Fiona Ellis, ’07, graduated from Richmond with a business degree and a plan. However, after working at the finance firm of her dreams for two years, she decided that it was time for a change.  Eager to explore the field of international development, Ellis decided to find a volunteer opportunity abroad.

“I had very specific criteria for the nature of the work and organization I wanted to become involved with,” Ellis said. “I wanted to live in a developing country, work directly in the field to benefit local people, see the long-term impact of my efforts on the surrounding community and become immersed in the culture.”

After researching the field and networking for several months, Ellis found the Manda Wilderness Community Trust (MWCT) and the Manda Wilderness Agricultural Project (MWAP) in the Niassa Province of northern Mozambique. The organizations operate out of Nkwichi Lodge, an eco-tourism destination designed to bring tourists to remote regions of Africa, while benefiting the surrounding communities.

MWCT assists sixteen villages with projects that contribute to their health, education, and living conditions. The organization partners with local committees representing each village to plan the projects. MWCT then provides partial funding for materials and skilled labor that a village cannot normally afford. This community-initiated approach ensures that villagers control their own development and are invested in their projects.

“As a volunteer, I have been involved in numerous projects including: a business training course, a savings and loan scheme, a choir festival, building primary schools, a clay stove initiative to decrease deforestation, and women’s groups,” Ellis said.

Ellis spent a large portion of her time working on MWAP’s farm, which provides agricultural training to villagers to improve natural and sustainable farming methods, nutrition and business. The farm is run by local staff members and is used as a training ground for locals learning agricultural techniques that are cost-effective, organic, and preserve the land for future use.  

“In a region that sustains itself on a poor diet of cassava root and maize, there’s a vital need for nutritional education and agricultural training,” Ellis said. “I have been seeking ways to increase the farm’s production and community value.  I’m studying permaculture, visiting other agricultural projects to learn their techniques and I’m working to introduce field trips to the farm to the local primary school.”

In addition to her work on the farm, Ellis is involved in a number or other community development projects. Currently she’s planning a choir festival that will bring together all sixteen surrounding villages to compete and perform music. The opportunity for villagers to travel together, enjoy leisure time, and share talent is a rare occurrence. The competition provides the opportunity for them to engage in these activities with healthy, competitive, and artistic spirit.  In the future, Ellis would like to expand the choir competition to a festival for the arts that would include choirs, bands, dancing, and visual art.

Ellis is also preparing business-training sessions for locals. The course will cover the basics of business management, increase the viability and success of new small business ventures, and increase opportunities for women to start and manage businesses. The course will provide valuable education on basic practices, such as separating business and household finances, creating viable business ideas, marketing, planning, saving and record keeping.

She's also been working to expand a clay stove initiative. The MWAP farm produces fuel-efficient clay stoves using local materials. The design of the stoves conserves heat and use 75% less firewood than traditional open fires. Use of the stoves makes the work of collecting firewood lighter for women, while helping prevent deforestation.

“I have developed close relationships with many of the lodge staff and farm workers through my volunteer work. This is largely attributed to making an effort to learn the local language,” Ellis said. “The effort to communicate in their language and learn their customs is certainly appreciated by the locals. I’m frequently invited to meals at their homes and to stay in their villages.”

While development work can certainly be rewarding, it also requires the utmost patience and each project brings about its own unique string of challenges. Becoming involved in the “aid world” and learning about its intricacies has been the biggest personal challenge for Ellis. But the everyday life living in Mozambique has also been challenging.  

“Life as a volunteer here is full of dirt, sweat, bug bites, bruises, and stubbed toes,” she said. I shake out my clothes and shoes for scorpions and spiders each day, cross a river where a crocodile lives to reach my hut in the evenings and fall asleep to the loud drumming of the bush animals at night. When living in distant seclusion, the simplest things such as a piece of fruit, chocolate, music, or even a light switch become such a rare delight that you learn to not take anything for granted.”

Living in Mozambique has had an irreversible impact on Ellis’ perceptions of culture, community development, and basic priorities.

“Since I came here with one backpack of belongings, I sometimes wonder why I would need any of the items stored in the States in my sister’s basement?” she said. “From the locals, I’m learning how to survive without the help of modern infrastructure. The other foreigners who travel here have broadened my ideas for possible career options and paths for the future.”