Andrew Hermatz was eager for a change. While he had enjoyed his time working in strategy at Aetna's headquarters in Hartford, Connecticut for the last three years, he knew that a Fortune 50 healthcare corporation was no longer where he wanted to be. He had his heart set on the tech industry and was ready to move his life to the Bay Area. But being only 26 and single, he knew this was the perfect time to do something totally unconventional before diving into a new career direction. So he made the bold decision to move halfway around the world to volunteer with an NGO in Tanzania.
Getting to his hostel via canoe in Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda.
“Culturally and professionally, I really aligned with this NGO. And I felt like it was a place where I could add unique value with what I learned working in healthcare.”
5 hidden gems throughout Africa
- 01 Oldinyo Lengai
Kilimanjaro gets plenty of attention, but this hike in Tanzania is far less trekked and more physically demanding. To climb this active volcano, or "The Mountain of God," start at midnight and take the entire night. Stay with local Maasai tribe at the base and learn about their distinctive, warrior-like culture.
- 02 Sossusvlei
Namibia is home to the oldest desert in the world, and its dunes do not disappointment. The red sand is significantly finer and purer than any coastal dune, and creates a distinct vista with its sharp color. Hike barefoot (or in socks if too hot) up and down the desert walls to get a unique first hand (or foot) feel.
- 03 Tofo
Mozambique has a Brazilian feel with it's Portuguese influence and lively spirit. Tofo is a beach town 10 hours north of the capital, with incredibly fresh and affordable seafood. The area is known for its diving and the accompanying whale sharks.
- 04 Nyiragongo
One of four actual lava lakes in the world, this trek in Democratic Republic of the Congo feels like a scene from Lord of the Rings. The ascent isn't too difficult, and you get one of the most captivating views you'll ever see. Camp near the top to enjoy the view at night and experience a "campfire" unlike anything else.
- 05 Lake Bunyonyi
Situated close to the Rwanda border, this lake in Uganda is perfect for anyone looking for tranquility and a true off-the-beaten path experience. Like many places in East Africa, it's not easy to get to. But once you do, grab a canoe and float around the various little islands or just sit and enjoy the peaceful views.
As one door closes...
Ironically, Andrew learned about the opportunity in Africa from his boss at Aetna. The two had an open and supportive relationship, and his manager recommended an organization for Andrew to check out. The mission of the Touch Foundation is to improve healthcare in Tanzania, a nation facing a severe healthcare crisis. "Culturally and professionally, I really aligned with this NGO. And I felt like it was a place where I could add unique value with what I learned working in healthcare," said Andrew.
Knowing he wouldn't be making an income, he made sure he was financially able to make the move. "I started with how much it would cost and how much liquidity I had. Then I decided how much I would be comfortable spending to estimate how long I would go for," he said. With housing covered as part of the experience, he budgeted around $50 a day. This meant he could live comfortably in Tanzania for 7 months and still have enough cushion in his budget for the time he'd spend job hunting upon his return.
(L) Gorilla trekking in Virunga National Park — masks are required so human germs don't harm the animals. (R) Taking in the lava lake at the top of Mount Nyiragongo, Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“Coming from a high-performing, fast-paced company, a big adjustment was getting used to the pace of things. It can be really frustrating, so I had to recalibrate my definition of success and learn to appreciate incremental improvements.”
Andrew of all trades
After he landed in Mwanza, Tanzania, Andrew served as project manager for a new initiative to connect medical schools with rural hospitals, overseeing the overall strategy and its execution. While many operational aspects of his role came naturally to him, he was pushed out of his comfort zone on a number of occasions. For example, when there weren't enough housing options for the visiting medical students and faculty members, he became the de facto head of construction. But he embraced the challenge and learned how to become a builder. "I had no background in that at all!" he recalled with a laugh, "It was funny to be at the market choosing furniture for these student dorms. Not exactly what I expected."
Not only were his tasks unconventional at times, Andrew also had to deal with local politics. During the construction project, a land dispute surfaced over whether his organization was building on a local church's property, which paused the project for almost 4 months. For the locals, this was par for the course, but Andrew had to learn to accept that things simply took longer in Tanzania. "Coming from a high-performing, fast-paced company, a big adjustment was getting used to the pace of things. It can be really frustrating, so I had to recalibrate my definition of success and learn to appreciate incremental improvements," said Andrew.
(L) Computer training for the local team on the newly implemented telemedicine solution. (R) Local women receiving antenatal checkups at a maternal health awareness event hosted by a public health student.
Out of Africa
During his time abroad, Andrew also had the chance to see more of Africa, including a stint in Cape Town and quick trips to Mozambique and Zimbabwe. While he enjoyed his time on the continent over the last seven months, it was time to return to the U.S.
Still intent on working in Silicon Valley, he made his way to California and crashed on his sister's couch in San Jose while he started his job hunt. He focused his search on early-stage health tech company doing disruptive work where he could make a bigger impact. After about 10 weeks of searching, he accepted a role as a Product Manager at Carrot, Inc.
He acknowledges that there have been unexpected parallels between the challenges he faced there and his mindset working at a startup. "My time working at the NGO taught me a lot of patience. It's day by day, project by project, one brick at a time. And this has definitely influenced the way I think and operate today," said Andrew.
When it comes to helping others think through taking time off to volunteer, Andrew is a proponent of doing something that feels a little uncomfortable. "There is a lot of personal growth to be gained from pushing boundaries and stepping out of your comfort zone," he said. Given the many roles he played in his time in Tanzania, it's safe to say he practices what he preaches.
Before starting an overnight hike at Oldinyo Lengai, Tanzania.
“There is a lot of personal growth to be gained from pushing boundaries and stepping out of your comfort zone.”
EXPLORE YOUR TIME OFF
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