Changing Your Frame of Reference Transforms the Way You See the World


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This interview originally appeared in Les Affaires magazine.

Martine Kurtzweg is a certified trainer and manager who specializes in the field of information technology. From February to June 2016, she was living in Avrankou, Benin, working as a volunteer for a Cuso International program. The work has boosted her commitment to her own business plan and she has every intention of repeating the experience very soon.

What prompted you to become a volunteer within the framework of a Cuso International program?

I was driven by the desire to better understand the world and learn about different cultures. Getting involved in international cooperation had long been a dream of mine. This mandate with the Association Saint-Camille de Lellis, a network of shelters for people with mental problems, is one close to my heart.

What was your role within the organization?

My official role was to provide training in office skills. I have a long history of working as a business analyst and computer systems administrator, so I was able to help the administration reevaluate their way of doing things and find solutions that would better serve their community. These included, for example, improving the management of patients’ files and changing official forms. Most of the Saint-Camille employees themselves suffer from mental problems. There is a lot of staff turnover because, once they have stabilized, people leave! So continuity has to be assured. My mandate was short but I intend to keep helping from a distance and even come back one day!

How did you get on with the Beninese?

Very well. They are a reserved people but, if you take time to get to know them, they are welcoming and very nice. During my time there, I developed some extraordinary relationships with people whom I still miss very much!

One must, above all, take the time to understand their culture. The Beninese work to a timetable that is all their own: everything goes at a slower pace than here. But their system does work even if it follows different rules to ours! My training and coaching skills proved very handy because I knew to approach them with a lot of humility, respect and an open mind.

What were the challenges you faced?

The humidity. It destroys computers and telephones and had us in a permanent sweat. Physically, it’s very taxing.

Our ideas of comfort were also put to the test. Cuso International provided me with a very good apartment but power cuts are frequent and, sometimes, there’s no running water.

Being a visible minority also changes your perspective. We’re forever being reminded of our difference. In the street, people call out, “Yovo!” which means, “White!” And, of course, ‘Yovo prices’ are higher… but I learned to haggle and hold my ground!

What did you get out of your stay?

It’s given me the energy to stay on track with the career path I’ve chosen. I have a business project that targets helping professionals get involved with the cooperation experience. I want to help those who want to get off the ‘well-trodden paths’, acquire self-knowledge and contribute to society. I plan to provide the connections they need, as well as coaching in the culture and skills of cooperation. My stay in Benin has made me more optimistic than ever and I have come home with a full wind in in my sails!

To whom would you recommend this experience and what advice would you give them?

People who want to recharge their batteries or explore a new career path. Changing your framework of references transforms the way you see the world. It is also a worthwhile experience for those seeking overseas business opportunities. In Benin and elsewhere in Africa, there are many!

On the other hand, as a volunteer, do not expect to change everything. Arrive with no expectations, be yourself and accept the differences and restrictions.
Versatility and adaptability are extraordinary qualities!

One must also not stick too rigidly to the job description. I accepted a mandate whose demands fell well below my skillset but I think I brought a lot to St-Camille, as indeed it did to me. But, above all else, what I would say to professionals is, “Dare to give it a go!” The needs are great and what you have to give will prove highly valuable.