We’ve all heard how our world is ‘a village’, where time and distance matter less and less, and where many of us can connect online, like now. But it’s one thing to sit at home checking a country on Wiki, to visit it on holiday, or to pass through on a business trip. It’s quite another to live and work abroad, long term.
In this report for ELLE magazine, two women from Romania and two from Moldova talk about the years they’ve spent in Africa. How does it feel? What are the pros and cons? How do you get a job there?
1. DANA LE ROY
We’re in an SUV, driving on a long, wide and very straight stretch in downtown Bamako. It’s chaos out there: honking lorries, swerving cars and buzzing motorbikes. Dana Le Roy points at the road ahead: “Guess what this used to be?” she asks. I shrug, clueless. She explains with a smile: “An airport runway.” In the front seat, her husband Jerome chuckles and turns to face me. “How’s that for improvisation?” he says. “Welcome to Mali.”
The Le Roys know a few things about improvisation. Jerome is a French diplomat who juggles big EC budgets; Dana is a Romanian medical doctor who drifted into media. They’ve just arrived after four years in Rwanda where Dana produced documentary films for Internews, an American NGO that uses media to boost development in emerging democracies.
Dana has a quick mind, bright eyes and a naughty smile. She enjoys living and working in Africa, even if it is a challenge at times. She talks fast, hardly pausing for breath as she answers my questions. Her enthusiasm is contagious.
What brought you to Africa?
“Jerome’s first job with the EC, as senior accountant in Rwanda. We arrived in 2004 and I first got involved with Save the Children, a UK charity promoting children’s rights. Often, I was the only foreigner so I had to think on my feet and learn a few local phrases to get through the day. Plus, I did a lot of travelling around the country, living in containers. That was tough!”
“Then I moved to Internews. Initially, my job was to close it down, since its public education film-making project, Justice After Genocide, was complete.”
Except being stubborn and determined, you soon had other ideas?
“Yes! The previous manager trained twelve local staff to international standards and installed AVID digital editing suites. They had made thirty-five films about post-genocide justice, shown around the country on mobile screens and in prisons, with public debates afterwards. This made me feel that our bosses in Paris and the USA had the wrong idea. It seemed a waste to close such a project and I wanted to keep it open, to find different subjects for more films that would contribute to Rwanda’s stability and development.“
After a bit of head scratching, networking and lobbying, it paid off. Over the next three years, Dana helped to secure almost €1m from diverse funders including the EC, World Bank, UNDP, US embassy, UK government and Rwanda’s tourism office. During this time, she produced seventeen new films on range of issues such as the demobilisation of child soldiers, a dance festival, and how football helps peace. One of the most powerful is a film about an EC-backed construction project in Kigali, where local people worked for five years to repair a dangerous ravine that had sliced their neighbourhood in two.
I watched the film at Dana and Jerome’s cool marble-tiled home in Mali. Needles to say, the bridging of the ravine – a geological divide – provides a perfect metaphor for peace and reconciliation.
Onscreen, you see Hutus and Tutsis, former killers and genocide survivors, sweating side-by-side in mud and rock to rebuild their community with their bare hands. One couple even fell in love on the project and were later married. “When we showed the final film, people were in tears,” says Dana, with a sigh of professional satisfaction.
But her favourite film is the one about the fabrics. She and her team got the idea when looking for a story about reconciliation in a huge refugee camp near the border between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo,
“Those two countries share a long troubled history. In one IDP* camp there were more than 100,000 people living in tents. These were not poor people, but well-fed farmers with large families, who had escaped from conflict. Now they were living on thirty grams of flour a day. Sheer hell.”
Of nearby Goma in Congo, Dana says: “The town full of volcanic lava from recent eruptions, everywhere looks gray and depressing. But we noticed a tailor in the camp, making clothes from the brightly patterned ‘pagne’ fabric that is so popular in so many African countries. Men buy romantic patterns for sweethearts and vice versa. Socially, it’s important to look smart. We said: look, that’s our story! Because pagne represents a shared culture, not conflict or difference.”
How did the locals react?
“They loved it. We filmed in both Congo and Rwanda. They said politicians, not ordinary people, cause conflict. The Rwandans cherished the pagne fabric imported from ‘our friends across the border’. Most of these women have seen terrible times, horrific violence. It’s hard not to get sad when you talk to them. We wanted to tell a happy, uplifting story for them. I think we succeeded.“
As a wife and mother, how do you balance work and home?
