Personal advice on how to change a country: Don’t!
Posted On November 27, 2020
…unless, you can say about yourself that you are ready to do so. Chenai has come to Germany with only one purpose: Outgrowing herself by learning the right tools with which she can contribute more meaningfully towards change in her home country, Zimbabwe. About her experience running an NGO and how change really is created..
First of all, tell me who is Chenai?
I am a young woman from Zimbabwe, currently studying my Master’s in Development Management in Germany. I was awarded a DAAD scholarship to enable me to carry out my postgraduate studies in Germany. There are many things that define me; I like travelling, reading, hanging out with my loved ones and meeting new people of all backgrounds. I care about young people. Call it my true passion: I think they are impressionable and have the ability to collectively impact the future in a positive way so I want to empower them. I believe you can learn the most from young people.
Why did you come here in the first place? Where does your story begin?
I have been working in the development sector in my home country for the past five years. After I completed my undergraduate studies in the UK in Financial Economics, I moved back to Zimbabwe in 2015. My original idea was to immediately start a masters programme, but then after facing setbacks and long period of introspection I decided to first gain practical experience.
Now, after having worked for five years in Zimbabwe, I felt like it was time, and infact a necessity to get more educated in order to be able to do my work better. I was running a non profit organisation, which was a lot of work. Too may times, I felt I was working on pure passion and learning by doing with so little knowledge. Now after a few months into my studies, I can clearly see that I was indeed working with very little academic knowledge. My goal is to improve myself, to be better.
Tell me more about your experience in Zimbabwe. What was your NGO working with and how did you experience the impact you made for your community?
When I came back to Zimbabwe, I started working in a developmental microfinance organization. My role included research, risk management, case studies with clients, writing proposals and so on. After working there for a while, the co-founders of microfinance had the idea to fund an initiative supporting young people in my community. My colleague and myself immediately said yes to running the initiative, we will do it. It was a unique opportunity to actually become active about something we care about. So we started the Nduna Girls programme, to help girls and improve education for women and young girls. This is the flagship programme under the Nduna Zimbabwe Trust.
The NGO’s main aim is to provide scholarships, to cover tuition fees, hand out uniforms or tools like sanitary towels. We also hand out solar lamps because most girls come from rural communities without the ability to study after dark. In fact, whatever tools the girls need to access school and receive education could be provided by this NGO. Most of the girls come from vulnerable homes, mostly women or child headed families with large families, some were children themselves already taking care of other children. Others were living with grandparents, which is a challenge in Zimbabwe: Within families there is a lot of migration and support to education is very low.
One of the girls was amazed as she saw a skyscraper for the first time when she arrived in Harare.
On top of providing the scholarship we organized a mentorship component to compliment the traditional education system. There you build very strong relationships with each other. We started workshops with the girls on our program, but we learned there are so many skills missing to make the education they receive in school also successful. Improving their self-esteem or how to use tools or gadgets such as computers. In fact some used a toilet to flush for the first time within our four walls. So, instead of providing the formal education only, we started teaching them the basics, adding more and more knowledge step by step.
We also tried to incorporate the demands of the economy. We incorporated a strong technology component as well as menstruation management. We have established a solar power tech centre called OWN I.T for this purpose and developed a menstruation management toolkit that allows girls to easily learn and share how to make their own reusable pads.
I liked this work. But after five years, managing volunteers, working as a mentor, trying to find a sustainable way of proceeding… I started to think, I have to do this better. I need to figure out how to make my work more accessible and impact change more sustainably.
“It goes to your nerves, to your heart.”
Would you go back to Zimbabwe after your studies? Working on the site in development with your NGO?
I am not sure at the moment. I love my country, it is now even more my home than before having experienced living outside the country for an extended period. You always feel foreign in a foreign country. But I must be honest to myself, at the moment I just want to be in a place that allows me to be able to use the resources I have well and achieve a great potential. If I have this, then I can achieve impact from anywhere. Working in this sector, in what I did, means you are stressed a lot of the time. It goes to your nerves, to your heart. It affects you more deeply than other things, and you can have so much positive energy and passion, but there will always be so many challenges at the same time. Maybe, I can effect change from here even better. I think there is not one way of change, it rather depends on how you can make the difference.
