My name is Galina; I’m originally from the sunny south of Russia and living in a cloudy London.
I want to share with you the first part from the story of my last four years. It’s a story about leaving the life I had built behind and heading into the unknown, finding home in five different countries, making right and wrong choices, meeting wonderful people and people who by being rough with me helped me grow, and most importantly, the story about finding my love (what good story isn’t) and reconnecting with my true self.
It started when I was about thirteen years old. I watched a documentary made by Bono from U2 about Uganda and the horrible challenges people were facing there. At that moment something in me changed for good. I knew that one day I will go to Africa and do anything I can to help change things.
After that, life brought a lot of challenges in my life (“learning opportunities” as I call them). There was no money, bullying at school, corruption in the universities, a broken heart and a lot more. These all inspired me to take my life in my own hands and build something good out of the circumstances.
By the time I reached 25, I was a successful Head of Human Resources at IKEA with interesting offers, enough salary to have a decent lifestyle, a rented studio apartment, a boyfriend and the best friends in the world. Life was as comfortable and nice as it can be in Moscow, if you are not an oligarch.
But I was not content. My heart was longing for a deeper fulfillment. The smile was hiding the pain from abandoning a bigger dream, a dream so fragile, that it disappears once you start talking about it. The dream was to go to Africa and apply myself. So from time to time I was browsing the Internet for volunteering opportunities. I was puzzled to learn that to do volunteer work you actually need to pay a few thousand dollars. Even though I had good salary, my savings were minimal so paying for it, leaving my job and a steady income was out of the question.
As it always happens in good stories, a good fairy came to the rescue! :)The fairy turned up in the form of my former-two-meters-tall Dutch boss. He wrote to me saying that he remembers my interest in Africa and that now he is working for a telecom company and looking for a Head of HR in Ghana. I was more than happy to apply but I couldn’t believe that it could actually work out. I sent my CV, had a couple of phone interviews and got an invitation to go to Ghana for real interviews.
This is when I realised that it’s not a joke anymore. As an HR person, I knew that they wouldn’t pay twenty five hundred dollars for my tickets and hotel unless they were seriously considering me.
The day came and I took the flight that was the turning point of my life. I landed at Accra airport and the first thing I sensed was a warm and sweet smell in the air. Later I will learn that this special “African” smell is present everywhere and this is the smell that my heart still remembers.
It was late night. In the darkness of Accra the taxi took me to Novotel hotel and, exhausted from emotions, I immediately fell asleep in the warm damp room with a broken AC.
Morning started early. At 7am the sales manager, Nicolas, picked me up from the hotel to take me to a market visit before the interviews that were planned for the afternoon. I was obviously dressed for the interviews, white blouse and skirt, but it was the most ridiculous outfit I could possibly wear at where I was taken.
The market visit was to go to the city neighbourhoods and sell pre-paid and SIM cards to people in the streets. There were six of us, locals and expats driving in two pick-up trucks. Finally we stopped and got out of the trucks. One of the guys explained to me how to sell the SIMs and gave me a bunch of them. That’s when I looked around.
Even though I grew up in more than humble environment, I was shocked. It felt like I was in a documentary, except that no movie can make you feel the ruthless sun burning you and the smell of rotting food and sewage. It was, as I learned later, one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Accra, basically slums. People there live in self-made two-by-two shacks made of cardboard, tin and pieces of wood, if you’re lucky. Women were cooking on the fire outside of their homes or washing clothes in the buckets, children playing, men walking around talking passionately. One picture that captured the moment for me was two teenage girls washing a four-year-old child in the street, pouring water on him from the bucket. These people were living in the hardest conditions that I’ve ever seen in my life.
I was drawn back to reality when Nicolas assigned me to two local guys and told me to go with them to sell my SIM cards. Most importantly I was supposed to get the feel of the core business as a potential HR manager.
Still shaken by the initial shock I followed the guys around the neighbourhood, stopping to talk to people in the local dialect. Naturally people were amazed to see me, a young blonde girl in a white blouse and skirt, so they were pointing at me, laughing and asking my companions about me. I felt stupid and very self-conscious.Then I told myself that it’s time to pull myself together. In the end, here I am, in Africa!! I had expected to see something like this, so why am I so close to losing it?
I started to participate in the conversations. My companions were translating and YAY I sold one SIM card! 🙂 In the end it started to be fun, I was meeting people, they were amazed that I’m from Russia and they kept asking me about snow. That proved to be the best conversation starter for the rest of my stay in Africa.
I “survived” the market visit and the heat of African midday sun. I got to the office dusty, sweaty and with my face red from sunburn. The office was great! Modern building with clean and spacious offices. What made me laugh inside was that the ACs were working to match the Russian winter: I was freezing and shivering! 🙂
The rest of the day was easy as I was back in my element of corporate world. I went through the interviews with the COO, CFO and CTO and then one with the CEO. If the first ones were pretty standard, the one with the CEO left me inspired, intrigued and hopeful. He was french in his late forties, who has worked in Africa for many years. We had a very honest conversation and it felt like he got to the core of who I am not only as professional but also as a human being. He told me a lot about Ghana, the company and the challenges they were facing. He was so inspiring that in that moment I felt that I wanted to join the team.
The official part was over. I had two more 2 days to check out the city. So the first thing I did the next day was hiring a taxi. I asked the driver to take me anywhere he thought is worth seeing if you have one day in Accra. He suggested several places and I picked the National Museum, the Jamestown prison and a local market.
It was one of the most fascinating days in my life. In the museum I saw the artefacts from the slavery period, the biggest embarrassment of the western world. The guide, a passionate middle aged lady, told me about the scars it had left on the nation and how proud they are to recover from this horrendous experience. She was especially proud to tell me that Ghana was the most peaceful and the only truly democratic country in Africa.
The prison was an ancient fort dilapidated from the sea and weather. To get to it I had to walk along the beach where fishermen were sorting the fish that they had caught earlier that day from their gorgeous colourful wooden boats. The place was overwhelmed by the smell of fish rotting in the sun.
After having lunch with the taxi driver who generously assumed the role of my guide, we went to the local market. It was fascinating to see all the beautiful handmade items. But even more beautiful were the people, who were incredibly friendly and nice to me even if I didn’t buy anything. Their smiles were so open and genuine that I felt warm and welcomed. Again it was easy for me to talk to the people once I mentioned where I come from. Snow, snow, snow 🙂
Finally the third and last day of my stay came. This was the day to meet with the CEO again to know if I get the job or not. I was nervous. All this time I was trying to decide what to do if I indeed get the offer. Suddenly it was becoming a reality. It’s my life, and the question is – do I want to stay in the comfort of Moscow with the people I love, or do I want to leave everything behind and go into the unknown.
I met with the CEO and he told me that I got the job. A thick fog of uncertainty, excitement, doubt and paralysing terror descended on me. I couldn’t think straight. We exchanged warm goodbyes, I promised to let him know of my decision within a week, I returned to the hotel, wrote to people back home, tried to sleep but couldn’t, got up at dawn, went to the botanical garden, return to my room, picked up my suitcase, boarded my flight, landed in Moscow, got home and broke down in tears.
(to be continued)