“I don’t travel so much since we had Theo. It’s not easy hearing your 2-year old son on the phone: Mummy you promised, when are you coming home?’
And how do you feel about Romania, these days?
“Hard to say. I love my country and it’s not so grey anymore, people in airports are happier, first impressions are better. But Romanians are beeping their cars all the time, nervous and stressed and for what? Coming home from Africa, that’s very bizarre.
2. VIOLETA COJOCARU
Violeta Cojocaru sips her mineral water and smiles, shaking her head and staring into her glass as if puzzled by something. Then she tells me why.
“A local shamen will mix a traditional concoction for a new baby, to honour the spirit world. The mother gives it to the baby to drink. The baby gets diarrhea from the dirty water. Sometimes it will die. That’s what we are up against. That’s why this work matters. That’s why I like my job.”
We are sitting in the outdoor café at UNICEF in Niamey. It’s cool under the large conical roof of thatched grass, but scorching hot in the courtyard beyond, where fat lizards watch us, heads tilted. Violeta is Programme Communication Specialist with UNICEF Niger. She has short brown hair and a serious look. But when I make a comment about the lizards doing press-ups, she laughs hard and loud. You need a sense of humour in Africa, especially in a serious job.
“We target mothers, fathers, grandparents, community leaders, health staff, any sort of caregiver. We try to change specific behaviours and practises, within families and communities.”
What kind of behaviour are you seeking to change?
“In Niger, our main concern is child survival. Our research identified seven essential family practises and eight essential services that need to be provided if a kid is to have a decent chance of a healthy life. For example, birth delivery in a safe and clean environment; exclusive breast-feeding to prevent babies drinking dirty water, hand washing; proper drilling of wells; proper use of rehydration salts; access to vaccinations; use of mosquito nets and so on.”
But how do you transform theory into practise?
“That’s the hard part. It’s not enough for us to have the information, we have to get it to people in a way that resonates with them, so they will engage, become curious, adopt new ideas, change how they live and know why.”
What works best?
“Radio is the most powerful method, it’s popular and well established. Print is only strong in cities and TV has a small audience. But when talking about health issues, anywhere in the world, the most effective communication is interpersonal, either one-to-one or in a group debate. This requires a visual element too, something interactive. If people feel their questions are being addressed, if they can see or hear about other people who changed their own behaviour and benefited, then they are more likely to follow that example. It’s not enough just to say ‘This is what you must do’. So we use drama and sketches and discussions and broadcast the results on the radio.”
But Niger is a massive rural country. Where do you start?
“We have two methods. First, we create a network of local community animators who each have their own area with a specific number of families they are supposed to visit and organise public discussions on specific issues. This is quite hard work for us because we have to monitor them and make sure the work is done properly. The second method is on a larger scale, where we link the community animators to several big international NGOs and work through radio.”
How do you measure your results?
“We use KAP studies to monitor Knowledge, Attitudes and Practise. We have a big evaluation going on right now, to assess our reach. Next month we’ll find out who listens, what they like, how much they learned.”
The friendly waiter clears our table and the lizards dash for cover. Violeta sighs and sits back, perhaps wondering what the assessment will reveal.
It sounds like important work. How did you get into it?
“I was a print journalist in Chisinau with Basapres, the first independent news agency in Moldova. Then I was a stringer for Deutsch Welle, social affairs. When UNICEF opened in Moldova in 1995 I covered their activities. The more I learned, the more interested I became. Plus, after eleven years covering the same beat in a small country like Moldova, I needed a change. I got a job in communications at UNICEF then began to specialise in Behaviour Change. In 2003 I attended a 3-week summer school hosted by New York University and the World Health Organisation. It was a real eye-opener, I learned so much, notably from Everold Hossein, a communications guru with the WHO.”
Do you enjoy living in Niger?
“Yes! The people are friendly, Niamey is a very calm city, I don’t feel any aggression. It’s not crowded or polluted. Plus there are animal reservations, local markets and very rich traditions. It’s interesting. It’s a bit hot in summer and I miss my husband and daughter, but she’s grown up now and we’ll all meet soon.”
How do you relax?
“I play tennis twice a week and I recently discovered a gardening class. I was having driving lessons too, but my instructor crashed the car!”
