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Zimbabwe – Preparations

October 5, 2015

It was a hell of a ride. Not in a car, but in terms of our lives going through changes, uncertainty, hope and despair. Ever since doing my thesis in Portuguese speaking African countries, having visited Cape Verde, Guinea Bissau and Mozambique, our experiences had us longing for more of the same. This time not as a backpacking student, sleeping in crappy places and travelling on overcrowded busses, but as an expat. I had tried in vain for almost 10 years to get into the development world, but so far no luck. I was beginning to think it would never ever happen. I had a great job, working at one of the Netherlands biggest banks through an outplacement agency, with plenty of potential growth and the prospect of being hired permanently by the bank in a new long term project. In short, I had it made, with a job, house, lovely wife, 2 small children and a big fat lease car. But yet, I still longed for the adventure of starting all over again in a totally different environment. I wanted my kids to experience the same as my wife and I had done. Growing up abroad, I had spent my life in Portugal from 8 to 21 years old, and my wife had lived in Italy for most of her life. We were both mission kids and expat kids. I wanted my children to expand their horizons, feel the freedom and experience adventure. At the same time I would be having a jolly good time while they did that.

I managed to get a job interview at SNV, a Dutch aid agency which at the time was still part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I did not get the job, but they held on to my records and application, and I was sort of pre-screened and put in the potential good people folder. Another opportunity came along and I jumped at it once more. This time I got the job. I was going to assist local district councils with financial management in Mutare, a small town in the east of Zimbabwe, right on the border with Mozambique.

I had no freaking idea where Mutare was, so upon googling was happy to read that the climate was ok, with good infrastructures, schools and shops.

The main reason I got the job was because I was “coming from the world of banking”. The underlying idea was that SNV needed to be more professional, more business and consultancy minded. And the easiest way to do that, or so they reasoned, was to bring in people from a commercial environment. Of course this failed horribly, but that is another story. In true social sector efficiency the entire hiring process took forever or so it seemed. Knowing I would start the job somewhere in August, we finally left in April the next year. There were quite a number of issues. No one at head office could tell me exactly what my salary would be. I got 4 different calculations. This wasn´t helped by the fact that the Netherlands was changing currencies to the Euro which they had a hard time reflecting this in the calculations. After 1 month I had the job, but had not said yes or no, since I had no idea what I would be making. Would it be 2000 guilders or 4000 euro? Money wasn’t the driving factor, but I wasn’t intent on going survival mode with my family. That was however the least of our problems. Apparently, the Zimbabwean government was now reluctant to give working permits to Dutch nationals. Instead of the 1 or 2 year permits, it was limited to 6 months with possibility for renewal.

I had no intention of leaving everything behind and going to Africa for just six months. Further complicating the decision, my wife was pregnant, and although we were planning for a third child, our planning in this department was ahead of schedule. She was now three months pregnant and would be delivering just about the time the six months permit would have ended. Worse still, once you know you might be heading off to a country, you start following the news, and the news about Zimbabwe wasn’t very good. Crisis, people being beaten up for no reason, torture, inflation, and so the list went on. We had made some contacts with Dutch expats living in Zimbabwe working for the same organisation, and they managed to convince us that not everything you read in the papers is true and that they had a great life there with some minor challenges.

But basically it was fun, safe and we would be very welcome. We decided to go and take the risk of having to return after half a year. Easier said than done, keeping in mind the work permit issue wasn’t really progressing. I received a phone call from my director to be from Zimbabwe. He told me his name and introduced himself, to which I replied he was not the director, since I had just talked to the director a week ago and he had given his approval for my coming over there. Apparently the previous director was now in Thailand and he was the new guy. Good first impression… I had wanted to quit before really starting and return to my old job, now that is was still possible. I had been waiting for a couple of months and the situation didn’t seem to be changing much to the better. I was getting sick and tired of driving to The Hague to pretend to work whilst waiting, doing the secretarial odd job (such as phoning all country directors to ask whether they would be attending a meeting) and earning half the money I was used to since we were still in Holland not getting all the extra expat perks and benefits.
We had received new plane tickets for the fourth time since our trip had to be postponed time and time again due to work permit issues. Last month had been even harder with most of our stuff in a container, having to borrow some old garden chairs from neighbours to sit in and sleeping on an air mattress with our kids in an empty house. I had to postpone the end of the rental agreement for 2 times. We were feeling like unemployed bums. I had had it with this stupid organisation I used to want to work for, before even really starting to work for them. Our families were also anxious about us leaving or staying after all. It’s not nice to have three goodbye parties, one every month, because you believe you are finally going, but staying put after all. But, a life of adventure was calling and just around the corner, although the corner was a very long and wide one. We decided to stick with it and wait. In April 2002 we finally left.

Even before leaving I was informed that I would not be going to Mutare, but to Bulawayo, the second largest city. As I did not know either of these places, and our newly made internet Dutch friends and colleagues were in Bulawayo, I didn’t care. I was also not going to be part of the financial management programme (or Fin Man as it was called) since that program had been cancelled due to the fact that VNG (Association of Dutch Municipalities) broke off their joint program with SNV as there was disagreement over the results or lack thereof. In addition, technical assistance, where you physically sit at the beneficiary organisation and assist them pretending to be sharing and transferring knowledge, was also out the window. It was now called Development Assistance, and I would be one of those development assistants. Again, I didn’t care, as long as I was leaving. It did make me wonder what kind of paranoid, schizophrenic and unstable organisation I was going to work for.

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