How I ended up in Guinea Bissau
People always ask me how I ended up in Guinea Bissau. Since I don't fit the image that first comes to mind when people imagine aid workers in poverty stricken places -- I am a super urban person, not a fan of summer, terrified of bugs -- I get it. Let's just say, the question is a reasonable one. Well, here goes, in a nutshell.I grew up in Washington DC, in a time when most children are raised in a hyper competitive, zero-sum game. Little wonder it is that by high school, some of us were already losing sleep and stressing about where we'd go to college (not to mention going grey). In that environment, I met young people who were determined to work in international development; I just didn't happen to be one of those people.
In fact, I never thought I'd work in development. I wasn't particularly drawn to the thought of living in Africa, nor was I dying to work in the public sector. What can I say? Years of American political discourse had hammered home the inefficiencies of the public sector, while extolling the virtues of private enterprise. I headed straight into communications with a marketing bent, never quite finding the right fit. I graduated from grad school with a degree in communications and the sneaking suspicion that I'd made the wrong choice.
At some point, that sneaking suspicion became my personal truth. I don't know what brought this on, but I think it might be tied to the fact that working in marketing for luxury products and cosmetics made me yearn for a deeper sense of purpose. Secretly, I started applying to jobs in development -- applications I now know were doomed from the second I hit send. As I was flitting from job to job, I didn't know how to package my applications or how to explain my desire to change fields so early on in my career. I also felt a crippling lack of legitimacy and deep embarrassment at having gotten it wrong. These feelings kept me from being able to reach out to my networks who might have been able to help. Tired of the lack of opportunities in Europe for young people, and frustrated by the particularly rigid HR mind set that minimizes risk by focusing on candidates who've already done the same job elsewhere, I headed back home to the US determined to change course.
Back in DC, when people asked me what I wanted to do, I didn't have an answer. I just knew I didn't want to work for an entity solely driven by pursuit of profit. I saw friends making positive impacts on the world, and I knew I had to be a part of those people. That said, with no job, no money and no prior experience in development, the first few months were rough. I refused to intern for free, but was willing to move anywhere. Because life works in mysterious ways, I got a job offer at the African Development Bank less than 2 months after I got home. I thought things were starting to look up. I sat by the phone, waiting for months to get my marching orders. In the meanwhile, I kept interviewing for other jobs, but nothing else was panning out. Soon, I could tell my friends were wondering whether this job even existed...
Once I made it to the Bank, I met an array of professionals who were all dedicated to working for African development, in whichever way they could. Working at the Bank was a wonderful experience, and I met some people who I can say without a doubt changed my life's course. My boss was wonderfully warm and supportive; she was also always willing to serve as my live crash course in development.She took me on the road with her, and allowed me to help with the building of something from the ground up -- literally... I can say without a doubt that working with her was a privilege and an incredible learning experience.
Me trying to look super professional in Tunis in 2013
Me visiting the lobby of the Bank's CCIA building in Abidjan a few months before the first staff moved in
My time at the Bank not only helped me gain confidence in myself, but gave me ready access to hundreds of friendly people who were all too pleased to share their career paths and advice on how I might achieve my own goals.Despite all of the wonderful experiences I had at the Bank, I figured it might be time to move on, and explore another organization. I had put myself on the UNV roster and almost three years later got an email asking if I'd be interested in moving to Guinea Bissau. The terms of reference were fascinating, the context challenging and with Portuguese as the working language, I'd have the opportunity to perfect my Portuguese skills. Needless to say, and much to my mother's dismay, I jumped. Bissau has proven to be a pretty great experience so far. Nothing can exceed being on the ground in a country where there is so much energy buzzing around all of the work that needs to be -- and is being -- done.
And that, friends, is how I ended up living in Bissau.
The lovely Brazilian on my left is an accomplished baker I affectionately call the Calorie Devil. When she isn't trying to fatten us up, she manages programs that focus on tackling poverty in rural areas.