Well after a four week volunteering/consulting experience in Rwanda, followed by two weeks of vacation ‘on the road’ I’m now back sitting at my desk in Dublin. I’ve already told fragments of my story to many of my friends and colleagues but the little voice in my head says that I should write down something about the actual volunteering experience, if only to enable me myself to remember it in times to come.
The first thing that was slightly odd was meeting the other IBM folks from around the world. There were twelve of us in total, we’d be split into three teams of four and each group would be working on individual projects. We had all spoken on crackly conference calls in the months leading up to meeting in Kigali. That was useful, but there is no substitute for meeting someone in person. As it happened I was the last to arrive, due to flight delays, so I felt ‘behind the curve’ at breakfast on the first Sunday morning. Happily my first impression was that everyone was ‘normal’ (or as normal as me at any rate) so that was a good start. My sub-team comprised Erica from the US, Noriko from Japan, and Praveen from India. Ad it turned out we all got on like a house on fire (i.e. very well) so that helped as we tried to ‘find a groove’.
On the Sunday evening we had a visit from IBM’s East Africa team (IBM is centred in Nairobi and does not currently have an office in Kigali). Then on Monday the very formal ‘meet the sponsors’ kick-off meeting which featured some of the government ministries that we’d be working with. So an outing for the suit and tie – one of very few during the four weeks. My team’s project was centred on improving female economic empowerment, using IT tools and platforms if possible. So a gigantic brief, and our first task was to try to boil this down to an achievable scope. We were meeting some serious players at this point, including a special advisor to the wife of the president, as she (president’s wife) was the sponsor of the foundation that was our main beneficiary.
It did occur dimly to me that by virtue of the name behind us, and the way that the projects had been pitched, we had very high level access to serious thinkers and ‘people who could get things done’ in Rwandan society. Lesson one filed away – we are being taken seriously here. And the downside – if we screw up this could get ugly quite quickly. I tried to banish negative thoughts. Mr Pessimist.
The other thing I perceived was that all four of us on the team had to establish our bona fides quickly with the sponsors. We knew what we knew, but we needed the ‘customers’ to know what we knew (if all that made sense). So we launched into the hard sell and managed to get a few smiles of encouragement. I did perceive an element of ‘where’s the beef?’ but in fairness and with hindsight I think I was reading the body language wrong at that point.
We finally got agreement on a scope that offered some hope of success, and set to work. The first two weeks were a mix of interviews, field trips and intensive reading of UN reports on topics like female empowerment, third world initiatives, and understanding Rwanda’s MDGs. You did – I assume – know that MDG stands for Millennium Development Goals and that Rwanda has a twenty year plan which began in 2000 and covers a multiplicity of indicators of progress?
I reflected (as I learned voraciously) that I now knew way more about Rwanda’s economy than I did about Ireland. My team was lucky in that we got to go ‘on the road’ a lot to meet female co-operatives, micro-financing organisations, women’s support networks in the field, and other organisations that could impact our project’s goals.
Back to the sub-team. This was very interesting to me. We’re all used to working in a hierarchy. We have a boss, we manage people, or we have peers. If we disagree, we ‘kick stuff upstairs’. But what if there are no bosses, no leaders, and no ‘upstairs’? How do we work together? Who does what? What happens if someone is under-contributing? So being a bit (!) of a control freak – alternative interpretation, I’m institutionalised – I meekly suggested early on ‘should we agree how we’re going to tackle this’? My recollection is that there was a vague interest for thirty seconds and then everyone went back to doing what they were doing. I decided to ‘wait and see’.
And, lo and behold, guess what? Every one of us gravitated to their specific area of expertise, everyone contributed, we hardly disagreed once, we discovered that our skills largely complemented one another, and at the end of the day I think we all learned from each other. Which was very reassuring to my doubting Thomas persona. In effect what happened was if someone felt strongly about something, we all challenged them and then fell back once the person rationalised why their perspective was valid. I’m not 100% sure if it’s a model for civilised living overall, but in a short timeframe and with committed people, it was great to discover it worked.
So after we built some trust and credibility with our sponsors, and learned to trust each other, what else happened? We ‘came off the road’ around the end of week two, having ‘divided to conquer’ on many occasions as meetings piled up. We read voraciously and individually around the topic. And then around the Tuesday of week three, and a bit like swallows deciding to fly south for the winter, we collectively concluded that it was time to start drafting our report. Actually if I’m honest I think it was Erica that said ‘time to stop reading and start writing’. I felt it was too early, but in the end she was right (there, I said it). Noriko also bribed me by telling me she’d teach me how to do Origami if I stopped researching and started writing…
Cue multiple drafts. I volunteered to try to ensure the English flowed, given that there were four of us contributing, while the others worked on the video and the presentation to accompany the report. I completed the first read-through while nursing a cracked rib (cue intriguing glimpse into another possible blog topic about the perils of mountain biking in Africa). The video turned into a work of art (Sundance awaits) and was finished by Erica and Noriko about 3.30 AM as we pulled an all-nighter. Praveen was an ‘early to bed’ man so he was getting up at 4AM to keep the momentum going. And finally, and improbably, we were more or less finished. We had a 60 page report, a two minute video mini-epic, and a punchy presentation. And I had a lot of nagging doubts, which I kept to myself.
Would we get eaten alive for constructing a cosmetic and simplistic proposition? Were we coming up with stuff that was already known? Would we get beaten up for suggesting unrealistic ideas? To my great joy and satisfaction, none of this happened. Instead our presentation – scheduled for a few hours – ran to almost four as we had a fantastic dialogue with our sponsors. They told us that they were amazed at how we had managed to map the landscape in a short time, how we were telling them (some) stuff about Rwanda even they didn’t know about, and – in general – that they felt our report and recommendations were relevant, meaningful and implementable. Nirvana! We floated out of the meeting room on a cloud and clutching the Rwandan souvenirs that they had very thoughtfully and kindly presented us with. Like spoils of war, kind of.
Back at the hotel – I admit it – we had a few Mutzig and Primus beers to celebrate a happy outcome and to mask our relief. A great feeling and a very nice staging point for a project we had put a lot of time and effort into. I think we’ll all have a continuing vested interest going forward in sharing helpful material we uncover with our new found Rwandan friends that may help their quest. And I hope we get the satisfaction of seeing some (at least) of our recommendations implemented. Everyone loves a happy ending, and I’m no exception to that rule. #ibmcsc rwanda