The Importance of Cultural Context in Doing Service

By: Melody Van De Graaff

In the week that I’ve been back, many have asked for one experience that captures the essence of the trip. No matter how hard I try, I cannot find one experience. However, there are a collection of experiences that stuck with me and shaped a lot of my thoughts on service and social work.

Westminster Students at the Mechai Pattana School

In the first week of the trip, we learned a lot about Mechai Viravaidya and his work in family planning, the AIDS epidemic in Thailand, and rural and community development. We visited some of his for profit ventures (restaurants and resorts) and saw how they benefits his non-profit ventures, such as The Pattana School and villages that his program has benefitted.

Students posing in front of a Cabbages and Condoms resort.
Students posing in front of a Cabbages and Condoms resort.

What impressed me most was how much Mechai accomplished for Thailand. Work in any one of these categories would be seen as admirable and quite the accomplishment. But he made great strides in all four areas and he did it well. Thailand is a socially conservative country and generally talking about things like family planning and AIDS would be seen as taboo. However, Mechai knew Thai culture and he worked within its limits to promote family planning by making condoms funny and making it socially acceptable to pass them out and talk about them.

Our group, to a much smaller degree, tried to be like Mechai and got to know the culture we were serving before we did anything to reach out and help them. We strived to understand how their culture worked and how they saw the world before we  tried to give them anything.

From learning about Mechai and seeing how our group applied similar principles, I have learned that in order to do meaningful service or social work, one must know the people they are serving first. One must know the limits, the taboos, the joys and the issues present in a culture or a community before they can truly know what that culture needs and what will best help that culture address that need.

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