Jumping off the corporate treadmill for a bit

“If other people got out of it as much as I got out of it, then I’m a happy person… and if there’s a better person inside you, it will certainly bring it out” (Sven, Big Beyond volunteer: March – April 2012)

We’d like to tell you about another big super star amongst the Big Beyond volunteer crew. His name is Sven, he’s British, age 50, recently took redundancy after 30 years in a publishing firm where he’d worked his way up to director level. He’d lost his job satisfaction. It was suddenly time for him to do something different, look for ways to boost his confidence again and give something back beyond the corporate world.

“…it’s like you press the reset button and all the stresses and strains of the corporate world just fall off you and you’ve got a chance to get back to the real person and not just the machine that you become when you’re working.” (Sven on his return from Uganda)

Sven said his trip rekindled huge amounts of energy and wished he’d done it 20 years ago too! He says if you’re on the corporate treadmill for a long time it’s a very refreshing change. He liked being in a structured and active role, yet relished the level of choice he had in his placement, felt the reins were taken off and that he could put his long lost creative hat back on to help encourage people who knew ‘A’ but didn’t know how to get to ‘B’.

Before Sven left home to join us, common reactions about his decision to jet off to Uganda to volunteer were ‘interesting’, ‘worthwhile’, ‘rewarding’ and a real ‘adventure’… after he got back he told us “it was all of those things and much more… it’s certainly made me feel that there’s an awful lot more than the bottom line, and that’s had a big effect on me”.

Arriving at Big Beyond site Uganda.. 

We picked Sven up from the airport and took him to the Big Beyond site in Uganda, also with another one of our legendary volunteers, Valerie.

“The scenery was unbelievable. It’s full. Full of stuff. So much to see. Mountains. It’s not like a long expanse of plains it’s chocabloc full of trees, greenery and people who’ve been planting their bits and pieces and every inch of what you’re looking at is being used, whether it’s by nature or people growing stuff. It’s just full. And that was incredible. The first morning I was woken up by two wagtails on the window. I saw the view and it was wonderful”.

Combining past experience with current passions… 

Work-wise, it’s so amazing for us to see the Big Beyond vision in action again. By combining corporate and life experiences, and then applying that to a conservation or development interest – it has impact. Sven was a bit tired of the corporate world and feeling a somewhat skeptical and hard bitten about things, the targets, the moving goal posts, the budgets, the restrictions… and what he loved about his experience with Big Beyond, apart from the “unknown” factor… “was the challenge of having a completely blank sheet of paper and while I know I’ve got the work programme of the things to do, within that I’ve got loads of opportunities to use some of the knowledge from my working life I’ve acquired over the years and put that to really good use… I found the whole concept of volunteering for Big Beyond really inspiring and it’s been a long time since I’ve been inspired by anything really”.

Sven loved the free rein when working out there in Uganda, where he could actually find the space to think about things and not have so many restrictions in the back of his mind. He said it was “the opportunity to allow the fertility of your mind come to fruition”.

He chose to work in a conservation volunteer placement and although he admits he’s far from a professional botanist, he loves nature and wildlife, and so he “combined passions with a degree of knowledge learnt over the years”… and explained that “a lot of it is applying some of the things you’ve learnt and common sense to a project that on the face of it you may not know a lot about but you can apply things to it that will take it forward”. He felt his experience in building communication skills was really useful for one, and that’s something invaluable he’s developed over his working years. Not in the local language (although he did amazingly trying in his short time there!) but in other ways. He also valued the ability to form and lead meetings, brainstorm and be strategic.

When I interviewed him lots of interesting stuff emerged. We chatted about possible resource barriers he found in order to achieve the goals of the projects he was involved in. In his experience “you can always have more technology and everything, but I think for the project we were doing, you don’t want to be all singing and dancing because people aren’t going to relate to that… the main resources that I needed were what I possessed already… the vast majority of tools you need are up here (in my head) and they are in the head of the person next to you that you’re working with… I think the teamwork and meeting of minds and brainstorming were the biggest and best tools”.

He apologised for the corporate jargon but said how important it was to think outside the box in these projects. “There was a lot of brainstorming with different groups of people about the best way to go about things, working out how to talk to different people, present things… in this role you needed to be confident talking to people”. As Sven has heaps of experience from his previous jobs delivering messages he took like a duck to water.

What Sven gained himself? 

