Bethany Kurbis recounts her experience working in South Sudan and how it helped her find her calling in Career Management.
Working in South Sudan
I found my calling while on a motorbike in South Sudan. I was behind my colleague, Ruman, holding on for dear life while we navigated the dried up river beds that doubled as roads in this remote village. We were on our way to a training, where we were going to discuss conflict, and specifically, how to handle conflict without violence. We were introducing a concept called “Forum Theater” in which young people act out a conflict in a skit, and test different ways to resolve the conflict without resorting to violence.
Volatile environment because of war
South Sudan had been ravaged by war for decades. Most of the youth I met grew up in refugee camps in Uganda, and their families had returned to their homes in South Sudan after the recent peace agreement, and impending formal independence from North Sudan. Those families, who raised their children in refugee camps, came home to a country that needed relief from decades of war. Conflict sparked easily, over big and small things. Most people were on edge; everything still felt volatile and fragile.
Watching young people test ways to resolve conflicts was one of the most profound experiences I have ever had. Those trainings led me to subsequent roles across Sudan, and eventually, I watched adults struggle to resolve conflicts in working environments. I began coaching staff on resolving conflicts within our agency’s teams, and simultaneously began building human resource operations and processes to ensure staff were able to focus on their work, instead of their conflicts.
My path to Human Resources
Eventually, I was hired as the HR Manager in 2010 for an agency in Juba, South Sudan, the newly named capital of the soon-to-be autonomous country (South Sudan is the youngest country in the world, gaining its independence in 2011). Our agency focused on two things: health care and clean water. We had a staff of medical experts who provided health care to remote communities, and engineers who focused on digging and maintaining wells to provide access to clean water. These days were fascinating days. I spent hours in tiny planes, and on motorbikes visiting our various sites where we ran health clinics and clean water stations. At each site, I heard consistent themes about our teams’ work. While the environment was incredibly volatile and high stress, each employee wanted to make sure they were effective in their role—that at the end of the day, health care and clean water was available within these vulnerable communities. Within this high pressure environment, managers felt challenged to provide feedback to their fatigued staff, and employees were frustrated that they didn’t feel supported by their managers.
As I visited our field sites, I listened to these themes and created a structure for managers and employees to discuss key priorities, areas for improvement, and the type of support needed to manage the intensity and stress of the work. Managers sat down with each staff member to discuss individual priorities, and talked about what each person needed to be successful and supported in the role. We recommended that staff meet weekly to talk about how the work was going.
Inevitably, we started to hear about the impacts of these conversations. Processes and logistics were smoothed out, efficiencies were improved, and we got better at providing health care and clean water to our communities. Additionally, employees felt that they had a voice with their managers, and trusted relationships were built across our teams. Returning to my dusty, open-air office from a day in the field, I often marveled at the power of conversations between managers and employees. Thus, I found the career path I would pursue to this day, focusing on ongoing performance conversations between employees and managers to ensure individuals are engaged, knowing what it takes to be successful to accomplish our core mission and vision.