One of my life goals was to volunteer in Africa but I was never quite sure if my career path could ever take me there. What use would I be in an NGO in Africa? Surely African NGOs needed doctors, nurses, teachers, humanitarian workers and engineers – not suited business people like me.
How wrong I was.
I knew nothing about volunteering in developing countries so I did some online research and found a UK-based charity called Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO). Through my screechy dial-up modem, the webpage filled line by line with a list of vacancies:
- Thailand: Project Manager needed for a university.
- Cameroon: Fundraising Adviser needed for an HIV charity.
- Ghana: Market Researcher needed for a pineapple producer.
- India: Marketing Communications Adviser needed for an orphanage.
And there, staring at that screen, I had my ‘a-ha’ moment; the skills gap wasn’t all about teachers, doctors and humanitarian workers; over 30% of the skills that were being requested from partner organisations in developing countries were business and management.
I applied online that day in the summer of 2007 and so began a rigorous selection process starting with an Assessment Day in the VSO HQ, with the entry of an elderly gentleman with glasses and white hair.
“Your first team task is to make as many of these as you can in 15 minutes.” He held up an A5 booklet cut from newspaper pages, stapled in the corner. “Each booklet will be scrutinised by the assessors for likeness to the original.”
As we worked with rulers, pencils and staplers; the observers lining the room took frantic notes, their faces peering over their clipboards. They noted our interactions with the team; shortcomings and strengths; who was a collaborator, who was a ‘railroader’; the affable, the abrasive; the personable, the belligerent; the grumpy ones, the ones who encouraged others; the ones who knew it all, or included others in their thinking. Each observation provided a hint to our true characters, each jotting a clue to our emotional intelligence – skills that would be vital in an overseas assignment.
Many of our booklets got rejected because, although the dimensions of the pages were correct, the staple wasn’t in the required diagonal in the corner. But in the final analysis, all of that didn’t matter; it wasn’t an assessment to find out who was best in newspaper booklet production. Africa doesn’t need stapled A5 booklets of newspaper.
Several group exercises were followed by a series of one-to-one interviews where I was asked about my work experience, skills and motivations for wanting a volunteering placement.
In those days, each placement was financed entirely by VSO, everything from airfares, lodgings, training and the salary of $5 a day, so they needed to diligently ensure the successful candidates would have the correct mindset to be able to complete a whole placement. The interviews therefore were more probing than an average job interview. I was asked, how much I drank, give an example of when I felt in a minority, when was my last relationship break-up and if I had ever had unprotected sex.
I passed the assessments, got my criminal records clearance and then embarked on the next stage in the autumn: two away-weekends of skills training which included capacity building, learning how to facilitate group exercises, collaborating techniques and health and safety. Other volunteers seemed to have their placements already lined up, in Mongolia, Bangladesh and other places but mine remained a big question mark.
On the final day, once the training was complete, it was time for a spot of congratulations and merrymaking.; this part proved slightly awkward for me.
We were each made to go down a ‘Guard of Honour’ comprising of two lines of our fellow volunteers, whilst dancing freestyle to some music. The very thought of this made my skin crawl and even now as I tap these keys, still does. What dance could I do? Others were happily in their element. One man went head-banging his way down the tunnel to resounding claps, another did some booty-shaking devoid of inhibitions or, it seemed, a spine; one did a finger-pointing John Travolta special. They were loving it. Soon it would be my turn to dance down the ‘Guard of Honour’ or in my case the ‘Tunnel of Butt Clenchingly Embarrassing Shame’.
Once as a teenager, I was able to do a basic Michael Jackson moonwalk. I could try this, I thought. It might still be in my feet. It’s like riding a bike, you never really forget, right?
Wrong. It could have been age, lack of practice over two decades, or, I like to think, it was the synthetic carpet that rubbed on my heels and consigned my effort to a juddering fumbling failure. It was a moonwalk of sorts, but less like Michael Jackson, and more like Neil Armstrong.
It didn’t matter though, the claps resounded, our training was complete, we were by then people who work together supportively and adopt a positive mental attitude. Hell I could freestyle dance. Bring it on. I was ready.
