An interview with...
Nicole gives a frank and honest insight into her volunteer assignment assisting Microloan Foundation in Malawi.
What motivated you to volunteer?
I wish I could say something really profound here but the truth is I volunteered to feel better about myself. I volunteered more to make a difference to me than to the ones I could help. Over the last couple of years I had begun to feel restless, un-satisfied with things in my life.
I had a decent job, great friends and absolutely nothing to worry about. Yet every day I found it harder and harder to move my ass from that bed and go to work. At first I thought it was the job, that I needed a new challenge, so I decided to quit and do something new, but that wasn't it at all. Not even a new job gave me a sense of self. I really felt that I was drowning in my lassitude.
While reading a magazine one day I came across an article on volunteering and succeeding while doing it. I found myself becoming more and more taken with the idea until i was convinced that volunteering was the way forward. I chose Africa because one of my very best friends lived in South Africa and I thought it would be easy to use her home as a base. I actually surprised myself with the volunteering thing. It took nothing out of me to do it, volunteering was to take me away from my comfort zone, was to test my limits (or so I thought of it) so the answer to part b of the question is no, I am not normally that type of person who does this sort of thing.
Did you have any doubts about your ability to add real value to MLF?
I had serious doubts about the whole thing, including doubts over my own ability to fulfil the tasks that would be required of me. I was also afraid I was volunteering for all the wrong reasons; I desperately wanted to feel like I was volunteering so that I could be part of the force that was the heroes of the world. You know the kind of person who volunteers to make a difference to people and to the world. I wanted to feel as if I had just planted 1000 trees in the South American Rain forest. I was worried that I did not have the mind-set capable of truly being selfless - the mark of a real volunteer.
However, I also did not want to be part of that growing number of people, some of whom I have met on my travels, that just volunteer so they can tick a box on their "Bucket List" or because everyone was doing it. I also stressed about the job I was to do. Can I actually do it, do I have the skills. The role I took on was extremely technical in nature. It was what I deemed to be an Accountants' dream job.. Setting up and inputting systems and testing them. I am an analyst by profession and nature so moving back into the other role made me extremely nervous. The last thing I wanted to happen was to go off volunteering and botch up MLF, leaving them worse off than when I started. I would have probably needed therapy if that had happened and probably become the poster child of how not to volunteer!
Were your friends and family surprised by your decision to volunteer?
Well I will have to compartmentalise my friends and family: there are my UK F&F and then there are my West Indian F&F. The UK set were great about it, very encouraging, positive and well wishing. I put this down to all of them understanding what volunteering was all about. My West Indian F&F are still confused about why I would feel the need to quit my job and run down to Africa to volunteer.
My father in particular was not pleased. I should be getting married and having a family not running off to the deepest darkest part of Africa to do god alone knows what!! As if the two things were interchangeable!! My mother as well was worried but she was more or less happy with whatever I chose to do. My friends just thought I was being eccentric.
As a female travelling on her own, were you nervous about going to a remote part of Africa? Can you offer any advice to others wishing to follow your lead?
Yes, I was nervous, very nervous in fact. You hear a lot of negative stories about the treatment of women in Africa but unfortunately Africa is just one of those places that you just have breathe deeply and say a little prayer. I have met a few other women (single) while travelling who have some stories to tell that will make you raise your eyebrows. Nothing bad happened to them, but they did have some negative experiences. I had not heard a lot of things about Namibia and Google was unfortunately very limited.
It’s a beautiful countryside and I would recommend Namibia to anyone who wishes to see Africa at its finest (in terms of landscape). However, as a single female, my advice to you is be careful of the places that you visit. The Lonely Planet guide to Africa on female travellers tells it exactly as it is. Be aware, be careful and try to limit the places you go alone in the dark. My best advice also is to make friends with other locals. They are usually very friendly and are honest about where they think is a good place for you to go alone. You could learn a lot from them.
You established contact with the Micro Loan Foundation before you embarked on your journey. Did this make you feel more at ease about your role as a volunteer?
To a certain extent, meeting the staff at MLF London was a huge help to me. But the fears I had about volunteering were all my own machinations and really no one could assuage me from my own. We are our own worst enemy after all.
You bought a mountain bike in the local town – I bet that raised a few eyebrows? Do many people cycle in Namibia?
