LivingWell in Zambia, chapter 1: From A (application) to Z (Zambia)

I think the theme of the first PULSE blog is similar. We are all filled with trepidation, concerns, fear even. It is significant to change so much, so quickly. This is my take on the journey to day one.

So, rewind. We applied in January, and it was a pretty gradual process over a few months, until we got offered a role at the end of April, which was then confirmed in May. And then our journeys diverge. The organisation I am working with wanted me to join as soon as possible; we agreed on six weeks time as a trade off for me to do a handover, organise my life, but also so I can be home for Christmas, which was a priority for me. Christmas is a time for family, and it also felt right to contain my PULSE experience within 2017 from start to finish.

Six weeks isn’t long to pack up your life and move to Africa. You’re more on your own than maybe you expected when you applied. You book your own flights, find your own accommodation… there’s a lot to do and very little time. You get emails fired at you; online training required, form after form to complete, training to attend in person, it’s endless. The partner charity doesn’t necessarily send you as much information as you’d expect to prepare you. And you’ve still got a full time GSK job to do! It’s exhausting, it’s stressful, and you wonder if you’re doing the right thing. An added difficulty I had compared to most of my colleagues is that I left my own home behind, so had the additional concerns of it to be rented out or looked after in my absence.

Your friends and family aren’t necessarily supportive. Their knowledge of the developing world is general, and maybe not true of the country you are going to. They ask ‘why are you doing this?’ in a way that doesn’t suggest they are on board. In convincing them, you realise you are convincing yourself; you talk yourself into it without realising. Then you meet some other volunteers during the mandatory training. You meet people who have PULSE’d before and lived to (enthusiastically) tell the tale. You realise everyone is the same as you. Not knowing what their role is, or if they can get organised in time, and that their folks aren’t too impressed with the idea either. You meet people bringing such different life experiences to yours and so much energy that you feel humbled and unworthy. You get great training about the reality of life in the developing world and in an NGO. You’re not alone anymore.

Did I really get my head around what I was signing up for? No. Not at all. But somehow I found myself at Glasgow airport, having somehow negotiated an extra 6kg of luggage, sitting in silent tears in the departure lounge. But you get on the plane, of course you do. Have a couple of gin and tonics. Watch a film. Or if you’re me, you watch three films and remain wide awake all night. Get to Dubai. Find gate A7 and meet your new workmate and flatmate sitting looking exactly like you feel. And you chat. Take another plane. Shuffle through immigration surprisingly unscathed and get greeted by a broad and twinkly smile from your new Zambian colleague waiting to collect you. We got told the highest risk was getting through the airport. We’d handled that like it was nothing! And, with that tiny victory, we are fairly reassured this will be alright.

Which gets me to day one. We’re not in GSK anymore. A thirty second security briefing (paraphrased as ‘aye, it’s grand’) and not an SOP in sight.

Instead we plunged straight in at the deep end. Monday morning is the team meeting. Visitors coming from GSK Consumer team in South Africa as an added element to manage. And mainly, a visit to the field, which was a huge slum housing area in Kenyama, an area of Lusaka city. It is estimated 160k people live in a series of basic brick constructions, with tin roofs and nothing more than a curtain for a door. There are children everywhere, many barefoot, so dirty. The smell is quite overpowering. There is rubbish and so much dust. This is where the community health entrepreneurs are working; selling basic healthcare products like pain relief tablets, toothpaste, condoms. This is the front line of the Live Well business.

To create interest and attract attention, Live Well has recruited some actors to put on a play. The plot is based on a married couple; he thinks his wife is having an affair, because suddenly she is going out all the time, she has bought some pharmacy products, she has some more money, her teeth are clean and her breath is minty fresh. Who is this Live Well she speaks of? Not another man, but her part time job, working to make some money for herself as a community health entrepreneur. The Zambians find it funny (think Punch and Judy) and they are laughing and engaged – and cleverly the actors sneak in information about the products too. Remember these items are new to many people; they don’t know to buy them even if they have the money to do so. The hope is that the interest translates into sales and increases the awareness of Live Well as a brand. This is critical in building the role of the business which will hopefully turn into public-private partnerships, better collaboration with the government, and ultimately an increase in access.

So far, it is as I expected. I don’t know if I prepared particularly well; interestingly Audrey and I had opposite strategies. I read as much as I could about politics, the economy, the industry, history, so that I would be aware of my surroundings, and perhaps helpful information for work. Audrey did not do so much because she did not want to set her opinions too much before she arrived; it’s fascinating how we approach life so differently. Neither is the right or wrong strategy – but perhaps this is why I am not yet surprised. I was prepared for the poverty; it is shocking but because it is work, and I am aware everyone was watching me (we don’t blend in so well…) I just accepted the sight in front of me. I smiled and waved at all the children. The training we received told us so clearly not to judge and not to apply our expectations to others. I think it worked; on day one I cannot make an assessment, I don’t know anything.

But I will.

Oh and the tea isn’t quite right, but I’ll battle through; I found custard creams.