What about Zimbabwe, what are the perspectives there for the citizen? For the young generation?
After we gained our independence, the next forty years we a had the same government. In the past years, our economy deteriorated. Now we have no currency, a very high inflation, and the unemployment rate is exceptionally high, many studies say 90% are informally employed. Zimbabwe also has a high number of graduates, but they can’t find any opportunity after graduating in this economy.
So people come out of school and the knowledge they have cannot be exercised. I was lucky to find a job and by the time I started, I got 600 USD, which I was happy with. In the end our currency was so devaluated, I was now earning 40 USD for the same level of work output. This happened over the span of 5 years. Without savings or assets you have to ask yourself as an individual: What is going to happen? I am trying to find this balance, having a meaningful job, an impact on change but also live as a young person wants to live where the education investments produce a standard quality of life. There has to be a balance. That is the real challenge.
What are enabling and hindering factors in development?
The first one will be the economic environment; it is very high-risk country and finding funding is difficult. Because of the state of the economy we have many NGO’s popping up which makes it very competitive. You find a lot of young people that are interested in contributing to development. So, when you register to receive funding, you face enormous competition. The smaller NGOs may be representing marginalized communities or real issues, but they don’t have the formal organisational structures in place or traceable experience to enable them to access diversified funding.
Because of this, the big institutions such as UN or GIZ, they hardly work with smaller NGOs. They usually build on long term relations, mature faces, and experienced people. Not a lot of young people receive formal help to even build those skills and they fail soon. There should be a middle ground. The private sector is more open and flexible than the government and NGO funded institutions in this regard. During my time at Nduna Girls we managed to develop partnerships with both private sector and the international NGOs but found it easier to build relationship with the private sector firms. It is hard, sometimes working with the INGOs and to ensure objectives are aligned when also there is the issue of trying to ensure the organisation keeps operating first and foremost. Sometimes this diverts from creating real change, when the main goal is to keep operating.
“I stand on the shoulders of many women.”
But there are also enabling factors, particularly strong mentorship. I stand on the shoulders of many women. It’s the key issue of people who want to change – they need each other. Mentorship is so important for creating space for ideas and engagement. That always helps. How to help our economy is beyond me though.
What do you wish would change in Europe to improve the reality in Zimbabwe? Is there even a potential of change?
Speaking from my experience, I think we need to encourage more exchange programs that give practical experience. In addition to undertaking my studies overseas, I am also privileged to have been a recipient of the Mandela Washington Fellowship ( YALI), the FES Leadership Training, an Program Oxford Africa Conference participant and now a DAAD Scholar. These have given me exposure to other settings and economies. Those have great impact and real power. Traineeships, workshops, leadership programs, internships, whatever experience, those shall be encouraged. Exposure in my belief makes us understand better. Sometimes you read a book right, but when you are on the ground practically living it, you realize you don’t know anything!
For example, as part of my YALI Fellowship, We visited a Honda manufacturing plant in Ohio. Most people didn’t even show up, asking why visit a manufacturing plant? I wanted to go, not that I was expecting something special, but my mind was blown away when I got there! Walking into the factory I said: Oh, wow this is what people talk about when they talk about say engineering, lean manufacturing, automation or when they speak of total quality management. Or even automation, when they say machines are taking over jobs! I mean you use this terms daily.
“We need to learn by doing, that’s the only way to learn.”
Until this very hands-on experience, I only had vague ideas. And I thought: how should we learn this in Zimbabwe where it is not modelled anywhere around us? We have a shrinking manufacturing sector and we do not produce cars. How do we get this to the classroom? How can kids learn this so they can believe it is applicable and that education matters for improving our county? The solution is to create these experiences to foster change.
What do you wish for yourself?
I wish to maximise on all my growth opportunities. Doing something I am passionate about and accessing the tools that enable me to really live to my full potential… Whatever that might be. Hopefully, that will be me being able to impact a lot more change than I have managed to do so far.