In my previous post, I shared with you the first step of the journey that transformed my life forever. I had been dreaming to go to Africa and my dream was about to come true. I got an offer from a mobile telecom company to work as Head of Human Resources in Ghana. Now it was time to make a decision.
…After a long sleepless night I found myself back in my apartment in Moscow. Everything was familiar, except that it was not. In fact I could not recognise anything, and especially the face I saw in the mirror. The trip to Ghana transformed me in the deepest way. I was longing to go back but I was petrified to leave my comfortable and safe life behind. To make matters worse, two days after I returned from Ghana, I got another job offer – a senior HR role in an international retail company in Moscow with double my current salary.
I had one week to decide.
By the end of the week I have changed my mind about a hundred times. I was torn apart. The only thing that was clear was that the choice is not between jobs or countries or opportunities, but between my mind and my heart. My mind was telling me to stay and play safe. My heart was already in Ghana.
People say, you should do what you CANNOT NOT DO. I could not betray my heart.
I will never forget the night I sent an email accepting the job offer. I couldn’t press the “send” button for two hours. I made a decision to go, I wanted to go, but I knew that the moment I press the button, there will be no way back. After two hours of staring at the screen with the email already written, I moved the mouse, closed my eyes and pressed “send”.
It’s a strange feeling when your life turns upside down in a split second. My body was shaking and I had a bitter taste in my mouth. I was overwhelmed with an intoxicating mix of excitement, sadness, anticipation and fear.
As always, I didn’t let myself dwell in emotions and focused on technicalities. I sold and gave away my furniture and winter clothes, I found a successor at work and did a handover, I arranged all the necessary farewell parties and took care of paperwork and visa.
Four weeks after I pressed the “send” button, I was boarding the plane and all I had in my life were two big suitcases. There was I and suitcases – nothing else. It felt surreal. In that moment I suddenly felt so alive and free! Nothing was holding me back! Fear, the master of holding people back, could not do anything anymore. Fear was present, it was strong, but I did not give it the honor to define my life. It was the new beginning. New life. Only my two big suitcases and me.
On the way to Ghana, I went to Amsterdam and Luxembourg for a company induction. Before this trip, I had only travelled to the UK as a child, to Sweden for meetings, and to Egypt for the sun. So I truly enjoyed every moment of this trip. I remember how I admired the beauty of these cities and hoped to visit again. I could not even imagine that both the Netherlands and Luxembourg would become my homes in the future. 🙂
Five days later I finally boarded the plane to go to Ghana.
The first few weeks blended into a swirl of new experiences – new people, new places, new flavors, new everything. People often ask me what was the most radical change for me. The answer is the constant feeling of newness. Every day, every hour brought something new, and it made days feel like weeks. It was exciting, incredibly stimulating and at the same time overwhelming. There is only so much information and impressions one can take in. Sometimes in the office I felt like Johnny Mnemonic, and had to spend a few minutes alone in the meeting room to recharge and clear my head.
What made the adaptation more difficult was the workload I faced. My objectives were huge, challenges even bigger. The CEO that had interviewed me was promoted and the COO, a senior executive from Paraguay in his early forties, was appointed as his replacement a week after I arrived. He was new in the role and very demanding by nature. He wanted to see tangible results and changes immediately. So I dived into work with all the passion of a veteran workaholic.
I was working on average twelve hours a day including weekends. It wasn’t new for me, but what I didn’t take into account was the pressure of having to adapt to a completely foreign world, that took much of my energy. I forgot that I was there not only to work, but also to live. I was blindly heading towards a burnout. But that is another story that will happen much later.
Meanwhile, I was getting to know the people and the country! In my opinion, Ghanaians are the most amazing, cheerful, open, kind, caring, compassionate, and life-loving people in the world! Maybe that is why Ghana is one of the safest and the most democratic country in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s impossible not to fall in love with it if your heart is open.
At the same time, there is a history of oppression and slavery that left scars. Even until today, there is a visible division between locals and expats. That was the reason why, as with many other foreigners, I faced mistrust and skepticism.
Racism is a very hard topic for me to talk about. I detest any kind of discrimination, because I’ve experienced it throughout my own life – being too poor, too young and too Russian. It was painful for me to be labeled, but I knew there were reasons for it.
In addition to being an expat, I was very young, and that created even more skepticism. You see, everything in my life happened at an early age. I started working (giving private English lessons) when I was thirteen, got into university when I was sixteen, started a full time HR career at the age of twenty, and became an HR manager for the first time when I turned twenty-three. Even though my career was dynamic and successful, I had to work twice as hard just to be taken seriously. Ghana was no different.
As always, the only thing I could do was to show who I am and what I stand for through my actions. Day after day, brick by brick, I built trustful relationships and gained respect from my colleagues.
