Having primarily worked in both the public and private healthcare sector in the UK in numerous support roles over the years, all of which involved me supporting those with a variety of mental and physical health issues, I decided that I’d like to try my hand at volunteering abroad.
Whilst researching suitable placements, I was perplexed to find numerous volunteer opportunities that involved paying a rather large, upfront sum of money to undertake the volunteer placement. I didn’t understand this concept especially when I was prepared to offer my time for free and forego my comfortable lifestyle for a certain number of months.
I happened to come across VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) who in turn, put me in contact with ICS (International Citizen Service). I was given a shortlist of development agencies by ICS that would have placements beginning in early 2016 and I settled on Challenges Worldwide.
I was drawn to the fact that Challenges recognised that a large proportion of African businesses fail within the first 2 years of trading and that their ultimate aim was to alleviate poverty through encouraging wealth creation on a local level. Furthermore, they were the only charity to offer a qualification to their volunteers once their placement had finished.
When asked to choose one of three African countries (Uganda, Ghana & Zambia) I asked that I be placed by the experienced Challenges staff to a country that they felt suited my skills and background. A short while later, I learned that I was to be placed in Zambia.
Once I was in Zambia, it began to slowly dawn on me how unique the position as Team Leader was. Four years ago, I had briefly managed a team of 16 staff back in the UK whilst working as a care coordinator for a home care company. Those staff were easily concentrated into a single ‘patch’ of my home city of Bristol. In that setting, there wasn’t as many variables to contend with whereas now I was having to manage the same number of volunteers, spread out over a capital city in a developing African country. What could possibly go wrong?! Fortunately, I don’t work alone and my role is made easier because I work as a pair with my Zambian counterpart Naomie.
There are four of us Team Leaders currently here in Zambia: myself, Naomie, Natasha and Sam. We operate under a Programme Coordinator called Mapenzi and a Country Manager called Joe and, collectively, we are the management team for the Zambian January 2016 cycle. Effectively, the role of a Team Leader is to help support and manage the volunteers, their business and host home placements. There are always new issues that need our attention as well as ongoing ones that need to be carefully monitored and managed.
During my time on placement, I have noticed that the vast majority of issues our volunteers face stem from cultural differences. One of the aims of Challenges Worldwide is to promote cross-cultural working and for the volunteers themselves to reap the benefits of this concept.
My aim is that the UK volunteers come away from their placements with a sense of accomplishment having gone to a developing country, helped troubleshoot a business, helped develop their Zambian counterparts professionally and having left Zambia with a set of skills and experiences that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.
My aim for the Zambian volunteers is that they too should come away from their placements with a sense of accomplishment and newfound confidence at having managed to help troubleshoot a local business, introduced and educated their UK counterpart to Zambian culture and having learnt new working practices from their UK counterparts. I also hope that they come away from this placement with a set of skills and experiences that will stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.
As Team Leaders, we are very proud to see the level of work and commitment shown by the volunteers during this cycle. Some have long, complex commutes to their businesses, some are working in multiple locations all over Lusaka on a daily basis and some have shown great tenacity in complex placements. This experience will only enhance our volunteers’ future employability and will change their outlook on the world hopefully making them more determined in achieving their goals and aspirations.
Written by James Marsh