You cannot say you are an expert on developing countries without experiencing them, says EU Aid Volunteer Albena Sotirova
After studying Development Economics at the Kiel Institute in Germany, Albena Sotirova wanted to connect the theoretical knowledge with practice. The best way to do it, she realized, was to get firsthand experience in a developing country. Albena was happy to find a way to do this as an EU Aid Volunteer for a year into Angola, where she works in People in Need’s finance department.
Can you describe a typical working day in Angola?
We usually start work at 8 in the morning, which means we have to wake up quite early, prepare breakfast, and go to the office. During the day I am mostly in the office. First we have opening hours for the locals. So I have the opportunity to meet a lot of local colleagues, which helps me to learn their names and know who they are. So I have interactions with a lot of people during the day. Sometimes it’s very crowded; our office is basically never empty. Then I have some time for a capacity building training for our finance department, and that's the time when we have our office closed. I try to actually keep the door closed so we can really focus on training. My colleagues are very nice. I am happy to have them; I would say we are not only colleagues, but friends now, and we can talk about any issue.
What language do you speak, is there any language barrier?
They speak English, so they also help me when locals come to our office because most of them do not speak English. The local dialect is Umbundu, which people here sometimes speak among themselves, but otherwise it is mostly Portuguese. I speak French, which makes it easier for me to understand Portuguese. It's not the same language, but there are some similarities in the words so I actually understand quite a lot. I am trying to speak, and it makes them quite happy when you try and speak in their language. Of course simple words like “hello” and “thank you” and “how are you,” but I am trying.
What led you to look for EUAV program?
My specialization is developing economy. But never really had the chance to go to a developing country. So I wanted to go and live there, not just for two weeks, but actually spend some time there. There are people that go for two weeks and say, “yeah I’ve been there, and I am an expert on this in this country,” but that's not how it works in my opinion. You have to be there and stay for some time to really experience the life. You need to communicate with your colleagues, who are locals, and just go and see around to understand what’s going on, and what are the processes within the country, certain developments in the social sector, the culture, etc. I think from a distance, in Europe, you know there are certain problems and everyone has an opinion, but it doesn’t really match the reality. What I most like about the position is that you can actually drive some change. I see it in the finance department: I am providing the training, and my two local colleagues are very willing to learn through the exercises They always finish them and so they are always prepared, they ask for other ones when I have time. That is very nice to see.
You are from Bulgaria, and you went with an NGO from Czech Republic to Angola? How did that happen?
That's Europe! I found this position on the internet. I started researching People in Need and that’s how it started. I was a bit surprised that I did not know about PIN earlier. Especially because I am from Bulgaria, I should have known this NGO in Central Europe. You are a quite big organization with different kinds of projects; you are not only focused on one sector - like education - which is quite impressive. So, I am surprised that I did not know about you earlier.
How do use your previous working experiences here?
I have a background in economics and finance, so for me it came naturally. I had taken courses in accounting, auditing, and more complicated finance, so it was quite natural that I would go into this direction. I was involved in finance at an NGO that was way smaller than People in Need in Germany. I was responsible for the membership fees and sometimes I was also doing the bank operations, but it was not to the same extent as here. Here it is a very advanced level, more advanced than what I was doing before. Working on finance in a developing country is way different than being at the headquarters somewhere. There are a lot of things that you didn’t really think of before. For example, sometimes the electricity stops and the generator might not work immediately, and you have to wait. You have to be prepared for the unexpected here. That makes work fun as well. Because varies and you have to be very flexible.
Was there anything that really surprised you in the beginning, something that you didn’t expect?
This is my first time in a developing country, so for me a lot of things were unexpected. I had a certain understanding based on individuals’ stories, and movies I had watched, but I had never experienced it myself. So I was prepared in a way for certain things, like power cuts or having to drink bottled water. But I was not prepared, for example, to see kids begging on the street here… So that is something which, especially in the first days, was really heartbreaking for me. You have to just see the country as it is, and also take note of the positive sides. I talk with my local colleagues, and they are quite happy people, so that is the other side of life. So there are positives and negatives, just like in other countries.
Do you feel homesick sometimes?
Actually, I’ve been away from home for quite some time because after high school I went to study abroad, and since then I’ve been abroad. But living in Angola, that was the first time I was in a place that wasn’t a two hour flight, so that was different thing this time. But I keep in touch with my family via skype, and we try to talk regularly, so I don’t feel that homesick. Sometimes you miss things you don’t expect; for example after the first month I just really wanted to eat a burger from McDonalds, which there isn’t here. So it’s just small things you don’t imagine, like missing a hamburger.
How is the local food in Angola? Do you like it?
Yes, we eat local food here, and I have lunch from time to time in the office. I like it; it’s mostly rice, beans, vegetables and some kind of meat like chicken or pork. I live with two other EU Aid volunteers from different countries. So when we are at home, we try to prepare our local dishes. We take turns and everybody prepares something from their cuisine. That is also nice. You can have Portuguese or Bulgarian dishes in Angola! Or Czech ones. I’d never actually had Czech food before coming here.
How do you spend your free time?
I am happy with my social life I must say. Unfortunately, Kuito is a bit smaller city compared to the capital, or Labango, where we have another office, or Huambo where we have the other office. But I’m lucky because of my flat mates. On weekends we take a walk and get bananas and avocados; we go to the supermarket, and to the bakery. When we heard there was a gym in the city, we went there and now we try to go exercise regularly. And sometimes we make a coffee together, sit outside at our table and enjoy the sun.
Learn more about PIN work in Angola here.