Volunteering for MicroLoan Foundation Zambia

Rebecca Ryan is currently Interim Finance Manager for MicroLoan Foundation Zambia. She has been in Zambia for the last couple of months and has written the below blog about the beginning of her time there…

Life is all about working towards goals and living your dreams – my dream to do voluntary accounting work in Africa came true. And now, I am now the interim Finance Manager for MicroLoan Foundation in Chipata, north east Zambia. After a long period of employment, I was made redundant and decided that this was my time. Just 9 days after leaving my job I was heading off to Zambia!

Arriving in Lilongwe, Malawi, was a real welcome to Africa. I was picked up by a MicroLoan car and driven for several hours to the border with Zambia. Although I had travelled in Africa several times, our road trip really was everything you imagine it to be – red brick huts, women carrying all sorts of  things on their heads and men cycling with large sacks of charcoal strapped to the back of their bikes.

My first few days in the office were dedicated to learning the ropes and being handed over work. I am responsible for the accounts, budgets, payroll and banking for MicroLoan Foundation Zambia – so there was a lot to learn. Of course, in principle nothing is too complicated to pick up, my main concerns were learning the IT systems and the key reporting deadlines. Over the next two weeks I took on all sorts of additional roles, including assisting with the recruitment of a loan officer, a staff disciplinary, getting the IT network sorted in the office and also managed to do two trips out of town to visit some of our groups (picture above)– these have been humbling experiences.

I have to admit 3 weeks into the job that the biggest challenge at work is dealing with the power outages and sometimes poor internet connections. We had one day where the power was off for the majority of the working day so we ran the laptops off battery power, I have learnt to always keep the laptop charged and to get home quickly to prepare a meal! There is a degree of formality in the office which is nice – I have been addressed as Madame Finance Manager and the CEO is addressed as Sir. It is also interesting that things I previously took for granted should not be assumed here i.e. stationery is rather limited so we only order on request and not in bulk, internet banking is not always available (it is either down or doesn’t work) and don’t expect a business phone call –Chipata is small enough that you just go and visit the person you want to speak to. We actually walk with our bank payments around to the branch where a copy of each payment is stamped to prove receipt.

The Zambian people are a pleasure to live and work with. They are quiet, reserved and good people. I am so lucky to be here in a place where everyone is happy, polite and kind. I love walking around the markets buying my food, the ladies selling the fruit and veg have explained to me how to cook anything unusual, I have found a hairdresser (although there is no running water in the salon so the result may be interesting) and I have bought a cellphone and a flash (that’s a USB stick).

In the short time I have been in Zambia I have felt comfortable in my role and my ability to perform the tasks – accounting principles are the same worldwide. Someone once told me that a volunteer to Africa should never underestimate the value of their skills – this is very true. Personally I feel I have shifted right out of my own comfort zone and learnt some key soft skills – the sort of things you lose when you live in a big city. I now find myself chatting at the supermarket checkout to people around me, talking to strangers and greeting people in the street. One of my best days so far was when I started teaching Excel to one of my team – I felt a huge personal satisfaction that someone had learnt a new skill from me.  And my finest achievement so far – I managed to pay the staff on time after poring over the Zambian income tax rules. They may even be getting use to my kiwi accent………

Africa is relaxing, no stress and lots of fun. But I remind myself that I am here to work, I am a proud CIMA member and I must remain professional in my job and do the best I can. I am extremely grateful to have had this opportunity, I am working in a role I love, with a truly altruistic organisation, with people I like, the weather is wonderful (29 degrees in the shade) and the Luangwa national park is on my door step – I hope to visit before the rain season starts……….and before the budgets are due!

More later…..

Rebecca Ryan FCMA, CGMA