When it comes to human relationships and trust, it’s always fascinating to see how much “small” things matter. For example, having lunch in the staff canteen. It wasn’t the most fancy place, there was no AC, a lot of creepy crawly visitors and not enough space to accommodate everyone. But it was the best place to have meaningful interaction and understand what’s really happening in the organisation – what people talked about, what their challenges were, how they felt and what they breathed. Thanks to this, I had many wonderful conversations and valuable insights. You wouldn’t see much by sitting in the board room! 🙂 As it turned out, many employees appreciated this small gesture.
Unfortunately, after a few months, I had to start going to a nearby cafe more often. I am vegetarian, and as the Ghanaian food served in the canteen was very meaty and fishy, all I could eat was plain rice. Eventually, my stomach rebelled 🙂
The first three months were the most fascinating, intense and overwhelming.
First of all, I entered into a corporate world that was drastically different from the IKEA world from where I came – a world based on such values as simplicity, leadership by example and humbleness, where a store manager wears yellow uniform and helps out in the store in peak hours, where teamwork and togetherness make the hardest challenges fun. I loved IKEA because I found values that I share myself. However, I left because it was time to step out of my comfort zone.
The new world I faced was around results and company performance. It was a tough, demanding environment where employees were stressed and disoriented with a lack of shared vision, values and overload. Status and hierarchy played an important role and you could easily see who was the boss. As I was holding a senior role and was part of the management team, I was expected to act accordingly. This was one of the toughest challenges I had to face. I had to act like a boss, otherwise people wouldn’t take me seriously. The question was – how do I stay true to myself while at the same time deliver results demanded of me?
Secondly, in Ghana I found the world where people are incredibly open, kind and caring even with strangers. People support each other, they have meaningful conversations (not a formal small talk), they offer help, they offer compliments, and their smiles are so open, kind and heart-warming! There is an unbeatable sense of community. It felt to me that it’s impossible to be lonely in Ghana, as if the whole concept had not been invented. One has the support of the big family, local community, and of course the church. It often felt like the whole country is one big family.
Many times I was watching how people live and communicate with each other and wondering if I could truly be part of this amazing environment. This question made me aware of something in me, something I wanted to change… As you might know, Russians are quite reserved people. The Communist era and the wild post-Perestroika-90’s planted mistrust and fear in the society, so people are still cautious with strangers but loving and caring only with people they know. As I grew up in the 90’s I experienced it first-hand. For many years I couldn’t leave home without a cardboard knife in my pocket just to feel safer.
I learned from people in Ghana that no matter how harsh the environment is, there is a good side in every person. They see the bright side in you and give you the chance to be your best self. I learned that with a genuine smile and open heart, you can melt ice and build bridges in the most difficult places. With my Ghanaian friends as teachers, I was starting to learn how to trust people.
Last but not least, when I was heading to Ghana, I was expecting to have the full experience of Ghana. But in addition to that, I entered a melting pot of many cultures co-existing in one organisation. There were people from Sri Lanka, Paraguay, France, El Salvador, Guatemala, Sweden, Nigeria, the Netherlands, Colombia, Malaysia, DR Congo just to name a few! There were a lot of Ghanaians who had lived in the US, UK and Europe to gain experience and education, and returned home to contribute to the fast-growing Ghana. It was a perfect environment to learn about the world and humanity! Every day I felt like I didn’t just go to the office, but travelled to several countries. I would have a meeting with a CFO, a beautiful lady from Sri Lanka, project managers from Sweden, interview a candidate from Nigeria, have a conference call with an auditor from Colombia, have a chat with colleagues from Paraguay and finish the day with a meeting with my team who were all Ghanaians. I was developing a condition that would define the rest of my life – a compulsive traveller. 🙂
The story of my first months in Ghana would be incomplete without sharing two big mistakes I made (as I mentioned before, I like to call mistakes “learning opportunities”).
First of all, I worked too much and forgot to take time to rest and recover. No matter how much you enjoy your job, you must take care of yourself. When you are a working expat, it becomes critical. In addition to stress from work, you are constantly bombarded with new experiences and information, and clearly if you don’t let your mind recharge, you will be overloaded.
Another mistake I made was not making time to build connections with people outside the office. I was too busy. After a couple of months I found myself in a limbo. I didn’t have anyone to talk to openly or have a safe place to express my emotions. I tried talking about my challenges with my close friends from Moscow, but they couldn’t comprehend what I’m going through. It was a completely different world for them. And I could not even imagine complaining to my colleagues. So I kept it all to myself.
By the end of the third month I felt like my life is triple the normal speed, I felt alive, was happy with my move, in love with my new job, exhausted from constant overload, bitterly lonely, approaching my birthday and about to meet someone who would rock my world.