Dive into the NGO world & the life of an Expat: Andrew

For this first interview we met Andrew Julius Bende, who is an International Program Coordinator at Crossing Borders. From his background in Uganda to his work in Denmark, we have tried to trace his history, his path in the NGO world and his struggles. He’s the first of our series of blog posts focusing on People Working in NGOs, hope you’ll learn a lot from him, and the following ones 🙂 !
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Can you tell us what is it like to work in an NGO?
When I started working in NGOs, I thought it was the coolest thing that I could do. Because you get to meet so many people going around, and they were the greatest guys, like those working at OXFAM. I think I was 19 / 20 years old, I was finishing university and I was already planning to start an NGO. But now, after 12 years of working with different NGOs… It’s still cool, it’s still a great thing, but it is so much responsibility at the same time. You can’t overestimate the necessity of doing work like this. On a daily basis, you have to deal with some of the toughest social issues, or at least in my job as I have to as I’m dealing with migration, integration, working with young people on political participation, on gender equality or inequality in different policy areas. It becomes such a tough job to do, but you also think about the necessity of that work, but on the other side you see how difficult it is to break into some circles: funders are cutting our funding, the public is becoming more and more doubtful of the work done in NGOs, businesses are growing stronger and say that the work done by NGOs is irrelevant. So working with a non-governmental organisation is a great job, is a great thing to do, but it gets tougher and tougher.

What was the first NGO you worked in?
The first NGO I worked in was my own NGO. I started an NGO back in 2001, and it was motivated by… I lost both of my parents because of HIV. When I was 9, we knew that my father was affected by HIV and he was dying of it, but they kept it as a secret for a long time, and he passed away when I was 12. We knew then that my mother was sick, and she lived with the disease for another 7 years. Throughout these 7 years, my family, my relatives, and my uncles and aunts took my mother to shrines because they thought it was witchcraft. So they went to witch doctors to help her, they went to other people, they tried all kind of things, herbs, medicines, and it just didn’t work. After my mum passed away, I went to university, and got a government scholarship. When I started my Master’s degree, I studied a lot on how Ugandan peasants react and participate in the political life of the country, and I’ve encountered so many people believing that HIV was witchcraft more than a disease you had “control over”, it was something coming from evil spirits.
So I’ve created my own NGO in 2001, registered it in 2004, and I’ve stayed there until 2009 when I left for Denmark. The NGO is still based in Uganda, but it works on a small scale with rural communities, and the whole idea of it is to mobilise communities to stand up for themselves, and act at their scale. I think it’s better if it works at a small scale. When I came to Denmark we tried to get some big funding from huge organisations, but the more money people had, the less they were focused on the small people.

How was it to start your own NGO?
It was exciting, I was young, I was ambitious, I was curious, but I also had just lost my parents to this disease, and I really wanted to make a change. It was a way for me to hit back on HIV, it was like saying “You took away my parents, I’m going to fight you”, so I was really determined to do this. It was exciting, it was purposeful, and I was naïve also at the same time, so it was not much of a strategic and logical process. If you’d ask me to start an NGO now, I would spend more time on planning things. I didn’t plan it at that time, I just opened doors of other NGOs, put a computer in my office, and started writing things down. When I read some of the proposals I did back then I realise “Oh that’s why I didn’t get the money” *laughter*. But I didn’t care because I was driven by this energy to do things, and the willing to have revenge on the disease which took away my parents.
When I started working with the local people and see these local women who would have been the age of my mother, and I was sitting there, teaching them about HIV and life skills, and I was looking at their faces and I thought : “They are my moms” you know?
I think that my work in NGOs was the best time of my career, and there was no problem with money, the thing was : “I want to go out and do something!”.

What kind of advice would you give to your younger self now that you have more experience?
The NGO landscape has changed. It’s good to do good things, and have passion and the will to do things, but it’s important to be strategic. There are so many NGOs doing the work that I was doing. They were bigger, more effective… Back then I targeted a whole different group of people, as I was focusing on those who weren’t reached by bigger organisations. It would have benefited me to connect my ideas to a bigger organisation in the form of a project than starting an NGO. Because later on, it turned out to be such a tough job, I didn’t have time to take part in the success of my own organisation. You have to be extremely focused if you want to do something in the NGO world.

