We all thought we had Claire Rumpsa pegged. Smart, kind, diligent, and armed with a hint of Northern Irish strength. But fresh off a recent field visit I can assure you that’s is only just the start. I’ve come to find that Claire yields an unexpected sense of humor, just a good shade on the darker side, coupled with a balance of realism and palpable optimism.

Don’t underestimate her petite frame and understated demeanor, Claire emanates a strong presence as she works with the team to strategically manage Nuru’s Healthcare program.  She’s no stranger to rigorous work, nor her current neck of the woods. Interspersed throughout her academics, studying law and politics at the University of Queens in Belfast, followed by earning a M.Sc at University College Dublin, Claire spent significant time working in Eastern and Southern Africa.

Though she claims her accent has lessened since living with 8 Americans, her team can see her roots shine through in idioms from her homeland and are often treated to traditional Northern Irish desserts.

Getting to know Claire personally and professionally during my visit was an absolute pleasure. Since I could not resist sharing my discoveries with the rest of the Nuru World, I persuaded her to undergo yet another one of my grueling interviews. Though slightly more intrusive, this one was under the informal pretense of sharing lessons learned and astute observations to paint a clearer picture of this multifaceted woman—the driving force of the Healthcare program.

On balancing life and work in rural Africa, here’s what Claire has to say:

Lindsay Cope (LC): What drew you to this type of work?

Claire Rumpsa (CR): Growing up in Northern Ireland in the years that followed the Troubles meant that in some ways, I was on the receiving end of assistance and support from outside organizations, which was an interesting experience. I learned that the best organizations were those that worked alongside the local people, supporting and developing grassroots initiatives. I also love to travel and I want to use my time and talents to support and empower others.

LC: How did you learn about Nuru?

CR: I first came into contact with Nuru at a CAWST workshop on Community Health Promotion in Kenya.  Nicole Scott, (Nuru’s former Water/Sanitation program manager) was there with her team. Over course of the week I got to know them well and I asked lots of questions about Nuru!

LC: What excited you about the Healthcare Program Manager position with Nuru?

CR: I was working for an organization that focused on water, sanitation and hygiene, but I knew that to make a long term difference in community health, a comprehensive approach is necessary.  The 10 Healthy Behaviors that Nuru Healthcare promotes seemed to fit the bill!  I was also excited to work with an organization that believed in an integrated development model and would be able to help people improve their ability to save for their future and improve their crop yield.

LC: When you arrived in Isibania, what was the first thing that went through your mind?

CR: While still working with Aqua Clara, I came to Isibania for a training on affordable sanitation hosted by Nuru. While searching for the training venue, we nearly drove into Tanzania. It was a surprise to realize how close Isibania is to the border!

The training was great and I was amazed to see how far [Nuru’s] team had come in course of year in terms of their confidence and ability to influence change in the community.

LC: What was your first impression of Jake?

CR: The first time I met him was at that same Sanitation training. I didn’t realize that he was the CEO because he was so unassuming. He was really interested in what we were all learning at the training and how we were going to put it into action (Claire let’s out a quick laugh when reconsidering the situation). I was a little embarrassed that he came in during a role-play activity. I was playing the role of the latrine, crouched on the ground and holding my arms out in a circle…I recall thinking this must be a really odd first impression to make!

LC: While you’re in the field, what is the one thing, other than friends and family, you miss the most?

CR: Cheese!

LC: What has been the biggest surprise you’ve encountered since beginning your role?

CR: Even though I knew it before, it never ceases to amaze me how small behavior changes can make big improvements in health, especially for the most vulnerable.

LC: What single most satisfying aspect of your job?

CR: Working directly with the team. I can see their confidence and ability increasing as we work together. I enjoy helping to draw out their many talents and help build upon them in a way that enables them to really help the community. Building local capacity makes a big difference in the long run.

LC: What has been the biggest professional challenge you’ve faced since being in the field with Nuru?

CR: The original scaling plan for Healthcare was too aggressive. We needed to build a stronger foundation and to solidify the model before scaling. It’s been a good professional challenge and a great opportunity for more co creation with the Kenyan Healthcare team.

