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Onai Gwachiwa

Profile in Service

Alumni

Apex
Mavens
Veterans

My granddad was one of the first black doctors in Zimbabwe. My mom was influenced by his example and she became one of the first black psychologists in the country. She was driven. As a single mom with two kids, she was a nurse and also held down two other jobs while studying to get her Masters. Then she became one of the first research fellows to study HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. She collaborated in that capacity with British academics. After that experience, her vision was for me to go to a British university.

It was a big dream, especially since Zimbabwe collapsed while I was growing up. During high school, a loaf of bread went from $1 to $3000. There was no fuel, no eggs or milk, nothing in the grocery stores. We lost everything. It became impossible to pay for daily necessities.

I graduated from high school as a top student, but after the economy crashed, we had no money for college. My mom looked at me one day and said, “We have to get you out of the country.” Years prior, she had bought land and designed her dream house. She sold it and made just enough to pay for one year of university in England. Our understanding was that I would work to pay for everything beyond that.

I applied and was accepted to the University of Gloucestershire. I had never been out of Zimbabwe and had no clue what I was getting into. I took all of my possessions to the airport in a single suitcase. It felt momentous – the beginning of the rest of my life – and also scary. It was too expensive for my mom to come with me, but she talked security into letting her through the gate so that she could wait with me. Then she found travelers in the departure lounge who looked trustworthy and asked them to look after me on the flight.

When I arrived in Gloucestershire, my housemate, Johnny, took me under his wing. He brought me to the grocery store. At that point, I had never even seen a vending machine. I remember saying, “There are 6 brands of milk, how do you choose?” He helped me get a phone and open a bank account. Johnny had a job as a bartender, and he helped me get hired too.

I majored in English, and enjoyed it. However, it didn’t answer the question of what to do with my life. The college career counselors encouraged me to interview for the British Army. After learning more, everything about the Army called to me. It was about making a positive difference in the world, being a force for good, rising to the challenge. All of that appealed to me.

I commissioned into the British Army’s Education Training Service due to the opportunities they offered; from language and media training to civil and military affairs. I felt I could really make a difference here! After achieving the highest score on the Modern Language Aptitude Test, I was given the opportunity to go to the Defense School of Languages. A year after joining the Army, I became a linguist and I now speak 5 languages: Shona, English, Pashto, French, and German. I spent the next 9 months teaching Pashto and ‘cultural awareness’ to soldiers during their pre-deployment training, before I deployed to Afghanistan myself.

Midway through that deployment, I joined 3 PARA (3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment) a move that made my career. The only thing that mattered was whether you were good at the job. Nothing else factored in, not where you came from or what your name was. I would teach the soldiers Pashto, English and Math until 1 am because they wanted to learn and we never had enough time. I remember sprinting from place to place since walking wasted precious seconds. When I showed them that I was effective and efficient, the guys said, “you’re now one of us.” They looked after me and vice versa.

I started going on patrols with a core of four women and the 3 PARA guys. While our colleagues spoke with the elders, we’d say “are any women here?” And we’d make conversation with them. There was no point in ignoring half the population. They told us it was the first time they met women who wore trousers and worked with men.

I deployed again, two years later, and this time designed and delivered training to policewomen in Helmand. These women were some of the most inspirational people I have ever met. One police officer had been shot and stabbed, but she still turned up to work every morning, determined to make a difference. I will never forget their fortitude. They were willing to risk everything to create a positive impact for their country and to provide an opportunity for their children.

My mother’s dream had been for me to get an education and to grow as a professional. These mothers shared that dream for their own children. They saw the art of the possible. One mother introduced us to her daughter, this vibrant little girl who ran from place to place. She said she wanted to be a doctor someday. On a fundamental level, people have dreams and aspirations no matter where they are from. My role as a linguist in the Army was about finding the commonalities among us all.

I am grateful for my time in the Army – the standards, the adventures, the chance to see the world. It played to my strengths. I have always been open to change and able to adapt to different environments. That is why I have survived. It’s also what led me to explore possibilities outside of the Army, and what drew me to technology. This is an industry of constant change, of trying and failing, knowing that it’s how you get up again that really matters.

I took BreakLine as I approached my transition date and it opened my eyes to new possibilities. We visited Cisco Meraki during the program. Our hosts encouraged us to walk around. I noticed a wall with everyone’s pictures on it, along with pictures of their dogs. The openness and warmth of the culture reminded me of the connection I have with my 3 PARA teammates, and Cisco Meraki’s drive to simplify technology drew me in. I have accepted an offer to join the Customer Success team and I am absolutely thrilled with this opportunity. My new role utilizes my language skills and focuses on building relationships, problem-solving, and finding a mutual path forward. It feels brand new and familiar all at the same time.

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© 2022 BreakLine. All Rights Reserved.