In which countries have you lived in and for how long?
I was born and raised in Uganda. The first time I left, I was 23. The first country I’ve visited was Czech Republic, where I’ve stayed for 1 month. It was a lovely experience. When I look back now, I realise there was a lot of discrimination, but at that time I didn’t mind. I had read about discrimination in the books, and when it happened I remembered “Oh, I’ve read about that” *laughter*… But it didn’t affect me, as I knew I would go out again and I just had 1 month there. Then I wandered a bit in Africa, I worked a bit in Tanzania, which is similar to Uganda in itself, so it felt like home. I’ve worked in Kenya for 2 months, and again it was like being at home. I’ve worked in Ethiopia for a month and it felt like home again, but it was different from Uganda in a way, so it was a brand new perspective. Mainly because Ethiopia has never been colonised, so they were very proud because they won against Italy back then, and the pride they had in this part of history was really interesting to experience.
Then I moved to Denmark, which was the first major move I made out of Africa. I moved here for familial reasons and I’ve been stuck here for seven years *laughter*. Moving here was really exciting, I was coming to Denmark and at that time when I was waiting for the visa, we had been dating for 3 years with my wife (girlfriend back then), and she talked about Denmark in such a positive way, it made me enthusiastic about moving, I was excited, especially as my wife was 8 months pregnant back then. Everything was exciting. The 1st year was really thrilling, until you start applying here to get a job, and you realise you don’t speak the language, you need to learn it fast, the education you received in your home country is not recognised on the Danish job market, and although I’m a person who doesn’t look at my skin colour as an issue, after those seven years I know that it has been part of the challenge I’ve faced here. It became tougher and tougher as time passed by in Denmark. But the most important thing is that I have my family here. I have my wife and 2 kids, and to me it’s the most important thing on a daily basis. I can be depressed, I can be disappointed, but after resting, I wake up, look at my kids, look at my wife and think “Okay… Life goes on, it’s just another day”.
I’ve also lived in Zambia for 6 months, where I’ve done this MS international aid programme. I went there to assist local organisation and helped them. It was an amazing time there, in a very nice country, which is quite similar to Uganda.

Was the difference of culture / point of view an issue in your work?
By the nature of the work I do, which is the coordination of international projects in a Danish context, I think the issue lies in the way we define major concepts we work with. The concept of development for example: to me it is still challenging and interesting. Concepts like democracy, the political participation of young people, human rights, there is contestation in the way we define things like that. If you define “development” from a Western point of view, many organisations I worked with would define it as helping people in the southern countries. To me, it should be championed by local people in the South. It shouldn’t be defined as something you bring or give them, but as a way to facilitate what they’re doing with themselves.
However, when you work in the North, in Europe, and you try something that does not turn out the way you thought it would be, people would say that this development programme has failed, or was not really successful, but that is not the case, it’s a long process. There are different perspectives, and that is the main “issue” i think. Also, in some discussions you’re told “Anyway, you’re African, how objective can you be?”, but they don’t see it the other way around as “You are European, how objective can YOU be about African development?” This is one big challenge.
The job context, the working environment is a new culture for me in a way. In my job at Crossing Borders over the past 3 years, I met a lot of different people who worked in different ways. If I was a Dane, then maybe it would have been a whole different way of connecting and working with my colleagues. I think I also have some cultural aspects that make my job a little bit tougher in a Danish context, and it takes some time to get used to new colleagues. But most of the time I think I have succeeded in being a good colleague *laughter*.

What kind of link did you keep with Uganda? How do you feel about it now?
It’s home. And that will never change. My wife has asked me if I wanted to take the Danish citizenship, and I don’t want it. I was born and raised in Uganda, it still feels like home. It’s politically unstable, it’s unsafe, there is a lot of poverty, but I feel so safe and so happy everytime I land there. It might also be because I have 10 siblings there. I just don’t think my perspective will change on it. And I keep a strong link with it, I try my best to ensure that my kids have a similar link, which is why I try to take them there at least once a year. We have a lot of projects taking place there, and I think that someday we will be able to live in Uganda in the future, who knows…

Written by Alexandre Telliez and Chloé Ladeira, Crossing Borders’ interns and National Coordinators for France


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