The Mountain bike was a bit of a laugh. People did cycle around Ongwediva and Oshakati but no female did. I raised a lot of eyebrows!! So much so I think in the area people there knew me for my bicycle. As there were a few days I walked and most people were inquiring if I had a flat tyre.
Funny thing though, the shop I chose to use to fix the little things in the bike (I had no tool box) were run by two young women who did not cycle themselves but fixed the bikes??? For that they had no explanation!!
You mentioned in your blog an entertaining incident with a fruit bowl. Was it easy to adapt to some of the local customs?
I am not convinced that I really got introduced to all their customs. I would hello and thank you in the local language but I don't think I was there long enough to really see the true culture of the area.
Many volunteers are keen to support micro finance projects - do you need to have a previous experience in micro credit or banking?
The only thing that sticks out in my mind was a university course I did on Economic Sustainability of small nations. It was predominantly focussed on enriching the communities through positive charity - i.e. assisting them to self-sustain via cottage industries. i.e. the village will for instance grow and harvest pineapples. The money would be pumped back into the community. This course really stuck with me and it was the main reason I was adamant on my choice of charity.
MLF have only just started their operation in Namibia. As the first volunteer in Namibia do you think that this project will be as successful as their Malawian project?
As the first volunteer I must say I did feel like a giggly guinea pig. I did realise that my experience would be used as a test case for others. I honestly believe that with time and the right people MLF Namibia will grow to be even better than Malawi. Better because it can learn from the Malawi experience and also because infrastructure in Namibia I have heard is far better.
What was it like to meet the women that receive MLF’s loans? How are they using these loans – is it making a difference?
It was fantastic to meet these women. I could not help to admire them. Here are these women who do not have much in terms of material wealth but what they did have was a vault full of courage and determination. I tried to imagine myself in their circumstances and wondered if I could have the courage to go beyond the norm and try to better myself, and I could not come up with that image. I imaged myself conforming to my society. Loans were used for a variety of reasons, some sold mahangu, some were tailors, some sold clothes and some even sold mobile top -ups.
Why do you think qualified accountants like yourself can make such a difference?
When you think of ways in which volunteers can help you always imagine people digging ditches, building homes, playing with children. But we forget that behind these tasks are organisations that need help with the mundane stuff. Every one touts the phrase ‘a well-oiled machine’ as a euphemism for a successful organisation and ‘an organisation is only as good as its staff’. Most of these areas lack suitable qualified staff with the skills to run successfully. The skills set of an accountant is just as crucial to make a difference as the person who is there to grab a shovel. Just like there is Doctors without Borders there should be Accountants for International Development. With accountants willing to give of their time and skills to ensure that the organisation has the procedures and systems in place to guarantee success.
Now that you’ve had time to reflect, what would you say you learnt from volunteering?
I have learnt that charity comes in all forms and that it’s easy to sit on your couch and throw money at problems, but the real charity comes from participation. It's believing not only in yourself but in the cause & charity you have chosen. Its seeing the good and the bad, experiencing dismay and at the end of the day, week month, finding a joy. I learnt that after all was said and done I wished I stayed on for longer. I feel that there is so much more that I could do, so much more I wanted to do. I always thought at the end of it I would be gagging to leave and get to "civilisation" but the real reason I wanted civilisation was to get some wine, Italian food or a good curry!!
Do you think the experience changed you in any way?
Yes, it has changed me; it’s calmed me, not in a soothing manner, but in an educational sort of way. I have seen another side of the world, a side where opportunities are not everywhere; choices are limited but the people and their spirit strong. It has taught me to put a greater value on family and community and, for heaven’s sake, not to sweat the small stuff. And to top it all off I never thought I would say this but... I feel like I could do it all again.
What advice would you give volunteers heading out to the field shortly?
To be open minded. Get rid of all your preconceived notions and idealistic thinking. Be realistic and honest with yourself. Give 100% and even when it’s dark and lonely don't give up. Tomorrow is another day and yes it does get better. Show and have respect to those around you. Don't expect special treatment and remember to lose the phrase "back home we did things like". This is not back home!! Be creative in the things you find yourself doing, complaining will not truly make it better and most of all try and most of all it’s a new experience, enjoy it!!!
For more information about the work of The MicroLoan Foundation in Namibia & Malawi please visit http://www.afid.org.uk/partners/microloan-foundation-namibia