'I didn’t become a typical homesick Paddy. I wanted to integrate'

Oona Tully on her role as publisher with UN Environment in Kenya

Oona Tully with a member of the Masai tribe in Kenya

Oona Tully with a member of the Masai tribe in Kenya

 

Each week, Irish Times Abroad meets an Irish person working in an interesting job overseas. This week, Oona Tully on her job as the managing publisher for UN Environment

When did you leave Ireland, and what were your reasons for leaving?

I left Ireland in February 2016, following a job offer at the United Nations in Nairobi, Kenya. It had been my long-time ambition to work for the UN and I had worked in the creative media industry up until then, with my role increasingly becoming sales-oriented. I really wanted to work for an organisation with a mission for the common good, not for profit.

The prospect of working in another country and continent offered added adventure. I had never had the pleasure of a “gap year” following college, so Kenya and East Africa was a perfect place to spend time in and get to know. Much as I love Ireland, I needed to spread my wings a bit, broaden my knowledge. More poignantly, my sister had died young in her 40s from cancer in 2015 and I consequently felt an urge to do more with my life.

Did you study in Ireland? 

I graduated with a BSc in Environmental Resources Management at Dublin Institute of Technology. I've done many evening courses in Ireland, and courses via distance learning. I have certificates in Desktop Publishing, design, management, Photoshop, photography, digital marketing and global sustainability. As a professional calligrapher, I also studied for a Diploma in Calligraphy and have attended international workshops and conferences in the US and UK in this specialised art.

Tell us about your career in other countries?

I left Ireland before in the early 1990s I was fresh out of college and there were no jobs available in Dublin. Classic-emigrant-style I boarded the ferry to Holyhead, waved slán to my mum (who had done same in the 1950s) and I worked in Oxford for almost three years as an environmental graphic designer. The company were investing in new technology - desktop publishing - and I and my manager were scooted off for training courses. I worked on some great projects such as mapping the declining coal mines of England and Wales, and draughting landscape and archaeological drawings.

I had a wonderful time there, progressed my career, explored Oxford, London and its surrounds and met brilliant like-minded creative people.

We didn’t have email or Skype then, but regular calls were made home, plus five or six visits per year. Certainly more visits home than from Kenya.

What did your day-to-day work with the UN involve? What did your average day look like?

It was operational and creative. I was the managing publisher for UN Environment, with very many busy campaigns, conferences and assemblies to support. My team and I handled all publishing and copyright tasks, and I sat on and co-ordinated the publishing board. I was also managing the editing, translation, design, production, print and dissemination of our scientific and policy publications.

My day would start at 7am in brilliant Nairobi sunshine overlooking the dense Karura Forest with its swinging monkeys and screeching birdlife

My day would start at 7am in brilliant Nairobi sunshine having a fruit breakfast on my sunny terrace (and Barry’s Tea sent from home!), overlooking the dense Karura Forest with its swinging monkeys and swooping, screeching birdlife. The “lungs of Nairobi” as it is known as, named that in contrast to the fumes of the surrounding traffic jams of the city. The UN compound - a large expanse of grassland, forest, ponds and eco-efficient buildings - was 4km away and I would sit in traffic for about an hour to get there. The working day was busy every day, but it was sociable too as I worked with great people and took time to chat about where they were from. Many of my Kenyan colleagues had the forename or middle name Patrick as they studied under Irish Missionary schools in Kenyan villages. I had a convent schooling too, so we had many similarities in our education experience.

I would try to be home by 6pm for some terrace time and wildlife-watching, before the equatorial sun would disappear very rapidly at 6.45pm. I would do another hour or two of work, try to catch up on internet news and social media, WiFi permitting, and then secure my garden flat against mosquitos before bed with nets, sprays and vapours. Mozzies are not so malarial in Nairobi at 1,800 metres as they are at sea level, but they still bite bad and I was fresh Irish beef on arrival until I learned the defensive techniques.

Oona Tully in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley during her time as managing publisher for UN Environment
Oona Tully in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley during her time as managing publisher for UN Environment
Mozzies are not so malarial in Nairobi at 1,800 metres as at sea level, but they still bite bad and I was fresh Irish beef

The sunrise and sunset is constant in Kenya: 12 hours day and 12 hours night. I and my European friends started to miss long summer evenings at home,but we had the compensation of guaranteed sunshine and being able to plan barbecues and pool parties at weekends without checking the forecast.

Do the Irish fit in well?

Absolutely, they fitt in perfectly with a great attitude towards the challenges of Kenya and a solidarity with Kenya’s story of independence.The UN in Nairobi is a multi-national organisation and I knew about six other Irish nationals at work and another six or seven outside of work, including our Ambassador to Kenya who has a residence was close by to where I lived and who hosted wonderful cultural events for the Irish community. It was so welcoming to have that - it was celebratory without being “misty-eyed”. We had a great affinity with our Scottish and Welsh cousins too. The Scottish Caledonian Ball had a massive attendance, but the Irish St Patrick’s Day Ball seemed to win on atmosphere.

The Irish were also respected by the international community for their aid work in Kenya and Irish Aid would sponsor Irish students and graduates to work at UN Environment. There is also a deeply-held respect for Mary Robinson in the UN, and I was honoured to meet and chat with her at one of our Environment Assemblies.

