For this year’s Black History Month, Gus Mbudaya spoke to BME ally Luke Whewall. They talked about his heritage and growing up in Zimbabwe, his move to the UK at the turn of the century, and the path that led him to SCW, an organisation that he describes as ‘walking the walk’ when it comes to equality and diversity.
Gus has given over 15 years of service to the NHS, working in a clinical setting for several years before joining the NHS Graduate Scheme, specialising in finance. Gus joined SCW as a Finance Manager earlier this year.
I was born in Zimbabwe in the late ‘60s. We were a family of nine children (eight boys and one girl), with a set of twins coming in as third, so I was in a way right in the middle. As is the norm in my culture some of my upbringing was from my elder brothers, as it was generally expected at the time that the older children in a family would help to look after their siblings. I also helped to look after my 2 younger siblings to carry on with the tradition.
I finished my A-Levels in the late '80s and did some temporary teaching before training as a therapy radiographer, qualifying in the mid-'90s. I worked at Mpilo Hospital in Bulawayo, the second-largest city in Zimbabwe and also the city of my birth. I had a wonderful time there in the second city, working for a total of ten years.
Move to the UK and joining the NHS
I came over to the UK in December 2001 and settled in Cambridge after getting a job at Addenbrookes Hospital, part of the Cambridge University Hospitals Trust. I started as a therapy radiographer before becoming a senior therapy radiographer about five years after I joined. I had a wonderful time at this hospital, working for seven years before deciding to embark on another adventurous journey to fulfil my long-held dream of training as an accountant.
Challenges, discrimination and overcoming adversity
I joined the NHS Graduate Scheme in September 2008, specialising in finance management and studying CIMA (Chartered Institute of Management Accountants). After a rigorous interview process, I felt very proud of my achievement, just getting accepted onto this great scheme. However, I soon realised that how much joy and training one got during the placements largely depended on one’s placement manager. If one got a good manager, one could learn a lot, and the reverse was true if the manager was not so interested.
It was frustrating to hear of stories of some fellow trainees speaking favourably of their placements whilst others had not so great placements. And I happened to be one of the trainees who had some bad experiences during some of my placements. As a black ethnic minority with a heavy Zimbabwean accent, I was left to wonder sometimes as to whether the lack of support was due to my skin colour. Some managers were simply not interested no matter how hard I tried to initiate learning.
I remember one day, after weeks of trying but to no avail, I had got so frustrated with an accountant I had been asking to take me through SLAs (Service Level Agreements) training, which was important for trainees to learn. I went to my placement manager, who was a director, and asked him if he could talk to the accountant doing this piece of work that I desperately wanted to learn and let me shadow them. The answer I got shocked me so much that even today I still remember it like it happened yesterday. He simply said, 'Gus don’t knock on that door because it is not going to be opened for you.' So, this was someone who was supposed to look after me during my placement but was not interested at all. I could only assume that they had already discussed my situation and concluded that there was no time for me, so eventually, I had a nightmarish attachment at that Trust.
The lack of proper training during this period obviously negatively impacted on my development and I had to learn some techniques after qualifying – stuff I should have learnt earlier. One finds himself playing catch up on too many aspects of the job because one was never afforded the opportunity to learn.
There is another day that I will never forget either when I attended a seminar on counter fraud in Cambridge. I think there were between 200-250 attendees, and I was the only person of colour in that crowd. I just couldn’t believe and can’t believe that in this day and age you have a group of 200+ counter fraud specialists and not one of them comes from an ethnic minority background besides myself. The main thing I remember about this conference is myself sitting at the back of the hall as one black face in a group of white men only.
The strange thing with this is that I don’t think the attendees found anything amiss with that. This is the reason why I think it is important that we have organisations like BME and have campaigns to encourage equality and inclusivity.
Joining SCW: opportunities, diversity, and support
I joined SCW in February of this year (2021) and it has been a breath of fresh air to work for an organisation that has actually taken practical steps to walk the walk when it comes to equality and diversity.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that the organisation I work for gives employees opportunities to network within the BME community and encourages staff to attend meetings and belong to this very important organisation even during working hours.
I have realised that most organisations talk about equality and diversity, but practically they give this area some lip service really. I don’t think some managers even believe in this talk about equality and diversity, which is a shame really. As they say, a fish starts rotting from the head, so if senior management isn’t interested then surely we can’t expect the rest of an organisation’s employees to have an interest either, as management needs to be exemplary.
I feel lucky that my manager is comfortable with me being a member of this group and supports me in this regard. And in my department, about 40% of us are from the BME community, which I think is a good thing. It is important, inspiring and gives one confidence working with fellow, very competent BME community members. And in my case, I work with two fellow, very competent Zimbabwean accountants.
As a final thought, I think it is important that everyone is given equal opportunities, as without this one cannot achieve much, whatever ability and motivation one has.
Black History Month runs from October 1-31 in the UK. The theme this year is ‘Proud To Be’.