bond with the women as they appreciated that I was trying to learn more about their culture. Working this past week as a medical volunteer with VIDA, I had a similar experience. For every patient we saw, we asked what was his or her occupation. Usually, patients replied that they worked in a store or agriculture but one woman gave a different answer: "I make tortillas." When she said this, the other two students working with me chuckled a little, confused by her answer. One said, "She works in a store then, right?" Because of my previous experience in Nicaragua, I knew that this was a very valid profession. I explained the situation to the two other students and we moved on with the appointment. Later when seeing another patient, the woman returned and handed us six freshly made corn tortillas, thanking us for the medical help. It was such a nice gesture and the tortillas were delicious; however, I wondered how the situation could have been if the two other students hadn't stifled their chuckles or if the woman had understood their question. Would we have lost her trust? Would the patient have accepted our proposed treatment?
            As our experience portrayed, cultural sensitivity is essential when working internationally. If we had not been culturally sensitive when treating the tortilla maker, she could have been offended and disregarded our medical advice. Thus, cultural sensitivity is not only important for upholding ethical work, but effectively helping others. 

Works Cited:
NACHC Community HealthCorps. 2008. Prescription for success: Community HealthCorps member training.

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