“Don’t say ‘No’ when opportunities come knocking”

Woman smiling

Vanessa Phekani came to Oulu from Malawi. She hold a bachelor’s degree in public administration and sociology, and a master’s degree in education and globalisation from the University of Oulu.


My name is Vanessa Helena Phekani, I am from Malawi, where I was born and raised. I hold a bachelor’s degree in public administration and sociology, and a master’s degree in education and globalisation from the University of Oulu.

I have been living in Oulu for four years now. When I first visited here in 2017, I remember thinking: ‘Wow, this reminds me of my city back home!’ I come from a small city where you have easy access to everything. I love the fact that, in Oulu, I can still ride my bike to work and back.

Oulu is a very peaceful place to live and you experience very little ‘hustle and bustle’ here. Life doesn’t feel rushed. I can go to work, I can rest, I can have a good work–life balance here, and I really appreciate that.


I work at the Oulun Vastaanottokeskusten tukiyhdistys ry, which in English, is the Oulu Reception Centre Association. I work under a project called Moninaisilla Poluilla, which works with immigrant women, helping them to integrate and build their networks. We also plan and organise activities and events for the women to help create those networks and friendships.

I love my job because you meet so many people and you learn so much. You get to understand different cultures and share different experiences, and for me, that is such a beautiful and life enriching thing.

Woman sitting at the sofa


Before coming to Oulu, I had been working as a professional project coordinator in Malawi, and I had been building my career. I knew that I wanted to continue along the same path in Finland, so the first thing I did was to scout out the organisations that I wanted to be associated with. First, I volunteered my time at Vuolle. There I was involved in a project with the youth and young girls, and I volunteered as a worker at the kids’ summer camps.

I then joined the Save the Children organisation. Initially, I volunteered as a ‘peer experience’ educator, but then I was awarded a small contract on the same project, and I spent a year working with Save the Children.

After that, I volunteered at the Multicultural Centre Villa Victor for one month, because they work with immigrants. I knew that I really wanted to work with immigrants and to discover how the city could have better programmes to facilitate their integration. From my own experience, I could see that there was a gap in this area. Recognising that Villa Victor is an integral organisation working in that field, I felt I would be able to contribute to their work.

After that, I got a job with a cleaning company, and this was the first time I was interviewed by a Finnish organisation. When I started the cleaning work, it was a financial necessity, but I also appreciated that I would be able practice my Finnish. Shortly thereafter, I was accepted onto the master’s programme, and couldn’t take many shifts but is till maintain my cleaning work contract to date. However”, a couple of months later, I found the job that I am currently working in.


I think my motto has always been: ‘Don’t say “No” when opportunities come knocking’. Whatever they ask, say “Yes,” because it will be an opportunity for networking.

One door will open other doors, and that is how I was able to moderate for the TEDx Oulu event: I was able to participate in this very special event because people had seen me working in different spaces, as I had networked a lot. Somebody referred me and said: ‘I think this person will be of great value to the TEDx programme’. It was an amazing experience to participate in the TEDx Oulu 2020.

When I first arrived in Oulu, there were many activities where internationals could meet. I made my way to all of them, and even when I was exhausted, I would make the time. I would go even when I didn’t speak the language, because each experience would add value and perspective on how I could go about job hunting, or whatever else it was that I needed to do. I would advise all immigrants to join these events. Put yourself out there, and if you want to go ahead and organise something, just do it.


The Africa cultural day was an event a friend of mine suggested, her name is Ojulape Akinwumi. When she told me about her idea, I knew it would be great. I was the MC for the event, which was held in Oulu. Our big headliner was a band called Group Calabasse; they are huge here, and they made the day really amazing.

We also had different vendors of African descent or people who have connections to Africa. We had a beauty and fashion collection; we had a lady who supports an orphanage in Africa; and there were restaurants and individuals who sold African food. We also had DJs who played Afro pop music, and we had a fashion show. We had people sharing their own experiences of Africa and how they’ve integrated into the community here. We also had a trivia quiz running throughout the day: we gave people a chance to share their knowledge about Africa, and there were prizes to win.

On the day, when we saw how the event transpired, we realised just how important it was. It was huge to be able to share our culture, not just for ourselves, but for our children, for the Finns who live here, and for the other people who live here and who know nothing about our different countries and our cultures. This was the first of its kind in Oulu, and we hope it will be a recurring event. We hope to get support from the city or from other organisations that work with multicultural communities.

I would say that I am very connected to the African society here. We try as much as possible to connect with one another, to meet up and to hold events together. It’s a group effort by a collective in relation to the city of Oulu itself. I think there’s still a lot of work to be done, and there is a lot of space for growth. I think that many multicultural people should start to step up and say they want to create their own spaces, because there is room for this in Oulu.

I would say to anybody who moves here: Be open minded. Make a plan. What do you want to do?

A good thing about Finland is that the system works. If you put your mind to something that you really want to do, the system can work for you. Be open to new experiences and be open to change. Be willing to pivot and grow. Be willing to rediscover yourself and reinvent yourself: it’s never too late to start again! Finland is a beautiful country. Once you get used to the weather and the language, it becomes home!

This article was originally published at oulutalenthub.fi

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