Interview with Mary Mkoji, an Inspirator with the GESHAVO project

For the past two years ActionAid Denmark has been coordinating the GESHAVO project. Funded by the EU Aid Volunteers Initiative, this project is working with ActionAid offices in Greece, Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe to help build capacity for women to be more involved in responses to humanitarian crises. It also involved all partners being officially certified by the EU so they can host EU volunteers in the future. As part of the project, Mary Mkoji, a Kenyan, spent nine months volunteering with ActionAid Zambia.

What have you been doing as a volunteer in the GESHAVO project?

As a humanitarian inspirator, I have been able to provide technical support to ActionAid Zambia team in mainstreaming gender and protection in their humanitarian work, proposal writing and capacity building therefore directly contributing to three priority areas: Women and Girls Socio-Economic Empowerment, Transformative Women-Led Emergency Preparedness, Response and Prevention and Youth- Led Alternatives and Engagement.

I have also done numerous field visits specifically supporting women and youth in partner organisations through trainings on unpaid care work, SRHR, Disaster Risk Reduction, Core Humanitarian Standards and women rights in order to increase their awareness on gender equality as well as strengthen their resilience, participation and leadership during emergency preparedness.

Why did you apply to become a volunteer in the project?

To step out of my comfort zone and grow my experience. For me, being an Inspirator has allowed me to push my limits to greater heights, to learn things that cannot be taught or read but can only be learnt through actions; practically doing. I was super excited to volunteer under the GESHAVO project as I felt it was unique given its dual in-country and multi-country focus (it has depth and width) as well as its objective to prioritise women and youth in emergency response. I have always been passionate about advancing women and youth rights.

What does the EU Aid Volunteers Initiative mean to you?

To me, EUAVI plays a crucial role in facilitating linkages between professionals and organisations where technical expertise and needs are identified. The initiative then supports the process where these needs are met, and gaps filled in a sustainable way. It offers a platform that allows professionals to live out their purpose and passion of empowering and impacting communities directly. Volunteers like me get the opportunity to be active contributors in driving change as well as inspire action in others at the same time.

What have you enjoyed most about your volunteering role?

I have enjoyed the milestones we have achieved working as a team as well as the change stories we keep receiving from partners and communities we have worked with. There is a sense of fulfilment in seeing lives being changed for the better and communities being empowered and to know that you contributed to it; no matter how small of a role you played. I have also enjoyed working with different people and learning the Zambian culture; an experience that has nurtured my ability to appreciate and embrace the diversity and the complexity that exists in working in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic environment.

What’s been your biggest challenge in the project, and how did you overcome it?

Joining the team late was a huge setback as it took a while to find my place as well as understand what specific areas I was working on and how this in turn contributed to the overall achievement of the project objectives. I kept an open mind and asked a lot of questions to gain more clarity and understanding on the relevance of my role. Luckily, both the team supporting the GESHAVO project in country and fellow Inspirators were very supportive in helping me to fit in well.

What impact has this volunteering experience had on you personally?

Honestly, I have gained a lot of confidence in my professional abilities. The fact that I have been able to move, adapt and deliver results within the short timeframe encourages me that my technical skills are transferrable in varied contexts and cultures. I am no longer boxed to work in my country but can venture to other countries and influence change. I am now more motivated to do more and challenge those around me to occupy more spaces to impart and contribute to the change we want.

What have you learnt as a result of your volunteering?

I have learnt to how to cultivate lasting and meaningful friendships and their importance. International volunteering is not easy. You must learn, unlearn, and relearn certain things and behaviours. I have learnt to appreciate my friends and colleagues who have become my family while here. I have also advanced my technical skills and knowledge specific to humanitarian and gender sensitive programming as I have been exposed to different frameworks, tools and approaches that I believe will be relevant as I continue to grow in my career. ActionAid has a lot of materials and resources available online one can access and greatly benefit from.

What difference do you feel you made as a result of your involvement?

I brought in different ideas and ways of working which is the beauty of international placements. I tried as much as possible to incorporate best practises and shared learnings from my previous work experience. The use of practical examples from Kenya while training made the participants curious to learn how similar challenges are tackled in other countries. They were able to appreciate that the challenges they face are not unique to them and can be overcome through combined efforts by communities and a shift in attitude.

What one piece of advice would give to someone thinking of volunteering internationally?

Stop thinking and just go for it! Keep your focus on what inspired you to volunteer in the first place as this will often be the very thing that keeps you going. Additionally, have an open mind on what to expect and how things will work out. For me, it’s been an absolute rollercoaster in Zambia but in the end, I believe I will come out a better person having blossomed where I was planted!

- Read an interview with Fischer about his time in Zimbabwe...

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