Saturday, December 5, 2009

Journalizing the Journal

Steve Mollman, a writer for the Wall Street Journal, introduced himself by email just before I left the Philippines. He wanted to ask questions for a piece on “executives on sabbatical” (which for some reason reminds me very much of bananas-in-pajamas).

He and I exchanged emails over several weeks and his article appeared in the November 26 edition of the paper - click here for an online version.

Steve asked some interesting questions which made me look again at my motivations and expectations about this volunteer experience I gave him long, detailed, flow- of -mind answers as if he were my new best friend . This was during my first few weeks here. I didn’t have much to do.

I am posting some of those questions along with my answers - .edited for brevity and updated with some new insights since my last exchange with Steve . If I look back at this experience several years from now, this entry would be a good counterpoint to this post.

** Are you mortified by what you're finding there? You've seen poverty before, but Africa is another level for you I'm guessing.

It is true that I have seen more poverty and sickness here than what I am used to (but that is a function of both my limited exposure back in the Philippines and the situation in Zambia). How it affects the children is especially disturbing. I am saddened, more than anything else , that there are countries like Zambia and mine which have so much natural resources yet so many of its people s are suffering .

** I see you have a lot friends on Facebook who admire what you're doing and show it through comments. Does that kind of feedback boost your spirits?

Yes. Encouragement is always welcome (sometimes, even deliberately sought) especially when you’re about to undertake something with a lot of uncertainty. But I have a confession – a few of the comments make me a little sheepish. Some friends give me more credit than I actually deserve I ‘ve been fortunate in life and I do want to do my bit but I really didn’t have to go to Africa to do that. Part of my motivation is selfish – I wanted to have an experience - to get as far away from my comfort zone as possible, free-fall and see how well I could survive. I hope I don’t look back a year from now and tell myself – I should just have taken those sky-diving lessons.

** Do you sense possible danger to yourself or others around you?

Kalomo , where I am based, is a small rural town with almost no crime rate. I’ve had to walk home alone thru deserted, unlighted streets at night with no incidents (although I always keep my pepper spray handy). I had a few small things that were stolen in a midnight burglary a few weeks ago – but the same thing - or even worse - could also have happened even back in the Philippines. The most dire warnings during our first week of training were for killer mosquitoes and attacking rabid dogs. I tell myself that New Yorkers would be happy if those were the only things they would have to worry about while walking home at night.

** Did you get negative reactions from managers or other coworkers in the office when you announced your intentions?

No, everyone’s been really supportive. As far as work is concerned, there was enough time to plan this, communicate it properly, transition and tie up loose ends. The most common reaction I’ve received – and this is true not only for co-workers but also for family and /friends - is “I wish I could do that too”. So, I suppose offering assistance or support - all of which I appreciate very much - is one way of being part of this experience

I think that, given the chance, a good number from among my circle of family and friends would have done this too. – it just so happens that my present circumstances (no family to support, some savings, supportive company) have allowed me to do this now.

** Have you met kindred-spirit executives who are taking a sabbatical in the same spirit you are?

I’ve gotten along very well with the other volunteers I ‘ve met. For one to even be willing to do this , some general character trait must be common– idealism, curiosity, a spirit of adventure maybe, some bit of foolishness definitely – and that makes the interpersonal connection very much easier.

** What exactly is your "assignment" or "work description" while there? Did you choose that role or was it chosen for you?

I am working with District Council of Kalomo, which is Zambia’s equivalent of a local government body. I am assigned to the Planning Department, which is the unit responsible for formulating the programs for poverty reduction, social services (clean water, waste management, etc) while addressing cross-cutting issues such as HIV/AIDS, gender equality and so on. The residents of the district are among the poorest in Zambia. My main task while I'm here is to help the Council identify alternative sources of funds for their programs and to introduce a system and structure in place so that when those funds come, they are used properly. I don't know how much I can accomplish in 6 months but there are other volunteers coming after me to continue the work. So, at best, I hope I can make the work easier for them by laying the correct foundations in place.

I’m currently more involved at the policy level but I’m increasingly doing more field work that involves going out and directly interacting with the beneficiaries of our programs – people living with HIV and AIDS, subsistence farmers, women leaders, etc.

** Are you having doubts about how effective you can be in helping?

Yes. I have no experience working with a local government unit or with the issues that need to be addressed by the Council . However, they specifically asked for a volunteer with a business background. And I know that, in that area, I can contribute. The challenge for me right now is to be able to contextualize my business skills/knowledge against the realities of life here so that any advice/contribution I offer is relevant.

Volunteering here also requires constant ego checks for anyone who’s used to a position of some authority. I’ve had to make a conscious effort to stop myself from just taking over some of the projects to get them to the speed and quality that I am used to The people with whom you work need to own the process and learn the skills to ensure sustainability when you leave.

** Did you do anything special financially to prepare for your period of volunteering?

For a few years, I ‘ve had vague plans about retiring early and then having the freedom to engage in some kind of NGO work (in the “someday, I will….” sense with which I think most people are familiar) so I tried to evolve my savings strategy around that. When my portfolio took a hit from the market dip last year , that extended my idea of a time frame for early retirement., I realized that I may never be able to do this. That was the point when I basically told myself - Fuck it, why wait ? I should do this now while I can.

** What were you prepared to give up financially to do this?

Am I willing to forsake everything and live simply but honorably for the rest of my life? I’m not quite there. I can’t yet afford to quit work completely so I have to go back to gainful employment after this .

My major cost while doing volunteer work is opportunity-based – in terms of lost earnings and work advancement but it really wasn’t a difficult choice giving that up for a few months. I’m looking forward to gaining in opportunities of a different kind where the marginal returns may be higher as well as gaining in experience that I can apply back home.

Fortunately, VSO has taken care of airfare to/from Zambia, provides medical insurance, accommodations and a modest stipend . However, any “extras” (i.e.-feeding my internet habit, travel around Zambia or Africa on holiday ) will have to be covered by personal funds.



Steve’s article mentions several options for those of you thinking about doing short-term volunteering. I encourage you to visit the VSO websites, here and here. I’d also be happy to guide you through the process – just send me a message . Thanks

1 comment:

redbolts said...

Sounding like a guru... come to think of it the Tagalog word guro comes close but with a more rounded personality (who said you need to know how to sing to attain this) and deeper wisdom. More power and perseverance to deal with those pesky mosquitoes! - This brings to mind,"Whoever said they cannot make a difference hasn't been to bed with a mosquito."