"Ekushe Nigeria!"

Aswini Ramkumar worked as an organisational development adviser for the Royal Heritage Health Foundation in Nigeria. Aswini helped improve the NGO’s organisational capacity and performance as well as initiating new programmes that the community has now adopted. She describes how her experiences in Nigeria helped transform her outlook on life.

A new challenge

As a banker from New York, I was used to working in a fast-paced corporate world where profitability and shareholder value were top priorities. So after seven years in the private sector in US, I was looking for a new challenge and preferably one in a totally new continent...

Nigerians are a warm and colourful community, often welcoming you into their house for various festivities. I learned some of the local customs including getting my hair braided, pounding yam and attending long church services. Working in Nigeria for 16 months transformed some of the cultural biases I had perceived in a developing country. The absence of basic infrastructure like running water, continuous electricity, nutritious food and good roads made the living conditions challenging. However at the end of the day, the personal fulfilment came in the form of the changes in the lives of the communities we worked with. To see another little girl now enrolled in school, or to have a working toilet in the school facility, or to know that another farmer is employed on the cassava farm and that he can now support his family, is quite encouraging.

Learning and growing

Working in the non-profit sector enabled me to understand the inner workings of NGOs, including international partner organisations like the Gates Foundation, USAID and Department for International Development from UK. The work ethics and expectations are definitely different from the US, given that staff capacity and resources were restrained and often underutilised. I had to learn to work with and train individuals to build their capabilities including developing and implementing new HR policies and performance evaluation tools. The NGO now has the maiden edition of its newsletter and an organisational profile that helps broadcast their programmes and progress to date.

A lot of my personal growth, however, took place outside of the office as I met with the grass-root communities, interacted with local residents and assessed basic needs. From preliminary field visits, it was clear that there was a need for clean drinking water and toilets within school premises — this conclusion led me to partner with the Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Agency and develop an MOU for 10 pilot schools in Jebba to construct toilets. With the help of youth volunteers, three schools now have working toilets and the school-based communities have now been motivated to complete some of the infrastructural projects through their own efforts.

New project, new skills

Another project that developed from local intervention is the launch of operations in the federal fish smoking complex, which stemmed out of the need to boost the livelihoods of the local fishing community. I had to learn many skills on the job, such as negotiating the price of local fish, convincing fishmongers that we wanted to partner with their co-operative society, and recruiting talented staff from the neighbouring communities. It definitely was not the same work I did sitting behind the computer in an air-conditioned office in New York valuing a deal or developing customer retention growth strategies.

Learning and being open to new experiences was definitely what excited me most while in Africa. Although the NGO I supported was primarily focused on education and health services like TB, malaria and HIV prevention, I found the need to extend into a new line of operation, that is,  secure livelihoods that provide a sustainable source of living for the rural community people like farmers. This notion led me to help the NGO expand into cassava farming where we introduced new stem varieties, planting and fertiliser application. New services like teacher training were also piloted in a different community to help boost the school learning environment. The programme was a success will be replicated in other local areas.

The true reward

Working in Nigeria has transformed my ideals, perspectives and lifestyle. Anyone choosing to work in the social sector has to put community needs first. There is no place for monetary interests or individual agendas. A lot of the true reward comes from seeing the impact of your work on the lives of the people you have touched...regardless of where you come from.

So in earnest appreciation, I say “Ekushe Nigeria” for my making my tenure a special experience!

Visit the iVolunteer Blog for more stories from volunteers overseas.

How to apply

Interested in volunteering with VSO? Find out what you need to apply and begin your application process now.