(Side note: you never know when your skills might get used one day, dance moves included. One of the attendees, Beth Green, who later became a friend, told me this excruciating dance exercise was ultimately useful. Her VSO placement had sent her to Bangladesh and at a function of hundreds of people, she gave a speech on gender equality in the U.K. After the speech the compère suddenly announced on the mic, “And now Beth will do a British dance for us.” This wasn’t on the script, and neither does Beth purport to be a proponent of any dance forms. What is a British dance? Morris dancing she thought? Thinking on her feet, and then using them, she gave a swift demo of the Gay Gordon to rapturous applause.)
Once my training was complete I settled back in to my day job, a contract in a private company and hoped it would end at the same time as a VSO placement became available.
In December a vacancy arose for a funding role for an HIV AIDS charity in Nairobi. I accepted it, I started to pack, I got the jabs from my doctor, the mosquito spray from Boots and the Swahili dictionary from Borders. I already had wild imaginings of travelling the expansive plains of the Masai Mara teeming with zebra and wildebeest, drinking cattle blood with the Masai warriors and swimming in the coral reefs in the glittering turquoise waters off Mombasa. This serialised blog would have been about Kenya, not Rwanda, and very different had that vacancy come to fruition.
Kenya wasn’t to be. Just weeks before my departure, Kenya’s election flared up in violence leaving over a 1,000 people dead; VSO corralled all their volunteers in to a safe-house in Nairobi. I followed the news intently; negotiations on power-sharing ensued; VSO, anticipating further violence, evacuated all their volunteers in Kenya back to safety in the UK.
With my contract in London coming to an end, my plans were well and truly scuppered. A period of unemployment loomed; my excitement and months of preparation fizzled out to disappointment; Kenya became a faded dream and I became jadedly philosophical – I was wrong to feel sorry for myself for there were a thousand grieving mothers in Kenya.
When it all seemed lost, the Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali saw my availability on the VSO database and, after consulting VSO, offered me the role in Kigali as Public Relations and Marketing Advisor.
I was over the moon; I knew very little about Rwanda except for the genocide, the gorillas and that it was a landlocked country so tiny that its name on an atlas spills over its borders in to DR Congo and Tanzania. So that was it; things rarely turn out as planned, especially in Africa, and my arrival in Rwanda was a lesson in serendipity itself.
Soon I was on the flight to Kigali. I’m glad to have got there via a large organisation like VSO. It provided me with a structure and a support network; they helped me settle in; they found me a house with a security guard called Peter; they set me up a bank account and a SIM card; they provided me with in-country training on how to settle in to Rwandan life, use basic phrases in Kinyarwanda, and understand the local culture and sensitivities. Being sensitive to local culture is especially important in Rwanda; many people had lost relatives in the genocide of 1994 and it was important to be sensitive to that, always. They even took us shopping to a shop called T2000 in the centre of Kigali, its shelves stacked with every Chinese manufactured item you can imagine, saucepans, screwdrivers, clothes, little plastic Buddhas, cotton buds with smiling faces of Chinese babies on them.
VSO uses participation as a touchstone between partner NGOs and itself; it avoids the “we are from the developed nations and we know best” attitude and approaches its work in a non-judgmental way when it comes to north-south relations. It focuses on sustainability, not unending help, and sharing not helping. I gained as much as I gave from my time in Rwanda. I never dreamed my skills and background could bring me to work in this beautiful continent.
Within a few days of starting work at the Genocide Memorial Centre, I drafted up a work-plan for my manager, Freddy Mutunguha. I had many things to deliver in my 6 months: an online payment engine for the website; extending the press network; fundraising via corporations; training and mentoring; setting up a database with emailing capability; other miscellaneous duties.
“Oh and there is one more thing,” he said. He took me to a storage room at the back of the site, opened up a huge cardboard box and we peered inside.
“Some old phones?”
“No, these are audio guides.”
“You need me to set this up?”
He nodded. “You’ve worked at the British Museum, we could use your skills in finalising the script, recording the voice, training us and setting it all up.”
It was time to get down to work.
A full table of contents for ‘Letters from the Heart of Africa’ can be found here