LC: Personal challenge?

CR: Learning to cook for 15 people at a time. Strangely, it will now be harder to cook for 2!

LC: In 2013, what goal are you most looking forward to achieving?  

CR: I am looking forward to handing over more of the day-to-day activities to Becky, our District Manager as part of the transition from expat to local management. This is a key milestone for the model and for our program. Also, it’s going to be great to be in my second year in job and know the program inside out!  The transition in responsibilities will allow me the time to explore innovative ideas or technologies that will help take the program to the next level. (Especially referencing our push to incorporate SMS broadcasting.)

LC: What is the funniest moment you’ve had with Nuru so far?

CR: The playboy curtains! We had just moved offices and needed a new curtain for the window.  The curtain that the team bought when I was on leave was patterned with purple playboy bunny rabbits on a pale pink background!  I first noticed the new décor during a meeting and couldn’t help laughing out loud. It’s pretty appropriate that the curtain is hanging in our social marketing office as we have been focusing recently on brand awareness and messaging. Clearly the team hadn’t made a connection to playboy as we know it and honestly, it makes me smile every time I go into the office.

LC: During a typical week, what is the thing you look the most forward to?

CR: I really enjoy the Monday morning staff meeting when the whole team is together sharing successes and challenges and problem solving. It sends people out on a high for the week.

I also look forward to nights around the fire pit at the weekend, relaxing with a glass of wine or taking long walks around where we live.  Kuria is beautiful and it’s a pleasure to wander and get to know the area better.

LC: What is the one thing you will never travel without?

CR: My own pillow– I traveled without it this time and will never do it again. And, my headlamp, of course!

LC: What is your favorite get-a-way in East Africa?

CR: Rondo retreat in Kakamega rainforest.  It’s one of the last areas of virgin rainforest in EA.  The monkeys, tropical birds and butterflies are incredible.

LC: What is your favorite meal at Migosi’s? [The small restaurant at our Regional Training Center]

CR: Chapati, beans and sukumawiki.  Some days Migosi has avocados that are a great addition. I also bring my secret supply of hot sauce.

LC: One piece of fashion advice for being in the field?

CR: Don’t where a pencil skirt if you are going to ride on a long boda ride (motorbike), or when you’re on market duty and have to deal with 4 unwieldy baskets of food.

LC: What is one improvement the HC program needs to make?

CR: We need to increase our ability to incorporate mobile technology into our program monitoring. There is big potential to get more immediate feedback from the field, and it can help provide better services to our community, like providing real time health updates.

As we continue to scale in Kenya mobile tech will become more important for maintaining contact with kikundi (our Field Officer units) that are far away. It will help to keep them up to date on what they need to know and do their jobs more effectively.

LC: What advice do you have for an incoming fellow?

CR: Make sure you really get into the field to see the project in action. Don’t get caught up with the day-to-day stuff at the Regional Training Center.

Take showers when you can! Don’t wait as inevitably the pump will break, the electricity will go out, or something else bizarre will happen.  Also, make your room nice! Create a space that feels like home so you can get away and recharge.

LC: Any advice for married couples in the field together?

CR: Take time for just the two of you, whether it be going out for walks or having meals together. Another rule of thumb, no work-talk under the mosquito net.

LC: What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I say communal living?

CR: Getting together at the end of the day and sharing experiences or funny things that happened. A lot of those things are difficult to explain to people back home, so it’s really nice to have built in communal support. Plus, it’s nice only having to cook once a week.

LC: Heading home for the holidays what is the first thing you will do in Michigan and then in Ireland?

CR: In Holland, MI we will go out for breakfast at our favorite place, The Biscuit and then hang out with our new niece. Last we saw her, she was only a few weeks old.

Back home in Ireland the first thing we’ll do is take a long walk on the beach beside my family home.  I’m biased, but it really is the most beautiful pace in the world.

Stay tuned in early 2013 to see Claire and the Team’s progress!

Happy New Year from the Healthcare Program!