Kimja Vanderheyden grew up in the Congo, Ecuador, and Belgium, and was selected for a position at UN Women in Morocco. We met in Quito, where she worked for the Belgian Development Agency. Here, she talks to us about finding your niche expertise, the politically-sensitive of her work, and how to join the United Nations.
On moving around a lot:
I was born in the north of Congo, and it gave me my name, Kimja, which means ‘peace’ in Lingala. We lived there until I was 2 years old, then moved to Riobamba in Ecuador, where we lived for three years. My first memories are from Rio Bamba. Then we moved to Quito, and my dad worked on public health. I went to the French school, and spoke Spanish, French, and English. At the age of 12, we moved to Belgium, and I had to learn Flemish. I had the level of a six-year-old, and my parents put us in an elite school. It took me almost ten years to lose the French accent I had in Flemish !
On growing up in the field: I’m the typical expat child of the development worker – my dad is a medical doctor did his PhD in tropical diseases, worked at a hospital in the jungle in Congo, and later, for the Belgian Development Agency in Ecuador and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Belgium. At first I didn’t want to work in this sector, because I grew up listening to conversations between older men who worked during the “golden years” of development… but I still ended up doing this work.
When life gives you lemons…
I first did a year of physiotherapy, I failed because I was terrible at maths and biology, but it was a lot of fun to learn about the human body for a year. Then my dad told me, if I wanted to keep studying, I had to pay for it myself. So I decided to study business administration and marketing, because it seemed easy. There were a lot of languages, and I could work while studying. I spent my first year baking French fries to pay my fees; the other years I worked in restaurants 15 to 40 hours per week.
That first job in the field:
I did my internship in the south of Tanzania with a livelihoods project. My dad knew someone there; that’s the only time I used his network. That’s how I ended up there. A classmate and I worked with a local NGO to develop a marketing plan for milk farmers. It was so real – four months there in the middle of nowhere. Everyone should go through that kind of field experience. It helps you understand the reality on the ground.
On choosing a niche expertise:
Communication always fascinated me: growing up in another culture, being a little blonde girl, being able to talk to people. Then, moving back to Belgium, my “supposed” country, and not being able to talk to people. I’m so fascinated by everything that is semantics, linguistics. And then if you’re talking about development, you have to work with the media. You can’t have development if people don’t talk and write about the issues and raise awareness.
On feeling old: I was 26 when I started my Master’s in Communication, specialised in journalism and press freedom; those that had started a normal master’s were three years younger than me and they were all amazed that I was so old. I got my Master’s degree at 28, “late” by Belgian standards.
Getting your foot in the door:
One day, one of the journalists who had taught a few of the classes in the Master’s programme came into the Pizza Hut where I was working and asked me if I was looking for a job.
“I know this lady,” he said, she’s a famous gynaecologist and politician in Belgium, looking for someone to help with communications her research centre. He gave her my number, she called me. During my interview, she was doing her rounds at the clinic; I followed her while she was talking to her patients. I was offered a consultancy, then a temporary job.
When your manager doesn’t understand your job:
The deputy director of the centre was a gynaecologist who had worked for ten years in Africa, and was suddenly responsible for managing a research centre. He wasn’t a manager, you know? He expected me to build websites, build an intranet, build servers – very technical communications stuff. I remember thinking, “Am I supposed to be able to do this?”
I didn’t want to continue there, I began looking for jobs. But it was 2009, the financial crisis was raging through Europe; it was really difficult to get a job in communications. I was so desperate that I was applying for jobs as an accountant, because I had an accounting degree. I have no idea how many letters I sent out. I decided to look beyond Belgium, didn’t know where to look; I was checking the websites for non-profit jobs in Belgium, and ended up finding a job with a Belgian NGO in Ecuador.