What is it like living in Kenya?

It was very different, but very exciting to explore Nairobi, the highlands, the Great Rift Valley, Maasai Mara and the stunning Indian Ocean coastline. It’s a beautiful and geologically fascinating country. I went on safari regularly, and being an amateur photographer, I was offered so many photographic opportunities. Having my own jeep really gave me freedom to explore and I organised a few memorable road trips with new friends.

The trips were long as roads were so very bad, even for a 4x4. I had to turn back on so many rocky routes. I will never complain about a small Irish pothole… I fell into massive Kenyan craters. Driving is also very dangerous as there are no road rules heeded and people, hand-carts and matatus (hiace van-buses with 24 passengers) would haphazardly cross your path. I sharpened my extreme driving skills so that might come in handy one day.

The Kenyan people and cultures are wonderful, my Kenyan friends are very mobile tech, IT-savvy and entrepreneurial, and the hospitality and friendliness so warm and relaxed. They don’t do stress; life is worth more, and pole pole is a regular Swahili term used, meaning slowly slowly.

Nairobi City, with a population of four million, is agonisingly overcrowded, poverty-stricken, shoddily-built in places and polluted. Plus you have to get used to daily power outages and security alerts. Kenya was still recovering from Al-Shabaab terrorist atrocities from 2013, with resultant travel bans which really hampered their tourism industries - but they are definitely back on their feet now and this is reflected in the amount of feign investment evident in the city.

Are there any particular challenges you faced in your work?

Apart from the heavy workload, which was really a great learning curve, I had no major challenges. We had acute deadlines and international relations problems during the 2016 UN Environment Assembly, and we had maybe four hours sleep a night during big events like this - but it was challenging in a good, battle-hardy way.

What are you doing at the moment?

I returned from Kenya in February 2018 and I’m temporarily print-managing for a small company, but actively looking for a permanent senior role in environmental communications or publishing.

Have you any plans?

If I cannot secure permanent employment at home soon, my next step is to re-join the UN at one of their European offices. Applications can take several months to process, so I am already starting to shortlist positions and draft applications. It will be less dramatic leaving Ireland for a third time as, being a true Eurocrat and with air travel so convenient, I consider Brussels or Geneva a neighbouring city to Dublin. I can rent out my Dublin home again and pop back regularly to meet friends.

Do you think working abroad has offered you greater opportunities?

Working abroad has given me so much experience and education. I didn’t become a typical homesick Paddy, but integrated into the host country culture and lifestyle easily, always with a sense of adventure and curiosity.

I learned a little Swahili and lots about Kenyan culture, politics, history and geography. I also travelled to Tanzania, Zambia and Botswana. Africa should never be generalised - it’s a vast continent split into distinct regions and nations, all with very different resources, administrations, political and social challenges.

I hope my international experience will enhance my career prospects.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career abroad?

Take the leap: I would recommend it to any Irish person, no matter what age or stage in their career or study. It is most definitely an educating experience. You don’t have to hook in with Irish communities abroad, but it’s recommended to register with the Irish Embassy or Consulate. We had a violent political election in Kenya in 2017 and all residents, native and foreign were at risk.

If you do wish to meet fellow country folk, the All-Ireland or the Six Nations is a great way to mooch about your host city looking for the Irish in their jerseys!

Respect: respect and learn about your host country and cultures, including the language. Remember people will judge your nation based on your behaviour, so heed the local laws. Respect your landlady/lord and their property. Help out incoming Irish and show them the ropes.

Stay connected with home; ask a family member or friend to brief you on matters that might affect you while you’re away, especially if WiFi is limited for your news feed or if you decide to therapeutically “forget” the motherland for a bit. Stay in touch with your circle of friends back home. Keep on top of your tax and financial business at home, especially if you have rented out your home.

What was it like living there in Nairobi in terms of accommodation, transport, social life and so on?

Accommodation was regulated by the UN and was very secure, with high gated compounds, armed security guards and guard dogs. Though I had a vehicle, driving at night in Nairobi was risky and with poor street lighting, so I had a trusted cab firm of two or three drivers who were brilliant guys. Or there are thousands of matatus that will take you around the city for a small price of 50 ‘bob’ (Kenya Schilling), approximately 60 cents. Nairobi has some top class restaurants and really great music bars, DJ nights and roof lounges. Sundowners are a big thing; you need to be sipping a cocktail or a Tusker (Kenya’s national brew) with friends at the weekend between 6 and 7pm to see the sun go down. Embassies would often sponser free arts and culture events, and friends and colleagues hosted dinner parties and get-togethers at their homes.

Was there anything you missed about living and working in Ireland?

I missed Dublin city life and my pals. The festivals, sea-side life, hiking the hills, visiting art galleries and museums, cafes, pubs, gigs and the general liberty to stroll around without a cab or high security were all missed. All of us Europeans missed the longer evening light of summer at home, but less so the cold dark winters.

Career-wise, I wanted to come back with new skills to make Ireland better, secure a dream job at home and halt the brain-drain somewhat. Hopefully that will all fit into place. But I’ll always have Kenya in my heart, and my photos and Maasai items have a treasured place in my home to remind me of my adventures.

Asante Kenya!

If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do.

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