Alex left London to move to Zambia for a 12 month volunteer programme. That was almost 7 years ago and Zambia is still her home… This is her story.
Where did your career start and what prompted you to apply for a role with VSO?
From a young age I knew that I wanted to work in the third sector to help organisations that were trying to make a difference in the world. This interest stemmed back to when I spent my gap year living in Malawi and training in Mozambique. My time in Africa was magical and that experience planted a seed: I knew I would return there one day, but before doing so I wanted to experience living and working in London.
So once I graduated university, I applied for lots of internships in London within the third sector – going for anything that was of interest. I struck gold when, after a year of submitting applications, I was offered an internship at Article 25; an organisation that manages sustainable building projects in developing countries. Here I learnt everything there was to know about the different types of fundraising and met my mentor who became a big influence in the early days of my career.
After 18 months with Article 25 I took up a new position at St John of Jerusalem Eye Hospital, which gave me a brilliant insight into yet more ways of fundraising, along with the opportunity to travel to the Middle East. However, after 5 years of hard work, brilliant fun and meeting fabulous people along the way, Africa was still calling!
VSO was introduced to me by a colleague who had spent time in Uganda on one of their programmes. VSO (which stands for Voluntary Service Overseas) is the world’s leading independent international development organisation and connects volunteers with overseas placements, to fight poverty in developing countries.
I decided to apply to one of the programmes and over lunch one day, I drafted my CV and covering letter with the help of this colleague, and just like that, my VSO adventure began. Little did I know that within the space of 6 weeks from sending that application I would be on my way to Zambia.
What was it like to leave London to start a new life living and working in Zambia?
Looking back I realise that I had grown bored of London, which may sound strange as all my friends were there and let’s face it, there is never a shortage of things to do in London, but despite all that I needed a change.
I had only been to Zambia once when I was 18 to do a bungee jump over Victoria Falls and I didn’t know much about the country. I could never have predicted that years later, I would be living and working there! I didn’t have any expectations or assumptions about what awaited me and I knew this was for the best, because then I could not be disappointed.
Through the VSO programme I joined Zambia Open Community Schools (ZOCS) which is a wonderful organisation that supports community schools throughout Zambia. When I arrived six and half years ago, their small office in the centre of Lusaka (Zambia’s capital) had no money and was surviving on small handouts from bigger NGOs within Lusaka. This wasn’t a sustainable model so things needed to change, and I was tasked with turning things around…a huge undertaking. I remember meeting the team for the first time and all eyes were on me to deliver.
Talk through some of the highlights and challenges you faced along the way with this new chapter in your career.
Since moving to Lusaka, personal highlights have included meeting my partner Mukelabai and having our daughter Violet, who is now two years old! Plus getting to know so many wonderful people that I have met during this incredible journey that I am on. I have done a lot of travelling within Zambia which has been amazing – in fact I have been to more places than most Zambians have. When speaking to a new colleague recently, he said “I am sat here in amazement at your geographical knowledge of my country”. He could not believe how freely I spoke about areas which some Zambians have not even heard of, let alone travelled to.
Being away from family and friends is of course difficult, but the joy with Zambia is that it’s not that hard to pop back to the UK for a visit.
One stand-out achievement in my career was during my VSO placement when I raised over $2.5 million for ZOCS, which has helped to support so many community schools across Zambia. Through various programmes ZOCS has also developed the first Early Childhood Education curriculum to get children learning from an early age – while this may not seem extraordinary to you and I, here in Zambia the project was ground-breaking because this structured education hadn’t been introduced in many parts of the country.
Challenges have included adapting to and learning the way that Zambians work – for example they have a tendency to tell you what they think you want to hear, which can make things tricky. The demands that are placed on you because you’re an outsider can be hard to adjust to as well. That’s the still the case for me now, even though I’ve been here for over 6 years.
How much support did VSO offer?
I received lots of support from VSO during the ZOCS programme, but they also allowed me the freedom to get on with the job, which suited the way I work. I wasn’t inundated with requests from them and only had to provide an occasional report. Luckily this wasn’t the case, but if something terrible were to happen it was good to know that they were there to help.
What did you learn about yourself through your time with VSO?
First of all I learnt to believe in myself! I know now that I am capable of doing much more than I initially thought I could do. Secondly, coming to a new country to live and work is not as scary as I first thought. Even better, all these years later, my LOVE of Africa still burns SO bright.
Through my work here I’ve proven that it is possible to make changes in people’s lives, even though most projects start out as crazy ideas that seem impossible to implement.
Since you finished the VSO programme, what’s happened in your career?
I finished my placement at ZOCS after two years and then it was time, in theory, to return to the UK… or was it? Was I really ready to leave Africa? The answer was no. However it was time for a new challenge and I joined SunnyMoney, which is a social enterprise run by the charity SolarAid. My biggest achievement there was being part of a team that distributed more than 200,000 solar lights over 5 years; enabling many people to see safely at night (streets are usually not lit by streetlamps), children to study and read after school, and families to save money that would otherwise be going towards expensive electricity bills (despite the fact that there are regular power cuts).
I’ve recently started a new role at Live Well, a CARE International social enterprise, which means I’m putting into practice everything that I’ve learnt over the last six years within a totally new sector – health.
What advice would you give to someone who’s considering a role with VSO?
Do it! The experience of working overseas will change your life, broaden your career opportunities and make you a better person, regardless of what you do after the VSO placement finishes. It will also offer you the chance to put into practice all of the skills you have learnt while sitting in an office. There’s no doubt that it will take you out of your comfort zone and back again!
And finally, what are you excited about over the next few months?
Working in a new job and a new sector brings a new set of challenges! And of course, I’m looking forward to watching my daughter grow up in this wonderful place that is ZAMBIA!