“I came back feeling that I’d gained a heck of a lot out of it on a personal basis and you could go on hundreds of training courses on how to be a better person or how to really bring out the best in somebody, whereas for me doing 3 weeks out there did so much and it does bring it home to you that there is so much more to you and your life than the corporate world… for someone my age, or perhaps younger, it’s a huge leveller and brings a lot of things back down to earth”.

Although he said it’s an amazing byproduct of making a positive contribution to someone else’s life, especially in Africa, Sven emphasises that it’s given him the confidence to believe in himself again, the confidence to be creative, raised his self-esteem, taught him to listen to other people more and broadened his horizons. He feels it’s given him a different attitude towards job hunting back home and that he has a better opinion of what he can do. He believes it’s grown his skills too and that it’s fantastic on his CV – “I’m probably boring the ass off people already talking about what I’ve been doing out there because A. It was interesting and B. I’m proud of it… it also shows that you’re able to adapt and give up your time to do certain things so is a valuable point on your CV”.

Although he’s not a religious person, Sven sometimes attended the local churches and with the help of one of the Big Beyond team, introduced himself in the local language Rukiga. It went down very well with the community! And we’re all very impressed with your accent! These are places of respect and discussions over there so a good move. It was a key part of his true immersion into the community he’d been warmly invited to live in for a short while.

His volunteer work and the big platform he’s created for more great stuff…  

Sven began his volunteer placement in a very old forest, but a relatively new community reserve called the Nombe Pocket Forest. This covers 625 acres, it’s max elevation is around 2000m, it has over 100 species of ferns, trees, over 300 species of birds and 200 species of butterflies. The forest has suffered degradation in the past years and used by local people as a source of firewood, sticks for climbing beans and an area to graze cattle. The local leaders who were previously put in charge were the one’s causing a lot of the damage so there’s now new efforts to get it’s conservation strategy and it’s benefit to the community a reality.

The pocket forest is a beautiful little area with a huge range of indigenous (and sadly exotic) tree and bird species and is now separated from Bwindi, but right on the edge of the national park. What’s particularly interesting about this forest, and something that’s emerged during Sven’s placement, is that because the locals are fenced out of Bwindi itself for gorilla conservation reasons, and it’s very much government owned, managed and lucrative for, this pocket forest is growing as a natural asset with local ownership. It’s something they want to feel proud of themselves.

Sven worked closely with a community based organisation to begin identifying the flora and fauna and discuss their ideas and plans for it’s community-led conservation future. One aim was to look at ways to reduce the local need to use the forest. We know it’s important to go to the root of the problem rather then brush over this crucial part of conservation and development. Sven and the team also met with the elders surrounding the forest to find out the history and stories of the forest to understand real perceptions from the people living right on its edge. This is the tangible beginning of an awareness building programmes and mobilisation of the community which will become part of saving this wonderful forest.

Included in his tasks was working with three primary schools and to lead out of the classroom education sessions in connection with the pocket forest using simple interactive projects to understand how the forest lives and breathes. He planned and led field trips which included various activities such as leaf and bark rubbings (which some of your may remember from back in the day!) and identified different indigenous species. The kids were to use their senses and to identify where trees had been cut down, branches taken off or where cattle had grazed. They knew a lot of the species already which impressed the team as well as their eagerness to take part.

They were also taken to an agro-forestry project nearby. Sven also explored the kids thoughts on conservation. Something really close to the livelihoods of the people here so integrated with nature for daily survival. They were set an assignment to get into teams and work on song or drama piece around the topics they discussed in the forest as part of an Environmental Awareness Competition. The event was a great success and they were grateful to the Ugandan Wildlife Authority’s Community Conservation Ranger for his motivational speech to continue with these programmes.

Watch this video

During Sven’s work a particular tree species was discovered (thought to be called Sesebanius Sesebus) with a range of potential benefits from nutrition to income generation …. and the kids even asked Sven if they could be taught more about this so they could tell their parents to plant them at home. They are very fast growing trees, great for the soil and have been identified as a species to offer a potentially constant supply of wood and bean sticks should the tree-planting project be properly managed and implemented at intervals. Passion fruits can also be grown on them too which is a valuable byproduct with the potential for greater nutrition as well as income. In terms of grazing, something similar is being looked at with elephant grass and coriandra.

The schools’ wildlife clubs are now busy collecting seeds to start these nurseries and begin reforesting the local area to develop the alternative resources to those taken from Bwindi or the pocket forest at the moment.

