Blazing start for African database project

A UK professional shares his experience of working for VSO in Zambia

"On the second night I was woken by exploding roof tiles and the whole compound was blazing. I thought I was in the middle of a riot because I saw men running by with shotguns, but it turned out they were trying to get everybody out of the block of flats which had caught fire," said Voluntary Services Overseas volunteer Daniel Cashdan.

The blaze provided an early initiative test for Cashdan who, with his limited knowledge of the language, had to locate the man with the keys to the VSO vehicles, which were parked outside the building. "I had to move them before they caught fire," he said.

Life calmed down somewhat for the 18 months following his initial baptism of fire. Cashdan looked to work overseas initially as a result of enduring a treadmill of school, exams, university, more exams and then work. He wanted a total change. His employers at IBM were sympathetic and agreed to an 18-month sabbatical working for VSO in Zambia as a database developer.

The health and education project he worked on involved developing a database to help the Zambians halt the spread of HIV and Aids, which had already affected 20% of the population.

In the office the expectation of how and why things were done also proved enlightening. "In the UK IT industry we are used to results, tight deadlines and planning in a very organised way. In Zambia people were more interested that the job was done rather than when it was done. Perhaps more important was the quality of the work," said Cashdan.

Cashdan took the job because he wanted to travel and contribute something to another society. "I expected to pick up interpersonal but not technical skills, but I set up an internet site and designed a network for the first time," said Cashdan. "Being a volunteer you get a lot more responsibility. You have to learn a lot of project management and people management skills. Essentially, my role was to develop the IT department, train staff and help them get the most out of the IT resources they had."

It took a long time for Cashdan to come to terms with the culture. "All the volunteers find it frustrating at times," he said. "There were times when I did not understand what people meant. They would agree to a meeting and then not turn up. I had to acclimatise. One time, I was sitting with a colleague one-on-one with a piece of work and she just got up and walked away and returned two hours later - I did not know why this happened.

"Projects would start with enthusiasm and then people would lose interest. As a volunteer you want your work to be sustainable and to be carried on by people working locally."

As time went by Cashdan got to understand the way things worked in the country and why on the surface inexplicable things happened. He saw it as a measure of his success that projects were sustained - a couple of days ago he got an e-mail from a colleague he was working with in Zambia asking him to look at the newly updated website. "I was really proud to see that 18 months after I had gone people were still publishing documents and using that facility," said Cashdan.

Cashdan has remained in touch with VSO. "I would love to volunteer again at some point. I spend a weekend once every couple of months helping new volunteers prepare to go overseas. It helps me keep in touch with the organisation and I feel I am contributing," he said.

Read more on Database software