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Of Pirates, Practicalities & Purpose

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OSCAR SCAFIDI, TRAVEL WRITER, RISK CONSULTANT (LUSOPHONE AFRICA), TEACHER & AUTHOR

There aren't many careers that combine the frisson of adventure with challenging analytical work and the opportunity to make a significant difference. 

Oscar Scafidi has devised one such set-up for himself, and to call it colourful would be a gross understatement.

One month he might be found advising on the latest escapades of Somalian pirates. The next he could be giving a talk at the Royal Geographical Society on his own (less ruthless but equally risky) kayaking expedition in Angola; or teaching history in an international school in Madagascar; or penning another chapter for one of Bradt's travel guides.  

But while the variety might seem dizzying, his very different roles are spun from the same mindset: a forensic curiosity, combined with a willingness to put himself in uncomfortable situations and be open to what emerges.  

What led you down these extraordinary career paths?

"At university I was very influenced by a friend who went off travelling to strange places - Iran, Yemen, Syria. I thought that they sounded terrible: difficult, dangerous and no fun at all! But he persuaded me that it was worth venturing outside the western world just to see what it was like. 

"So straight after uni I made the decision to move to the Sudan.  On the plane out there I remember being really angry with myself for making such a stupid decision - but it proved to be such a refreshing, positive experience.  Most of the people I met had never had any exposure to a Westerner, and I loved that.  I wasn't meeting other people like me.

"I guess I've always been interested in the niche! Which is lucky because it's less competitive. I find conflict and post-conflict zones fascinating, so most of my preferred destinations are not very high on most people’s bucket lists.

"The consultancy work came about because I happened to be in Angola when a risk consultant I knew needed someone on the ground to do a couple of checks in local registry offices and I was the only person he could think of.  I did it, and off the back of that got listed by a firm as 'our man in Angola'.  Everything has grown from that, all quite organically although I did eventually do a Masters in Warfare in the Modern World at King's College, London. 

"And I've always had the urge to write about my travels, to preserve the memories. I did so for ages free of charge, before that eventually became monetised."

And what is it that you most love about what you do?

"I enjoy breaking a complex subject into something digestible and useful.  Risk consultancy is a very analytical job: I like the mapping out, the attention to detail, and the sense of being entrusted to make a judgement call about what is good.

"And those things are also relevant to my travel writing: my style is not narrative, not "English Lit" for armchair travellers; it's about enabling people to manage the logistics of a trip so that they can actually get to the far-flung corners of different countries.  I'm writing the books that I want! Tourism and exposure to different cultures are some of the most promising ways that sub-Saharan Africa can develop, and I want to help enable those connections and conversations between people. 

"I love the flexibility of being self-employed: managing my own time, my own travel and my own expenses. There are not many careers that would allow you to vanish off the radar for six weeks straight on a kayaking expedition in Africa!

"However, for various periods of time I have been willing to sacrifice some of that flexibility in order to get back into the classroom. Teaching History and the Humanities is another passion of mine, and there are few things as rewarding as interacting with children or young adults on a daily basis."

What common misconception about your lines of work would you most like to correct?

"Providing risk or security consultancy services does not make you a spy!

"Friends back in Europe like to make this joke frequently, but it is no laughing matter when this accusation gets made by security forces in Africa (most recently Angola, where I was arrested at gunpoint and detained for four days on our kayaking expedition).

"On the travel writing side, I think everyone has a highly romanticized view of what a travel writer does, and also a grossly inflated sense of how much we get paid. It is definitely not as glamorous or financially rewarding as people think!

"For teaching, I wish the general public (students and parents in particular) understood better how difficult it is to teach well, how much work goes into educating a student and how passionate and well-qualified most teachers are. One of my former students put it best in a recent Reddit AMA about my kayaking expedition: “Reading this really breaks the paradigm that all high school teachers have given up on their dreams and have failed at life.”

What's the best advice you've received in your professional life?

"If you are unhappy professionally, make a change.

"It sounds like obvious advice now, but having had a job that I didn't enjoy in the corporate world, I know it can be a revelation.  It's something that I always think of when deciding what to do next.  

"Many people sit in jobs or even whole careers they do not enjoy, some suffering in silence but many complaining vocally. I am not sure how that helps their situation. There will always be an excuse to not quit, but in the immortal words of Dr Pepper: 'what’s the worst that could happen?' Deciding to make the change is the difficult bit."

What are you working on at the moment?

"I am currently working on two large projects:

1. Releasing a book about my 1,300km kayaking expedition along Angola’s longest river through crowdfunding publisher Unbound.

2. Persuading the government of Guinea-Bissau that they also want a travel guide to their country (which is proving a little difficult given the recent political instability there!)

... And how does your morning start?

"I wake up just before 6am and jump straight on my computer. At the moment the first 30 minutes of every day is dominated by managing social media campaigns relating to my various projects. I try to keep my multiple professional lives separate, so this means managing four distinct email accounts, which is also a fair amount of work in the mornings."

Finally, how could The Hot Breakfast community help you?

"I would love it if people could spread the word about my book project: Kayak The Kwanza, whether this is via Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. I will be donating 25% of the profits from the book to The HALO Trust, so that they can continue their vital landmine clearance work in Angola. If people are keen to purchase a copy and hear about us being attacked by hippos, sinking in rapids or being arrested by security forces, they can do so safe in the knowledge that they are contributing towards making Angola landmine-free by 2025."