For a total of six years, my wife and I lived and worked in Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bosnia may be a small and somewhat remote country, but the capital is fairly cosmopolitan, with a high number of foreign residents, foreign firms, and plenty of options for entertainment and hospitality. As remote locations go, it is fairly accommodating to foreigners.
In 2015, we moved from the center of Sarajevo to the smaller southern city of Mostar. Mostar is many things, but it is much smaller than Sarajevo, and for us it was our first experience not living in a capital city. Thus began our introduction to small-town life, in Herzegovina, almost 2 years ago. This post will explore some of the peculiarities of carrying out our job in a small town, and how it is different from our experiences in past locations.
Some demographic details about Mostar
According to the 2013 census, Mostar has a population of 105.797, with a majority self-identifying as Catholic, a large minority as Bosnian Muslims, and a very small percentage (>5%) identifying as Serb Orthodox. The number of Protestant Christians is very small, possibly around 100 adults, split between 2 evangelical churches in the city.
Compared to metro Sarajevo’s half-million-plus residents, Mostar can seem quite small to a foreigner. Knowledge of the local language was a luxury in Sarajevo; here, it is a daily necessity. Neighborhoods are smaller and more exclusive; most people do not often encounter foreigners — especially ones living in the city permanently.
Small towns offer a completely new environment for charity work
One of the most obvious differences we have encountered, compared to our experiences in the capital, is the interconnectedness of the entire place. The woman working on your application for a work permit may be the wife of the head postman, and the sister-in-law of the owner of the corner bakery. She may also be the college roommate of the dean of students at the university where you spend your time. In other words, while it is true that everyone is connected in some way, these connections are much easier to see in a smaller town like the one where we live.
The importance of a good reputation.
In the midst of such connections, reputation is incredibly important, and it is imperative that new groups spend considerable time building a good reputation immediately upon arrival. While people in the big city will not remember what you did last year, your undertakings in a small town can follow you indefinitely.
Two years and a ton of sweat and tears.
Some things take longer in a small town, and — if you are to be successful — you must accept that fact. In the end, when a good reputation has been built, and a community has been developed, it will hopefully be stronger because of the good will you have built, which would not have been possible in a large city.
What are we doing to build a reputation?
Big events. Our group has taken to organizing one large event each semester that will benefit students academically and professionally. We have organized “EQ Seminar” twice in 2016, and each time it was attended by over 100 students — making it one of the largest extracurricular events of its type in the city.
Small educational programs. We teach English in small groups, focusing on conversational proficiency — a skill that is sought after in a city like ours. We hope that serving in this way will contribute to our reputation as people who add value to the community.
A small town emphasizes the pre-existing connections between its members, making a good reputation more important. We hope to learn and grow in our new environment, and contribute to the progress and enrichment of the community. Doing so, we believe, will be the most effective way to make an lasting impact.
Do you live in a small town? What are the differences that you have noticed between small towns and bit cities? Leave your answers in the comments below.