On Taking A Career Break to Travel and Work in Southern Africa

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Our feature today is an interview with Cybil Zhang, a world traveler and management consultant based in Houston, Texas. Earlier this year, she took a break from her demanding job at home to work for a nonprofit organization based in Zambia called COMACO.

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JF: How was your experience working and traveling in Africa?

It was amazing! Every time I talk about it, I feel like it was this really incredible opportunity to both work and travel in Africa. I feel like I got the best of both worlds because I was in Zambia, pretty much not traveling, for 3 months and got to immerse myself a little bit more, work with Zambians, and learn more specifically about…government policies. I also learned more about how business works and the difficulties of doing business in Zambia.

JF: Elaborate a little bit more about what you were doing in Zambia.

I did a fellowship with TechnoServe, which is itself a nonprofit in Zambia, which placed me on a project for 3-6 months. There’s a pretty big range of projects, but what I was doing was helping a different nonprofit called COMACO, which stands for Community Markets for Conservation. They sell a lot of peanut butter and other products like dried mangos and other things like that. Their whole model is social enterprise, so they really started out of this view that they wanted to protect endangered species, especially in Eastern Zambia which is really lush and has some endangered animals due to poaching. The founder got a grant to give people money to feed their families to see if they would stop poaching bush meat.

At first it worked, but they quickly realized it wasn’t sustainable. Instead, they started an agriculture program in Eastern Zambia where they’d teach people how to farm and give them seed, helping them to grow their own food and also have extra to sell. The system is semi-corrupt, so seed companies don’t always pay a fair price. It is difficult to predict how much you can sell and for how much…there’s just misalignment in [the process]. [COMACO] commits to buying all of the crops at market value, and they’d take them and make things like peanut butter and other consumer goods.

A lot of what I was doing was, alongside a team of 2 other fellows, working on a broader 18-month project to help COMACO become financially viable. Theoretically, this business will generate enough profit and be able to fund the conservation side of the organization.

JF: What did you do afterwards?

After 3 months, my friend came to visit and we went on a safari in Eastern Zambia. Something that’s unique about [the one we did] is that we did bush walks, so you’re not just in your safari vehicle, but you also step outside. There’s a national park guide who ensures your safety and knows all about the animals.

Afterward, we went to Cape Town for a week, then my friend left and I traveled solo in Madagascar for a month. Then, I went to Seychelles for a week, and then I started my long journey home with a few stops in Europe in between.

JF: Wow! So it sounds like you did quite a lot in…what was it? 5 months?

(Laughs) It was about five and a half months.

JF: How were you able to negotiate this sort of sabbatical with your employer?

It’s an actual program that [my company] has, a nonprofit fellowship. When I was recruiting back in college, I had heard about the nonprofit fellowship with this company and knew I wanted to do it if I worked there. Once I started, I actually had it as a goal for a while, looking at nonprofits I could work with. I found TechnoServe and created my path so I could get there. [My company] actually paid me 40% of my salary while I was there!

JF: Could you tell me a bit more about how you documented your experiences?

When I first got to Zambia, I suddenly had no schedule. I didn’t know anybody, so I had a lot of free time. I’m really extroverted, and it takes me a long time to settle with my own thoughts. I often don’t do that. Because I had so much ‘forced’ alone time, I started to do that more. I started blogging a bit more while I was there. Also, I like to make photo books when I come back.

JF: So these are physical books that you keep forever?


JF: I know that there’s quite a bit of stigma about traveling solo as a female in Africa. Did you find safety to be an issue while you were there?

No. I think Africa in general has a connotation of being really dangerous, mostly because it’s unknown to many people. I was only in certain parts of Africa – Zambia, Malawi, and Zanzibar. For the most part, unless there’s a war going on, it’s pretty safe. As part of my fellowship I got tons of safety briefings, and the #1 thing they warned us about was car accidents.

I did have to keep in mind basic safety things. So, for example, it was sometimes hard for me to get around Lusaka at night because I had to find a driver and a taxi. If I was alone at night, I was more hesitant to go places, but for the most part, everything is fine if you have common sense. If anything, people were surprised that I was alone.

I met a lot of people, too. When I was in Madagascar, I was alone, but I met people in hostels, some of whom were solo travelers. I went on this river trip and this French-Canadian couple essentially adopted me for a few days. While traveling, I was alone at times, but not as alone as it might sound. I felt really safe pretty much all the time.

JF: What was the most challenging thing you experienced?

The thing that was the hardest but also the most rewarding was traveling on my own for so long. It’s the first time I’d really done it, and I was on my own for a little over a month. There was this tension of not trying to make an experience for myself that was what other people or other blogs said. I didn’t want to pressure myself into making it an experience that was perfect all the time. I had moments where I’d been traveling for a while, and I just wanted to chill and relax and read a book. But part of me also felt like I should be doing something more exciting. I had to balance my own fears and the pressure of doing things that I wanted to do. I wanted to own this experience for myself.

JF: What surprised you the most about your experience?

Ooh, that one is hard! Hmm… I feel like there’s travel magic. (Laughs.) In the beginning of my trip to Madagascar, there were days when I had been alone for a while, and started doubting whether I could do it. Then the next day, I met a bunch of people. I feel like it’s the kind of travel magic that I need. There’s so many moments that happen that you could never predict.

JF: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to do something similar?

I feel like there are so many opportunities to work in Southern Africa – there are so many fellowships that range from a month to a few years. There are so many resources to be able to go do that. It takes a bit of searching and stuff, but once you tap into the network there are a lot of opportunities.

In terms of solo travel…what I did is, since I knew I didn’t want to be alone, I planned to stay in Madagascar for a month. I knew in my mind a couple of things I really wanted to see and do, but otherwise just showed up and figured out my plan from there. I booked myself into hostels to meet people and made plans with them as I went. Some of my favorite memories are with the people I met, and there’s no way I could have planned that ahead of time.

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Thanks to Cybil for sharing her wisdom and experiences with us! If you want to read more about her experiences in Zambia, check out her blog or her Instagram

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