On the “fine line” between volunteering and a real job:
It was 2009, the financial crisis was raging through Europe; I was dreaming of a real job with good pay, but ended up finding a volunteer position in Ecuador. I was receiving €550 per month; for Quito, it was okay. I managed like that for 20 months. At first, the Belgian NGO that hired me had me supporting a local NGO working on food sovereignty to build their website, make some videos, stuff like that. Then they switched me to supporting international communications for the World Social Forum on Migration, organising a 5000-person event. It was the first time I had a boss who knew about communications. All my previous jobs, I didn’t have real leadership. I managed the Facebook and Twitter accounts, ran the websites in French and English, made videos, took pictures, logistics, admin stuff. We were a really small team organising a big event. Anywhere they needed me, there I was. The second year, they sent me out again, they asked me to go back for 8 months, and they gave me €675 per month.
On doing dangerous work:
I went back and worked with Acción Ecologica, a civil society movement trying to save the Yasuní (a nature preserve in the Amazon rainforest). It was an amazing experience, though a little crazy, cowboy style: taking a bus for 14 hours to the region where the FARC is present, being trapped in a little village, a blonde woman totally alone, five minutes from Lago Agrio… Never ever would I do that again, now.
When things don’t go as planned:
After going back to Belgium and working odd jobs while applying abroad, I was selected by the Belgian Development Agency (BTC) as a Junior Assistant, with a posting to Rwanda, supporting the Ministry of Agriculture to develop extensions materials (guides, manuals etc. for farmers). But Belgians and Rwandans don’t really get along; there was a big conflict between my manager and my Rwandan supervisor. I spent two months doing nothing, caught between them. The Rwandans would say: “You don’t talk to the Belgians anymore, you only talk to us.” But my contract was with the Belgians. I got on really well with my manager, my “coach” in BTC lingo. We made a manual on how to recognise if your banana plant is ill; now, when I see a banana plant, I can tell immediately if it’s healthy or not.
On the effects of politically-sensitive work: After four months, the Rwandan government decided not to give me my residence permit; they never communicated it officially. They were nervous, maybe… I’ve never really understood why, but I heard they saw me as a threat to public opinion.
On being kicked out of a country: There was an NGO worker who got kicked out of Israel, and in the Belgian press, it was a big deal, but when me and a few other Belgians were denied Rwandan residence permits, no one hears about it, because Rwanda is one of the darlings of the West. The government returned my passport with a visa for five more days without any official declaration. I had five days to leave the country. That’s a reality: you hear about people getting kicked out of countries, and it happens, even if you don’t do anything wrong.
I went back to Ecuador with BTC to work at a rural development programme; I had an amazing coach, spending 50% of my time in the field visiting projects in the Andes, Manabi, Esmeraldas, taking boats to little islands to visit tourism projects. It was very cool, I stayed for 20 months. Six months before my contract ended, I began looking for jobs, on ReliefWeb, Devex, the international websites, creating profiles on all the UN websites. It’s almost a full-time job.
On being recruited as a UNV: I was contacted several times by U.N.V., and eventually selected for a position with U.N. Women in Morocco, to work at a knowledge management centre on gender-sensitive budgeting. There are not so many people who have worked on KM, gender, and communications. When I was in Ecuador, and I noticed no one in the BTC programme was working on gender, I volunteered to take it on, so I ended up giving trainings on gender. As a junior, we were quite free to take initiative, although you have to be lucky with your boss. At some point, I got offended by some colleagues on the field, and I went to my boss and told him that the sexual harassment is impossible, given that we’re working for BTC, and we have a gender policy. I began sharing more about the gender policy, and they saw this in my CV. I interviewed in June 2014, they asked me to start in September, and we agreed to start in November.
On the prestige of working at the U.N.:
You have power. I think that’s what makes it so addictive. You’re in a certain circle of people. It opens doors, people listen to you. Even the people who have worked for the U.N. and know how it is, it’s still a Wow factor. It’s like, “Oh, you work for the U.N.”
Now, when people ask me what I did before, and I say I was in Morocco with UN Women, they say, Oh, wow, that’s interesting. I don’t think it would be the same reaction if I said I was in Morocco for BTC, you know?
