“Everyone owns a house there,” she said. “You have a plot of land and build whatever type of house you can afford and, however small and insignificant their houses may look like, most people own them, despite just 5 per cent of the population having a job contract.
“It is very different in many ways. People in Madagascar live where they are from, and not necessarily where they want, and don’t tend to move around like here. However, while this may sound great, mostly all of these houses are without electricity and water.”
Another thing that struck her, particularly given the harsh conditions these people live in, was the type of values the locals abide by, such as trust, integrity and honesty. Whereas many financial institutions in the UK are making headlines for not respecting these principles, Ms Cowling said we could learn a lot by returning to, what she referred to as, “back-to-basic values”.
By seeing first hand how the locals lived and still maintained a positive attitude, Ms Cowling said she is now much better at managing stress levels and putting things into perspective. “I have become less restless and able to calmly find solutions to things that would have previously seemed disastrous,” she said.
“The experience puts everything in western life into perspective. Here, we worry about so many things that you really don’t need to worry about and, while some may complain about it, at least here we have the state to protect us, somewhere to live, and something to eat.
“For example, people in the UK often complain about the NHS, but there, in Madagascar, hospitals don’t feed people or offer washing facilities. These kinds of things give you a fresh view on how lucky we are and how unimportant some things we worry about are,” she added.
Now rejuvenated and reaping the benefits of a change in perspective, Ms Cowling has become a strong advocate of employee sabbaticals. While she understands that some companies may find it difficult to let their staff go, she believes it could go on to benefit all parties.
For those fortunate enough to work for companies that are supportive of sabbaticals, Ms Cowling urges these employees to jump at the chance to take part in something that could turn out to be a life-changing experience.
“The charities desperately need people, so there is no shortage of opportunities and I would urge anyone considering their options to go for it,” she said. “There is no real negative aspect, apart from not earning money, but if you have savings or any money put aside, it is definitely worth doing.