Sven and the team made some excellent steps towards the conservation plans of the pocket forest. They met with a selection of stretcher groups (groups in charge of local law, leading the community to settle any disputes, help members when in financial trouble and literally provide stretchers to carry sick people to the health centre, and lots more) to see how they could get involved. They’ve enthusiastically joined the project team and are looking towards conservation education, reforestation, tourism development and removal of invasive species. Good relationships are being built and leaders getting in place which is great.

The outcome so far in the project and his discoveries? 

The birth of a big tree-planting project that could have amazing benefits for this community living on the edge of Bwindi. And it’s something the locals are well behind. Some of Big Beyond’s upcoming volunteers will truly help make this a reality through greater capacity and motivation, so hopefully this idea will grow into a really positive impact sooner rather than later.

Sven particularly liked the fact that he was not there telling people what they should do, but ultimately setting the locals up so they can carry ideas forward themselves, as a community. They’d come up with the basic ideas themselves and Sven helped them devise a plan to deliver it. He really valued how committed people in the community were to the projects and said that “if the projects do fail, it won’t be for the want of trying”. He’s looking forward to coming back in a year or so to check out how it’s all going.

Sven talks kindly about what Africa has to offer, besides the various barriers we face all over the world. The major challenge is to help with planning. The big BEYOND! He says “it’s not because everyone is stupid, it’s just because they’ve never had the education to look at things in a certain way… like crossing the road, you can walk into the road half way and get run over but if you stop and listen… the Big Beyond version of the green cross code!”. He can see so many great ideas, but can see how valuable volunteers can be in helping to strategically think things through, evaluate and workout the drawbacks and viable opportunities. He says helping to plan and getting things off the ground would be a major contribution a volunteer can make.

On that note, Sven was also invited to meet a local guy to see a new community school he was building. Although typhoid in the area can be a major problem for some people if they don’t have access to safe water, the local guy had no plans to collect rain water for this purpose and was carrying water from far in jerry cans to mix the cement. The school aims to support 100 Batwa children, orphans and other vulnerable children, with boarding facilities, concentrating very much on education and vocational skills. Great for the community. But, whilst some of his ideas were really well thought out, he was lacking such an important and simple issue, water. There are no pipes in the area, it’s too high above the water table for drilling, and with that many kids, tanks in the dry season would be empty. Sven felt it was heartbreaking to meet such motivated people to want to better the community, but lack simple skills such as proper planning. This is what we need. Volunteers with common sense, an outside perspective and some good ideas to contribte to the success of such projects.

Sven was pulled into a few other challenges he helped address – school lunch issues and a garden food project, an HIV craft group… and did a stirling job – but this blog is very long so I’ll save that for another time!!

Spending time with the big guys! 

Not to miss out his amazing experience amongst the majestic neighbours, with litte baby gorilla walking over his feet, he came back so glowing and on top of the world even his mum rang us in the UK office with her excitement!!!… check out his video, they are amazing creatures that deserve a good home:

Watch this video

To help them and all the other wildlife survive… you should join a Big Beyond programme!

Sven’s bits of advice if you’re also thinking about joining Big Beyond…  

Out there on site: “It’s a very easy pace of life and total change to back home… but I feel I have adapted very quickly. I’m not missing the TV, I don’t miss the radio, I don’t miss the mains water or electricity. It’s amazing how you can adapt to life. Everyone else here manages, so why can’t I? I’ve come from England to Africa, to Uganda, and I don’t expect things to change for me. I have to change to fit how things are here”

Sven suggests if you have these qualities you’re perfect for Big Beyond… 

  • An open mind 
  • Some experience of life 
  • A bit of experience of work 
  • A sense of humour
  • You’re happy to immerse in another culture, and in the community where you’ll be living  
  • You can listen to what people say 
  • “I think it’s great for graduates for one thing, but also for anybody in their 20’s, 30’s, 40‘s, 50’s or whatever … it is an invaluable addition to your life and work experience, because it opens up all sorts of areas and it does test you, not in a stressful way, but actually in a way you enjoy being tested”.   

    He says just get out there, enjoy it and give it your best. “I had the opportunity. You have. You just have to grasp it. It’s not out of peoples reach”. 

    For other people in Sven’s position (in late career stage and perhaps taken redundancy or have the opportunity to take it), he really feels liberated, rejuvenated and that he’s had to chance to go back to “pure” him.

    One of the big things he learnt out there was that it is extremely valuable to immerse yourself in the local community and into this new culture. He strongly feels it goes a long way in furthering what you do while you’re there.

    Thanks Sven from the team : )