On unexpected challenges: Sometimes, it’s a cultural issue. In Morocco, if the boss doesn’t ask for it, even if your colleagues know you need it, they won’t give it until the boss screams for it. In Morocco, there was already a conflict that was worsened by my presence and I ended up, for the first time in my life, resigning, after working there for over a year. And I don’t exclude the possibility of working for the U.N. again. Now that I’ve had one experience with a U.N. agency, I think I would cope better with another one. Not for U.N. Women: it’s a new agency, it’s still growing, and they’re very particular. For example, the Moroccan office insisted on only using photos of unveiled women, which to me did not reflect at all the groups we were working with.
On being picky before you apply: Where before when I was looking for jobs, I’d apply to everything, now I am careful. If I sense, from the job description, that they don’t understand communications, then I simply don’t apply, and avoid these kinds of problems before they arise. The job descriptions are so important. Or volunteer positions where they ask for 3-4 years of experience. I would never apply for that kind of project or programme; four years of experience, that’s a lot, already, and then they’re not paying you? That doesn’t feel right. I only apply for jobs that sound professional.
On quickly narrowing down your scope:
There were so many offers in Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan. But after living in Morocco, I preferred not to apply in that region, so that eliminated several options. I wanted a break from needing to cover myself, from men being able to say anything at all to me, from not being able to walk alone in the streets…the sexual harassment in Morocco was extreme and a daily thing.
How do you decide which opportunity won’t be a good job?
If I get questions during the interview that clearly show that they don’t understand what I can do. Like if they ask me to build an intranet, I say no, the communications officer is supposed to coordinate that work. But I’ve also picked up a lot of these skills – doing radio, producing video, taking photos. When I started my career, I was totally not interested in audio-visual media, but they became a big part of my jobs and today I’m passionate about photography and getting more and more familiar with video. . People expect you to know how to design and build a website, how to code HTML, which I ended up learning on the job. Now I also ask, when they send me the procedures manuals, to what extent they apply their own procedures and policies. I also received emails from the UN, six to eight months after applying, and I couldn’t even recall which job it was for.
How did you know you’d like your current job?
They were extremely responsive, they invited me to an interview within ten days of submitting an application. You can sense if people like you, even if it’s only by phone or via Skype. I think the HR manager really liked me, because after the first interview, he wrote me back and suggested that I prepare better with concrete examples. I had a good feeling.
“You’ve got to be open-minded about what you take on.”
When BTC asked me to do knowledge management, I thought, I really don’t want to do this. It sounded terrible, I had a breakdown when I started working because I couldn’t understand what it was about, but now, I’m a coordinator of knowledge management, communications, and advocacy. And if I’d said no at that point, they wouldn’t have extended my contract, I probably wouldn’t have gone to Morocco, and I wouldn’t have ended up here. Sometimes, it’s important to broaden your scope. I wanted to work on press freedom, and in the end, I worked on gender, rural development, agriculture, environmental projects, now I’m working on WASH. It can open doors, and lead you onto paths you didn’t consider, but may indeed be good options.
On having a ear to the ground:
I thought I’d work in the non-profit sector in Belgium. That’s what I had foreseen. Not working in the Amazon with indigenous communities, nor visiting tiny villages in rural Congo.. This sector is so unpredictable. Maybe they will close a programme, or the NGO will leave the country. You never really know for sure.
Thank you so much, Kimja !
Are you, too, interested in joining the UN?
Get Kimja’s detailed guide on how to get into UNV, including the word-for-word questions she got in her interview, how she answered them, and how she wrote an application that was selected, first for an interview, then for a job.
Photos by Kimja Vanderheyden, Rwanda internet cafe photo by Sam Floy, top drumming photo by Jessica Menon, potatoes photo by Maarten Siebe, Ecuador photo by Edgar Dávila Soto, and Orange the World photo by Kimja for UN Women.