Having completed two AfID assignments, Spencer & Manda are very familiar with the prospect of living and working together in an overseas environment. Their assignments in S.Africa and, more recently, Uganda (until March 2015) have provided them with some great experiences.
In South Africa, they worked at Whizz Kids, a charity providing disabled children with the essential wheelchairs and other mobility equipment they need to lead fun and active childhoods. Currently they are based in Uganda at WaterAid, an international charity that transforms lives by improving access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation. On both of these assignments, Spencer utilised his finance and accounting knowledge to assist the charities’ finance function, whereas Manda, a non-accountant, offered her skills as a qualified teacher and budding photographer to the organisations.
It is always different travelling with a companion… and volunteering is no different. Living and working with someone, no matter how close you are to them, can change the dimensions of an assignment entirely. This, along with other concerns and worries, is a consideration which many couples take into account before volunteering together. However, two time pro bono professionals, Spencer and Manda, shed some light on living in such close quarters.
We caught up with Spencer and Manda to find out what their volunteer assignments were like for them as a couple and whether they would recommend it to others…
Are you normally the type of people that do this sort of thing, what inspired you?
We are lucky enough to be well travelled. We have also done some voluntary work in the UK and Manda worked for a charity. To be honest after retiring from work 6 years ago I was bored and needed a challenge again. Manda was at the point where she was not getting on with her new boss and jumped at the chance to come with me to see more of the world but also do a little bit of good. As she worked all the hours I was pleasantly surprised
Which one of you suggested to volunteer together? Did the other one take some convincing?
It was me [Spencer] and as above I was amazed Manda agreed so easily.
Were there any major concerns, including concerns about necessary skills?
The biggest concern was could we work together in the same business. We are the best of friends - 30+ years of happy marriage testify to this - but working and living together we thought could be an issue. Luckily it wasn't. I worked in a different room to Manda and just moaned at her for not getting paperwork right!!! Work wise we had no concerns, as from an accountancy point of view at the end of the day a charity is not really that different to other businesses and if you understand debits and credits how far wrong can you go? Manda is also very experienced - managing teaching and learning in a charity in the East End of London
What were your roles within the org(s), did your day’s work differ from a workday at home?
In South Africa I was the accountant with no staff. I did everything from petty cash to cashflows and funding reports. My job was to sort out a big mess, install a new accounting system and then appoint a local accountant to take it on. I had never done such a job before as I always worked in the Profession and dealt with clients, audits and as a forensic accountant.
Manda ended up organising a new database and also running a photography course for teenagers funded by FIFA and Sony. She is a qualified teacher and loves paperwork so although not the same as the UK she easily adapted to both. She was always busy
In Uganda, where we are now, I was brought in to be Interim Head of Finance. The HOF was very ill but thankfully has recovered and just fully resumed her role. From being hectically busy with two staff I am now just supporting where required. Where we are now has a very sophisticated accounting system and reporting requirements, a world away from SA and being a one man band.
Unfortunately Manda has been underutilised and really needs more work. This is a danger in that the non-accountant may not get an exact fit and find themselves inactive and bored. This needs to be carefully researched before committing yourselves.
When you weren’t working, what were your favourite moments of the trip?
Probably too many to mention. SA and specifically Kwa Zulu Natal is a wonderful place to explore. We did ‘umpteen’ safaris seeing countless animals and as amateur birders saw astonishingly in excess of 300 different types of birds. In Uganda we have just spent a day (8 hours) with habituated Chimpanzees following them through the forest which was brilliant. In March we hope to see the Gorillas. You have to grab the chance to see everything you can so when choosing a place to go you have to consider what you can do outside of work
How did you adapt to local life? (Do you have any funny stories about your trip?)
Pick any number of stories from our blogs spencermandauganda.blogspot.com and spencermandawhizzkids.blogspot.com
How do you feel you’ve developed in a personal or professional capacity as a result?
I have become much more aware of the operation of NGOs and the interaction between them, their funders and their partners. I have also learned to use different accounting systems.
How did it compare to holidays you’ve shared together in the past?
Our two trips have definitely not been holidays. We have worked hard but we have had the chance to have the most wonderful experiences. As mentioned above we had numerous safaris in KZN and had a great road trip from Durban to Cape Town and back - over 4,000 Kilometres. In Uganda we have been chimpanzee tracking and hope to see the Gorillas in March
What were the advantages of volunteering with a friend or partner?
Having someone to share amazing life experiences with and when there were work issues having someone to moan at!!!
How do you feel your work made a difference to the organisation in the long-term?
In South Africa I was sorting out a mess, setting up a solid financial system and recruiting a local person to do the job who is very able. In Uganda it was more about keeping the ship afloat as an interim role rather than move it forward although I did get the monthly RAG report from Red to Green!!!
Manda successfully ran the photography course and set up the database and populated it accurately. She also helped with the management structure.
Do you have any tips to give other couples thinking of volunteering together?
TIPS - Some of these may seem obvious but...
You need to be a strong team. You will see a lot of each other. It is a major advantage though when each of you needs to blow off steam about work issues.
Do not necessarily expect to become close friends with your colleagues at work. You will need to build your own social life. Inter Nations is very good to meet people.
Think about the Country you are going to and language spoken. In SA we had issues in that most of the team spoke Zulu a lot of the time so you could feel excluded. You are entitled to be a bit selfish too and think about what you can see when you are there
Think about what size of organisation you want to work with. Our two experiences have been very different. Personally I have found that if you have worked in your own business then it can be hard to work in a large 'corporate' structure
Understanding different cultures takes time. You have to be easily adaptable and flexible. Things really do get lost in translation. Patience is vital
Check the dress code in the office. In SA it was very casual - shorts and t shirt. In Uganda - shirt trousers and smart black shoes (except Friday dress down). You may also need some formal wear in a place where ex-pats are as they still have colonial type
Things won't work e.g. internet access. Get a 3G mobile wifi such as TP-LINK.
When you go on holiday you automatically cover up, drink lots of water etc. It still works the same when you are working!!! Also take small travel bags for trips
Remember all your medication
A silly one. My calculator isn't big enough to cope with the zeroes in billions of Ugandan shillings
Camera, decent binoculars, torches are a must. Get a cheap phone and local SIM card.
Have someone at home to be your unofficial PA to scan your post
Take a kindle or other book reader and have all your music downloaded too. If you read a lot carrying books takes up a lot of space and weight
Most of all when there are problems just think how lucky you are to be doing what you are doing and how life for your friends and family at home goes on with no change. They will think you are mad but will also in a nice way envy you for changing your lives for a period
Perhaps most importantly, did you enjoy the experience and would you do it again?
Currently considering where next to go with AFID so a definite yes and yes