And you have a kitten for company?
“Yes, Tigrusa. She runs up my door and stares inside the house.”
Perhaps she’s wondering what brought you to Africa?
Violeta laughs aloud as she poses for a photograph. Then we say goodbye and she strides back to her office. She knows the answer.
3. CEZARINA TRONE
Cezarina Trone brings a salad and cold drinks onto the quiet terrace. She has a deep tan and wears loose linen with her long brown hair swept back. She has the graceful moves and tight skin of a yoga practitioner. A local gardener sprays lush green foliage nearby, the arcs of water glint silver in the late afternoon sun. Sitting on this idyllic, shaded spot, overlooking a swimming pool while exotic birds chirp in the trees, it’s hard to believe we are in one of the poorest places on earth.
The Republic of Niger is a huge country, almost 500,000 square miles, dominated by the Sahara desert and scrubland. It has a population of over 14 million. It also has a lot of goats grazing any patch of green.
In the north, a low-level military insurgency simmers among ethnic Tuareg rebels, who want a greater share of political and economic power. Some observers say the place could slide into serious trouble. But for now, it feels safe enough. It’s also home for many ex-pats, including my host Cezarina, a Romanian based in the US, who is currently working in Africa as a teacher.
Cezarina seems happy with life in Niger but knows it’s not so easy for others. We’ll come back to that later. For now, I’m curious to find out what brought her here. Her eyes sparkle as she chats, her infectious laughter echoes around the garden walls.
“I moved from Romania to the USA in 1996, aged 20, to marry an American. My Romanian teaching degree was not valid there so I studied at Southern Illinois University and qualified to teach in elementary schools. Later I got divorced and moved to Ohio, where I began teaching. One day, still trying to find myself, I asked God or the Universe to help me. A minute later, by telephone, I was offered a job teaching in Africa. It was totally unreal, like divine intervention, but just what I needed. So I came. It’s been a challenge, but fun!”
You say you have a creative, artistic approach to your teaching at the American International School of Niamey. What do you mean?
“I teach young children and to me that’s a big responsibility, because they’re tomorrow’s adults, right? So, I feel we should empower them as much as possible. When I first arrived, their lessons followed the classic US model, which is OK. But after I noticed they responded very well to creative activities after school, I began to weave those elements into the normal teaching day, using ideas I had developed as a teacher in the US. The response has been amazing.”
What do you add, specifically?
“Creative dance, finger painting and yoga, things like that. I consider yoga both an art and a science. It’s been proven to be very effective with kids. I integrate the physical exercises with poems, songs, dances and poses… whatever works.”
Since AISN charges fees of $10,000 per child per year, parents presumably expect progress. As a teacher, how do you measure success?
“I truly can see and witness the changes in the children as they get a chance to express themselves. It builds their self-confidence, deepens personal relations within the class and at home too. Kids come to me saying: I sang the yoga ‘getting-up’ song this morning to wake my parents and they got up and did yoga with me! And I’m sitting there smiling because it’s just really beautiful to hear that. Little by little we added more elements, such as a website where the kids and their folks can contribute and see photos of our activities. It’s great!”
Judging by the comments of two pupils, Cezarina’s approach is popular.
Vanessa from 1st Grade says: “It’s fun to come to our school because you can learn new things and fun stuff like math, spelling, yoga, arts and crafts, painting, dancing, reading, show and tell, listening to stories, having visitors come over, making new friends, singing, going to the library, gardening!”
Little Khadriana from Kindergarten adds: “I love school because I learn how to read and write. I like our reading cave where Ms. Trone reads books to us. I like when we have Native Amercan names; mine is Dancing Star. I like singing and yoga.”
And the grown ups? ASIN Director Ms. Debba Robinsnon clearly approves:
“Cezarina brings an energy and enthusiasm to every activity. With her thoughtful motivational quotes, web sites and a spirit of love and acceptance, she touches all our lives and brightens up the corridors of the school.”
We finish our salad and it’s time to say goodbye. On the dusty street outside her home Cezarina mentions her plans to teach yoga at a local Muslim school in 2009. But she seems troubled for a moment when she spots a couple of local kids playing in the dirt nearby: “I’d like to do something for these little ones too. That’s my dream. The kids at ASIN are privileged and have everything. But poor kids need empowering too. Tomorrow’s adults, right?”
