Volunteering Abroad: West Africa

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In the summer of 2015 I had the unique opportunity to take my skilled trade abroad to West Africa.  A nongovernmental organization (NGO) called the Himalayan Institute (HI) was looking for a plumber to help train local staff and perform repairs on their 10,000 square foot building.  They were gearing up to host a guided trip for over thirty international guests to experience Cameroon, show progress on their various humanitarian projects, and share in their vision to fix poverty, illiteracy, and inequality.

After extending my plumbing and gasfitting apprenticeship almost six years from working oil rigs and travel hiatuses, I completed my training and acquired my Red Seal journeyman ticket.  I had heard of the humanitarian work HI had been doing through different sources, and when I learned they needed a plumber I volunteered.  A month after taking my TQ and interprovincial exam, I was soaring through the air half way across the globe to Africa with a bag full of tools, an assortment of gaskets and o-rings, and rolls of industrial teflon tape.  Because you always need thread sealant.

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Three flights and thirty two hours later, I landed in Cameroon.  After armed militia extorted forty dollars from me at the airport gate, I thought “Damn, already!  I’m not even on the road yet. Hanging on a few hours of sleep, I still had another ten hours of travel to go.  Driving through unorganized traffic bumper to bumper, weaving around potholes, we hadn’t even left the city of Douala when we were pulled over again.  Rather than be impounded overnight for not having “proper” vehicle registration, we followed through with the officers’ expectation and paid them off, a second time.  Business as usual, especially for foreigners.

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On the road again, we wound through the jungles of Cameroon following bumpy dirt roads towards the northwest part of the country, stopping at roadside grills along the way for some grub and bottled water.  It was past midnight when we arrived at a village tucked away in a valley called Kumbo, and pulled into the Himalayan Institute Cameroon (HIC).  A journey it was!

It was hard to believe I arrived.  To begin with, I never had the funds or the time to get up and move for two months and work abroad.  You know the daily grind.  It’s nearly impossible.  But I was compelled to do so anyway.  Logically the reasons why not to do it were many.  I hadn’t worked in two months being in school, my unemployment insurance had ended, I wasn’t being paid, the flight cost was astronomical, and my monthly rent downtown was that of a house mortgage.  How would I pay?  I couldn’t afford it.  But regardless, I wanted the experience.

And I wanted to give back.  We are incredibly privileged to live in North America, and this opportunity I couldn’t let pass, so I made adjustments.  I utilized a new government apprenticeship loan, put my apartment up on AirBnB, and traveled on credit.  Life’s short; and I don’t have time to entertain my own excuses.  As soon as I feel boxed in, a rebellion rises within me, and I itch to change the circumstances so that I may live the life I want.  Debt either gets paid or it doesn’t.  When are we ever not in debt anyway?  If you believe in karma, then life itself is one big wheel of debt we’re paying off, while designing a better future at the same time through our good action.  Offering my services abroad in Africa felt like a good action.  If you want it, then make it happen.

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Launched in 2007, the Himalayan Institute Cameroon has become a beacon among NGOs around the world through a sustainable model that educates and empowers communities by employing the local people on projects to raise their own quality of life.  HI is the only NGO I know of where 100% of donations go directly to the field to help any of the five rural empowerment projects they’re working on.  Operating on their shoestring budget, I would later learn how their efficiency has attributed to their success in the area for almost a decade.

Projects focused on preventative holistic health solutions, vocational training in carpentry and construction, public libraries, jewelry making, and water projects.  By training and employing local talent in education, healthcare, micro-business, and environmental regeneration they have brought a lasting impact by improving literacy, well-being, and alleviating poverty at a grassroots level.

And inspired me.  This is what being a journeyman is about.  And I wanted to be a part of it.

After arriving at HIC and having a light meal prepared by a couple who were in charge of managing the public library and holistic health services, I crashed into a bed.  As I drifted into sleep I wondered what kind of plumbing lay in store for me the next day…

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