This World – Students in the Jungle, Part I

Nimba County, Liberia.

After five hours, I admit to being lost.

I’ve been riding through the African jungle on my slick-tire Chinese street bike. The mud covers everything; my boots are saturated and my Denver Hayes jacket is red from the rich soil.

I had spent the night in the village of Gblarlay, where I met the chief, sat drinking palm wine with him, and then went to sleep shirtless on the thin mattress in a mud hut, sweat running down my sides, the crickets and jungle sounds enveloping me. In the morning I ate rice and potato greens with smoked fish from the Cestos River, the border river that the refugees from Ivory Coast have been crossing in dugouts. I thanked my hosts and set off on the bike to find the work crew I was supposed to be supervising. They had been busy for two days hauling sand for a water and sanitation project in Butuo.

I rode from village to village, asking directions. Everywhere on the path the small tributary trails slid away out of sight into the cassava and banana trees. Women and children wrapped in sarongs and carrying firewood bundles on their heads flitted into the bush on the side of the trail as I rode by. Finally, I stopped to ask directions. Did I really mean Butuo, the villagers wanted to know, or Bealatu? Or was it perhaps Beadatuo or Beatuo? They pointed me down trail after trail, directing me in colloquial English. The jungle became thicker around me. The warm rain came in squalls every half hour. I crossed over mossy, one-log bridges, holding my breath.

My name is Max. I’m serving as a volunteer in West Africa?but by night, I’m an AU student.

Have you ever looked up from your studies and wished you were somewhere else? Did you ever groan at the endless pile of books, wishing you could find a shortcut? Most of us have learned by now that there are no shortcuts, but studying online gives a flexibility that allows at least a change of scene. If You’re learning from a distance, why do it at home? In fact, why do it in Canada at all?

At the time that I write I’m living at a house called Silver Beach in a suburb of Monrovia, Liberia. For months I’ve been up in the ?bush,? working at a leprosy rehabilitation centre near the town of Ganta. I’ve ridden hundreds of kilometres on my motorcycle, helping with well construction and distributing essential non-food items to the refugee population created by the civil war next door in Ivory Coast. I’ve lived in the bush for days on end with my Liberian co-workers. Tonight after work at the office in Monrovia, I will walk 50 metres to the lukewarm Atlantic and go surfing on the mighty rainy season waves. When the darkness falls, I will go inside, sit down at my desk, and do some homework for my Athabasca University classes.

The only problem? I might have to wait for the Internet to start working so I can hand in my assignments. In the scheme of things here, That’s no big deal.

The non-governmental organization EQUIP Liberia, with which I’m volunteering, has served long-standing needs in this war-shattered country since 1998. The EQUIP Country Director David Waines is an eccentric, Vancouver-born Canadian expatriate who has made his life?and raised a family?here since 1986. He was in-country for almost the entire 14-year civil war and genocide (1989-2003), serving the people by bringing in medicines and vaccines when every other person with money or connections had already evacuated.

There are now over 80 international NGOs registered in Liberia and hundreds all over Africa. The most common question I get from North American friends with cabin fever is ?How did you get involved?? How did a ski patroller and part-time student from Vancouver land a volunteer position in Africa?

The answer is as easy as firing off an email to an organization?and asking what they’re looking for. Some really adventurous few have even obtained the right visas, packed a small bag, and set off for Africa on their own. On a continent where white Land Cruisers emblazoned with aid organization logos abound, finding an unpaid position comes easily. Much help is needed.

In fact, the great trouble that most NGOs face is finding good help. It’s important to do your research, though. For example, be sure to know what your time commitment is; most organizations want people for six months to a year, though many are set up specifically to accommodate people who can only do shorter terms. Some organizations will even pay for your plane ticket if they think You’re open-minded and flexible (crazy) enough to take on new challenges and unexpected ?work details.?

If It’s a longer-term, paid position You’re eventually hoping for, all you usually have to do is stick around with the organization long enough. If you really want to advance yourself in the area it might be a good plan to volunteer for a year or two first, then head back home to get your Master’s in Public Health.

Even if you don’t want a career with UNICEF, getting away from the North American rat race for a year might be the best thing you’ll ever do for yourself.

?It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love,? says Waines. ?We have 400,000 people to help today, and we could really use a hand. Partnership and exchange is always very healthy and very important in this type of work. The partnership between locals and international volunteers is very beneficial. It gives the people hope.?

So how did I find my way out of the jungle? Come back for Part II of the adventure next week?and find out how to get started on an adventure of your own.

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