4. LILIA GHEORGHIU
Lilia Gheorghiu looks tres mignon, as usual, with a reserved manner and a big, friendly smile. Her husband Ben towers beside her. He’s quick-witted with bright blue eyes like Paul Newman. They’ve been on the road since 1998, living and working in Armenia, Hungary, Slovakia, Kosovo, Rwanda and now the USA. We last met in Kigali, June 2005. Tonight we’re in a Thai restaurant in Washington and I’ve forgotten my tape recorder. How professional.
Lilia is from Moldova, an accountant with a PhD in maths. She’s got a new job here in DC, as ‘Grants Finance Compliance Officer, International Programs’. She’s with an American NGO: Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Cool name, but what does your NGO do?
“We have a number of departments in the US and overseas. We mostly lobby for changes in legislation on tobacco control: more taxation, smoke free zones, banning ads and so on. Overseas we issue financial grants to other NGOs who share our goals. We discuss the best ways they can tackle similar problems in their own countries. For example, how to get the laws changed on taxation.”
What is the link between taxation, tobacco and kids?
“Research shows that the more tobacco costs, the less accessible it is to kids and the less they are exposed to it. Also, more people begin smoking as kids than they do as adults. We don’t tell people to quit smoking, we make it difficult for kids to start smoking by reducing their exposure to it.”
Who started the NGO and who funds it?
“The campaign was started twelve years ago by people who were passionate about tobacco control. They lobbied for donations and it grew, becoming part of a larger body. Bill Gates contributed and Michael Bloomberg, the New York billionaire, gave over $125m. He has specific aims and that’s why we don’t campaign for smoking cessation, it’s too costly and hard to evaluate. Instead we focus on four or five priority issues in priority countries, where smoking is a problem and kids are vulnerable due to a lack of legislation.”
How do you measure success?
“It’s easy. By checking whether or not a country has changed the laws on taxation, advertising, sales of tobacco, tobacco lobbying etc. For example, India recently went ‘smoke-free’.”
But why would a government listen to your NGO?
“Because higher tax generates more money for them; smoke-free zones prevent illness, which boosts productivity and reduces the financial burden on health services; a visible commitment to the health of children wins votes at election time and helps politicians get re-elected.”
You’ve lived and worked in Rwanda. How do you find it?
“Good and bad. From a professional point of view, I was successful because most of my colleagues lacked higher education or good accountancy practise. On a personal level, I found it a shock to live among black people, but I adapted and enjoyed the attention. It can be drawback when you wish to blend in, but that’s how a black person would probably feel in an all-white place?”
You spent time in Nigeria too, how do they compare?
“Nigeria is huge, you meet a lot of educated, well-informed people. I felt like a small fish in a big pond. Nigerians say whatever they want and it feels like a real democracy. But Rwanda doesn’t and unless it becomes more open and democratic, I feel there could be another genocide.”
What might a Westerner learn from living in Africa?
“At the local, practical level, Africans have a remarkable ability to improvise and make the most of what they have, they are not wasteful. On a spiritual level we can learn from people who have survived massacres but talk about it in a very calm and dignified way, without tears or anger. How would we react, in their shoes? We should also learn from how some Africans react to foreign aid: they feel it’s their right. We are building too much aid dependency. I don’t know how to change it but I’m not comfortable with it.”
Is Moldova changing?
“Yes! People used to have a Cold War mentality. I used argue with them. Now we have the same old discussions but they agree with me! They see I was right about the rise of China!”
Will people in Eastern Europe ever reduce their tobacco habit?
“For sure, our campaign is very effective. Turkey went smoke-free last year. It just requires a government to see the advantages and change the laws. Russia might take longer, though.”
Do you ever feel envy towards you, among people back home?
“Yes. Some people think I married an American then I got good jobs. But my career was already on track when I met Ben, because I had always worked hard. Sure, he broadened my horizons, but I got those jobs because of who I am, not because of who he is.”
How do you relax?
“I like balancing our accounts, I like knitting and I dream of a nice home with a big garden.”
If extra-terrestrials exist, will we use maths to communicate with them?
“I don’t know, I never thought of that!”
(First published in ELLE magazine, February 2009, by S.C. Edipresse A.S. SRL, Romania. Photos by Mike Ormsby & Jerome Le Roy)