Sabbatical Stories #7 | An Interview with Bella

In the seventh of my sabbatical stories interviews, I pick up with Bella, a TV Producer and part-time photographer and travel blogger from West London.

At the start of 2018 she took four months out to volunteer in Uganda, working as a photographer and videographer for Child’s i Foundation, an NGO that works to get children out of orphanages and back into stable, loving family homes.

Here is her story….


SABBATICAL 101

What was going on in your life that prompted you to take a sabbatical?

I’d been living the same life for over a decade: same job, same flat, same friends, same everything. No boyfriend, no kids, just work, socialise, gym, repeat. I really felt like I needed to go and do something different, shake things up a bit, seek out new opportunities and see where they might lead. Plus I’m freelance, my work is contract-based, and I had a big gap with no work. I was bored and frustrated sitting at home, I needed to get out and do something!

How long did you take for your sabbatical?

It was a three-month volunteering placement, and I stayed on to travel around Uganda at the end. So about four months in total. 

a woman in a purple top and hat riding on the back of a moped

What line of work were you in when you decided to take a sabbatical?

I’m a freelance TV documentary producer/director.

How did you persuade your boss to let you take the time off?

That part was easy, since all my work is project or contract based. I fell off the end of a contract at the end of October, and the run-up to Christmas is always a tricky time to find work. I’d had no work for 2 months, so I decided I needed to get out of the house and do something!

How did you organise the complexities such as your house, pets etc whilst you were away?

I travel quite a lot for work and I live in a second-floor flat so I don’t have any pets.

I have an AirBnB listing for my flat, and I’m also part of a Facebook group where media production people can look for rooms to rent short-term. I advertised on there and found a TV editor from Glasgow who needed somewhere for a 3-month contract she had in London. So I packed all my stuff away into my bedroom, and then rented her my spare room (and the rest of the flat) as a 1-bed flat.


PLANNING YOUR SABBATICAL

What was your biggest challenge when planning your sabbatical?

Deciding to do it! I already knew about the volunteering opportunity because I had been in touch with Child’s i Foundation before, so I contacted them and asked if they were interested in having me. When they immediately said yes, I freaked out! I couldn’t decide if it was the right thing for me to do at that time, especially since I’d already been out of work for 2 months by that stage. I literally dithered until about 3 weeks before I was supposed to leave before finally saying ‘f*** it, what’s the worst that could happen!’ and accepting!

A woman photographing a woman and child on a wooden bench in Uganda

What advice would you give others when planning a sabbatical?

Just do it! You will no doubt be terrified, and wondering whether it’s such a good idea, but you have to put those fears aside and just GO! Spending an extended period somewhere is such a great experience – you learn so much, really get to know a place, make new friends, experience new things, and you come back better and brighter! 

How did you manage your finances so you could afford to take the time off?

I’m lucky that as a freelancer it’s normal to have gaps between contracts, so I get paid relatively well when I am working and I just have to make sure I plan for the periods when I’m not working. Plus being able to rent my London flat out covered my living costs, and Child’s i Foundation paid for my flights and accommodation while I was in Uganda. 

A street scene in Africa, with a dusty road and shop.

What was the best purchase you made before your sabbatical?

A new Canon 5D Mark IV professional SLR camera. My old Mark II version was on its last legs, and I wasn’t about to go all the way to somewhere amazing like Uganda without being able to make the most of the photography opportunities! And I’m extremely glad I did, because the the photos I got while I was there have helped me go on to win two photography/blogging awards! 

Were there any books or resources you used to plan your sabbatical that you’d recommend to others?

Not really. I barely planned it at all! It was all very last minute, I just went ‘OK then!’, rented out my flat, packed a bag, and went! I was lucky though that Child’s i Foundation organised my flights and accommodation for me, so I didn’t have that to worry about. 


ON SABBATICAL

Where did you go on sabbatical?

Kampala, Uganda

A rooftop photo go Kampala in Uganda

What was your favourite part?

Being able to use my skills to actually do something useful and help people. I’ve spent 15 years of my career basically being a small cog in a machine, often working really hard on programmes that are on air one minute and then forgotten the next. It was so wonderful to feel like my work was actually helping, and to be really appreciated by the people I was working with. Uganda is an amazing country too. Kampala has a vibrant and welcoming ex-pat community and I made some brilliant friends and had loads of fun with them.

Plus I got to go on a gorilla safari, I went chimpanzee tracking and even climbed an active volcano to see the world’s largest lava lake, so I really did have some incredible adventures!

Chimpanzee lying down on a log with its arm outstretched

Is there anything you’d do differently if you had the time again?

Stay longer! 

When my time was up Child’s i Foundation asked me to stay on for another three months, and I said yes. But then out of the blue I got offered another TV job, so I came home to do that and save up some more money. I thought I’d go back to Uganda later in the year, but life ended up getting in the way. 


AFTER YOUR SABBATICAL

How did you adjust back to life after your sabbatical?

It was quite simple for me. I had the new job lined up, and my flat was still here waiting for me. The girl who had rented my spare room stayed on a little longer, so I houseshared with her for a bit until she went back to Glasgow.

But really I just slotted straight back into my old life – which in a way I was a bit disappointed about as I had hoped that more would have changed. But maybe four months away isn’t long enough for signifiant changes… or maybe my usual routines actually suit me rather well!

What advice would you give to others on returning to help them come to terms with normal life again?

If you can, allow a week or two to settle back into life before starting back at work. Before you come home, schedule plans to catch up with friends and family. And make sure you keep in touch with your new friends from your sabbatical via social media, Skype, or WhatsApp.


FINISHING UP

How has your sabbatical helped you?

My time in Uganda really gave my travel blog the massive kickstart it needed. Before I went, I didn’t really know what I was doing and had no plan or direction.

Being in Uganda gave me so much great content and really gave my blog a massive boost. I started getting invited to events and made connections with brands. Since then my site has come on in leaps and bounds, I’ve become a proper part of the travel blogging community and even won two awards. 

It’s also massively helped in my TV career. I definitely wouldn’t have been offered the job I came back for if I hadn’t been in Uganda, and that job has since led me on to other travel-related TV opportunities.

So while my life hasn’t changed quite as dramatically as I perhaps might have hoped, having Uganda on my CV has opened new doors and has definitely added an extra dimension that makes me stand out above the competition

Where can we find you to read more about your adventures?

I’ve written loads of blog posts about my travels in Uganda on my blog at https://www.passportandpixels.com/uganda/

You can see more about the work I was doing and watch one of the charity films I made at https://www.passportandpixels.com/video-producer-in-kampala-story-safi-amir/

You can read about the problem of orphanages in Uganda at https://www.passportandpixels.com/finding-homes-ugandan-orphans/

See what I got up to on my travels around Uganda at https://www.passportandpixels.com/what-to-see-do-uganda-highlights/

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A very enjoyable read and the pictures are great too, there’s something very special about spending this sort of productive time in Africa – I would also recommend it to all !

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