I did not choose DRC, it chose me, explains People in Need’s Country Director Karolina Sklebena

Published: Aug 16, 2016 Reading time: 6 minutes
I did not choose DRC, it chose me, explains People in Need’s Country Director Karolina Sklebena
© Foto: Jan Mrkvička

Karolina Sklebena works as Country Director of People in Need mission in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She started as the Finance Officer two years ago. Based in Bukavu she now manages a team of 3 expatriate and 37 national colleagues working in two offices and the 3 million USD annual turnover of the mission.

Back in 2014 Karolina applied for a finance officer position within the Philippines emergency response team after the typhoon Haiyan hit the country. As a French speaking person People in Need however offered her a position in DRC instead. "Since I did not really choose DR Congo, mostly DR Congo choose me," Karolina is laughing. "I have always been interested in Africa and I finally decided why not to try it," she adds.

Karolina started as the Finance Officer and later moved to working as the Emergency Nutrition Programme Manager and led rapid response to the nutritional crisis of Burundian refugees and Congolese hosting communities caused by the political instability in Burundi. "Already as the Finance Officer, I was also the Deputy of the Country Director in case of her absence. I took over my current position in January 2016 after about 4 months of the Acting Country Director position," Karolina explains.

Not as fortunate as we are

But let’s get back to the very beginning of Karolina’s life of a humanitarian worker. "I think it is important to support people who are not as fortunate as we are in where they were born and what their governments and foreign entities are doing with their countries. I believe that all people should have equal access to innovations and assets of the modern world," describes Karolina what motivates her and adds that working in a multinational and multicultural environment gives her a new perspective on many aspects of an everyday life.

Before leaving on a mission with People in Need, Karolina worked in Prague for Caritas Czech Republic. "I was studying PhD at the University of Economics in Prague and working part-time as the Finance Manager for Mongolia, Haiti, Indonesia and a multi-stakeholder European project on advocacy/education on food security," she recalls.

The beginnings in DRC were sometimes difficult because Karolina struggled with the language. "Congolese French is not exactly what you have learnt at school but people are friendly and patient and somehow used to all sorts of weird accents and even weirder sentences," she explains and points out that life in DRC is full of surprises, albeit not all of them are positive.

"I was surprised how developed certain parts of DRC are and how unequal the society is. The differences between cities and villages are outstanding, as well as peoples’ expectations about your work," Karolina describes her first impressions from one of the biggest African countries. Karolina soon realized that she works with team of dedicated and motivated Congolese humanitarian workers who have been through a lot of difficulties and still stay very positive about the values and results of their work.

I like constantly changing environment

And what the Congolese and Czechs have in common? "Both like beer," Karolina laughs. "Otherwise, I think there cannot be two nations more different than the Congolese and the Czechs," she adds. "I have been already working with several different teams and I always found a way to connect with them. I deeply respect all of my colleagues because everyone has something that you can learn from them and I think they feel that and it makes them be very open," says Karolina. "I am also a very talkative person and Congolese people like chatting and discussing so you can always find a way to interact," she sumps up the social part of her work.

As weeks and months had passed by, Karolina realized that she enjoys visiting the project sites, speaking with the colleagues about their work and life and finding ways how to make things better, easier and more efficient. "I like setting up new strategies and procedures to reach new goals. I like the challenge of being in a constantly changing environment surrounded by many different people," Karolina explains what she prefers on her work.

There are many bright memories from those past two years. "One of them would most certainly be our mission strategy workshop that we organized recently where we all worked together to define our goals and visions for the next 5 years. Everyone was involved, we discussed a lot of things and the atmosphere was great," illustrates Karolina, "I also hold in my arms a two-days old daughter of a colleague of mine whom she named after me. It was extremely cute and touching moment.”

Living abroad always changes your life

But life and work in DRC are not always just set of nice and heart-warming moments. The Eastern part of the country suffers from years of instability and to work in this volatile security environment is challenging. "I am responsible for the security and safety of all my colleagues, thus my greatest fear is that I make a mistake that might harm someone’s health or life. Luckily, I have a great team of people around me to discuss with before making any important decision," Karolina states.

Even after long hours at work, there is always some time to rest. "I am trying to do some sports like volleyball and tennis or just spend time with my friends. I also read a lot," Karolina describes her free time. With her family and friends in Czech Republic she is in regular touch via Facebook, Skype or WhatsApp. "I have a boyfriend here in DRC and a group of good friends," she explains. “I also have great colleagues who are much more than just simple co-workers,” she adds.

Nevertheless, she misses certain things about her former life. "I miss cheese and coffee shops, cinemas and exhibitions, sports and walking outside at night without any problems. Bukavu is quite safe but the absence of public lights makes things more difficult," Karolina summarizes.

Two years in DRC have brought a lot of new things in her life. "I guess that living abroad always changes your life and living here is an unforgettable experience. You need to be patient while talking to the authorities, but you also get to appreciate a lot of things much more. It sounds like a big cliché but that’s the reality. And I have a great team of people around me who make me feel like home, even though some days might be tough," Karolina describes her experience.

And what about the future? "DRC is a kind of forgotten or overlook country with many years of repeated crisis where traditional humanitarian approaches are no longer sustainable. My teams has a lot of great ideas and there is a real potential to change things in this country. I would like to build up on this and realize a lot of innovative projects with long-term impact on peoples’ lives," Karolina concludes.

Autor: Petr Štefan, Karolína Šklebená