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How to Do Humanitarian Aid Work in Africa
How to bring 60 tons of supplies to 60,000 people 6,700 miles (10,783 kilometers) from home.   Text by Joe Robinson   Photograph by Mike Woodman
Photo: Sarah Bailey in Congo


AID AND COMFORT: Trucking supplies through war-ravaged Congo.
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Sarah Bailey, 28, aid worker
More Big Dreams:

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One may afternoon in 2005, a tropical downpour turned the Congolese village of Tunda's dirt airstrip into a quagmire. Sarah Bailey, a Catholic Relief Services emergency program manager from Marietta, Georgia, routinely commuted to remote outposts such as this and was used to the occasional bumpy ride. But as the nine-seat Cessna revved through the muck on takeoff, it was having serious trouble getting airborne. Suddenly, the end of the runway came rushing at them. "The pilot tried to slam on the brakes," she says, "but we crashed into some bushes and a small tree." She was fortunate to walk away unscathed. Since then Bailey always sits right behind the pilot, willing the plane a safe takeoff and landing. The accident taught her a hard lesson: Don't take anything for granted in the Republic of Congo; it's a place where things don't always go according to plan.

Bailey's affinity for unscripted adventures became clear to her on a solo backpacking trip across Turkey, and later on an extended tramp through Southeast Asia. She studied international affairs at Occidental College, in Los Angeles, and as a graduate student at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Her goal was to turn her twin interests, travel and development work, into a career. The best thing about achieving this dream, she knew, would be watching it help other people.

She applied for work with several nongovernmental organizations, and when Catholic Relief Services offered her a yearlong stint in Morocco, she was ecstatic. When they instead shipped her off to the desolate sands of Niger, in the southern Sahara, her enthusiasm flagged; but she had no illusions that this line of work would be a vacation. The real awakening came on her next posting: Congo's war-ravaged Katanga province. Raids by the Mai-Mai resistance had displaced almost 200,000 people in 2005, and her job was to supply 60,000 of these refugees with food and other necessities. Living in Kindu, a town of about 150,000, she endured 12 months of blast-furnace heat with no running water, no electricity, and Swahili cries of "muzungu!—white person" everywhere she went.
There are few places tougher than the Congo, where some three million citizens have died as a result of bloody conflicts over the past decade and where anarchy reigns in many regions. It was a place Bailey dreaded going, but when the offer came, she never even considered refusing it.

"If I can make a difference here," she says, "I can make it anywhere."


LESSONS LEARNED

Command Respect
 
"Often men here ask me, 'C'est madame ou mademoiselle?' as a way of gauging whether I have a husband. Even though I don't, I always respond, 'Madame.' For good measure I add that my husband is very jealous, in particular of Congolese men. That usually does the trick."

Just Say No 
"Government officials are always surprised when foreigners refuse to pay bribes. For them, it's just the way things work there. Basically, no one is ever paid the salary they're supposed to get, so making extra money is the goal of every official, from the lowliest traffic cop to the highest immigration officer to the security guard who watches your car. I try not to judge, because this is the Congo and they're just being resourceful."

Cultivate Absurdity
"If you try to manage everything perfectly, like an American company, you'll last about a month. My friends have a game with a scorecard. They get a point when something goes right, and Africa gets one when things go wrong (a truck breaks down, the cooks steal the chickens). The name of the game is AWA, Africa Wins Always. Those guys are going to last a long time."

Plant Seeds
 "One woman who lost everything in the war parlayed the seeds our NGO gave her into a crop that yielded more seeds. She sold those, bought a motorcycle, and now she rents the bike out."


DO-IT-YOURSELF: GIVE AND GO

The Pioneer: The Doctor Is In
"Mankind's suffering belongs to all men," said French physician Bernard Kouchner, who in 1971 helped found Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders (www.doctorswithoutborders.org). Kouchner, 67, invented a new kind of aid work: one critical of human rights abuses and willing to flout bureaucracy to get personnel on the ground. Today the group fields some 22,000 physicians and other aid workers and offers health-care training in 70 countries.

Dial In: High Mindedness
Risks and rescues at altitude have a way of putting things into perspective, and many professional mountaineers are using the insights gained on their ascents to benefit the local people who've helped to put them on top and get them down safely.

After narrowly surviving an avalanche on 26,289-foot (8,013-meter) Shishapangma that killed his best friend, Alex Lowe, in 1999, American mountaineer Conrad Anker founded the Khumbu Climbing School (www.alexlowe.org), in the Nepali village of Phortse. Its goal is to teach English and critical climbing skills—belaying, rope management, knot-tying, and first aid—to locals who work (and those who would like to work) on Western expeditions.

"It's a way to give back something to the Sherpas," says Anker. "These guys are doing all the work for Western climbers, all the carrying. Hopefully we can reduce the accident and fatality rate. Because if you lose a Sherpa who is a wage earner for a family, he might leave behind a wife and children, and that can profoundly affect communities."

Sign On: Volun-Tourist
Spend your vacation helping health and education efforts in the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania with Cross-Cultural Solutions ($2,650 for three weeks; www.crossculturalsolutions.org). Your base camp is Moshi, nestled among coffee and banana plantations in the foothills of Africa's tallest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro. In cultural exchanges with the Chagga, Sukuma, Masai, and Meru, you'll have something tangible to contribute. Got a few days off? Top out on 19,340-foot (5,895-meter) Kilimanjaro.

Gear Up: Roaming Calls
Making contact from far off the grid is a challenge for aid workers and explorers alike. Half the size of a laptop, the Broadband Global Area Network Nera WorldPro 1000 satellite telephone ($1,895; www.outfittersatellite.com) plugs you in by voice, broadband Internet, and e-mail. At only 2.6 pounds (1 kilogram), this is a communication hub custom-made for roving.

MORE BIG DREAMS:

How to Sail Around the World and Surf >>

How to Build an Island Dream House (For $15,000) >>

How to Drive a VW Van  From California to Uganda >>

How to Retrace the 1912 Race to the South Pole >>

How to Do Humanitarian Aid Work in Africa >>


Cover: Adventure magazine

Our October 2006 issue features how to live your Adventure dreamTanzania's man-eating lions; outdoor activities in San FranciscoWorld Class adventure travel trips; and more!


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