Mai-Britt Soendberg was just 11 when she took her first job, packing tea-light candles at a factory. Her memories of summer holidays are of the mind-numbing repetition of wrapping plastic, but also the pride of holding a paycheck that was completely her own. “I rarely got any new clothes because we simply didn’t have the money for it. So I started caring for myself.”
Growing up in a family of blue-collar workers on Fyn, a Danish island best known as the birthplace of writer Hans Christian Andersen, Mai-Britt saw work as a way out, rather than a way of life. “I didn’t want to stay in a small town and do the usual stuff.”
The candle-packing was the first in a long line of weekend jobs; there was the newspaper round, the sweating over kitchen grills, and time as a Blacksmith’s apprentice. All the while, she’d make canny loans to her older brothers, charging interest and creaming off a healthy profit for herself. Eventually the hours of learning to shape metal by a hot furnace was enough to push her to become the first person in her family to attend university, and get off the island.
It all paid off. Today, she’s 5,000km away from her hometown, in Cairo, Egypt, working on a staggeringly ambitious energy project. With the creation of three new power plants – two along the Nile, the third in the country’s (yet to be built) new capital city – Egypt’s energy supply will be transformed, increasing by 50%. That’s enough electricity to power 16 million homes. It’s crucial work; Cairo has the world’s fastest-growing population and is predicted to increase by half a million in 2017 alone. It’s Mai-Britt’s job to find the workforce for these three plants, and she’s recruited many of the 23,000 new people working on them.
That these people will come from all over the world is one of Mai-Britt’s favourite parts of the job: “I’ve always been interested in people’s stories,” she says. As a child, she wanted to be a journalist to “give a voice to lesser-told stories”. Today, listening to people’s stories makes up much of her daily work, whether that’s over evening beers in the camp accommodation at Burullus, a brackish water lake 150km along the coast from Alexandria, or meeting prospective workers at her office in New Cairo. People go to Mai-Britt when they want something done. “My mum always said I had a soft spot for the underdog.”
By underdog, she clearly means people like herself, whose hard work has taken them to new places. It’s a thread connecting so many of the people working on this “Mega Project”, a project so large it’s changing lives – both those of Egyptian citizens and newcomers who have had to learn Arabic and adjust to new ways of living fast. “In my country, we need to follow rules,” Mai-Britt says, “but here it’s more chaotic.” At first she took that chaos for disorganisation, but gradually she could feel a more relaxed approach seeping into her own work.
I don’t want to return, but don’t tell my colleagues back home! They’re asking when I’ll come back…Mai-Britt Soendberg
Learning not to sweat the small stuff has been an important lesson for Mai-Britt. She is, after all, a woman with extreme drive; when she started playing canoe polo for fun, she was representing her national team in the world championships within a year. But after being hospitalised with stress after a big project in her early thirties, she started listening to her body and being more honest with herself: “Stress is simply not worth it,” she says. “I simply need time to myself to recharge.”
In this way, life in Egypt suits her. Simply living in a different place keeps her energized. Back in Denmark, she’d never be able to buy mangos fresh from the tree on the way to work, or canoe along the world’s longest river at the weekends with her family. She admits that she misses Denmark’s cycling culture, but she feels healthier in North African heat. She’s such an advocate of the sun’s restorative power that she flew her mother over for Vitamin D and recuperation following major surgery. “It’s dark for such a long time in Denmark – it can be depressing. She’s completely changed since she came here.” Will she return home when her contract ends next year? “I don’t want to return,” she says, without pausing. “But don’t tell my colleagues back home! They’re asking when I’ll come back…”