Working for an NGO in Sierra Leone: An Interview with Austin
There are so many ways to earn money while also being able to travel the world and also loads of ways to volunteer abroad to help out less privileged communities whilst learning new skills and becoming totally immersed in a different culture. This week I’m talking to Austin from the US who works for an NGO in Sierra Leone.
Austin Klise is from the US and is currently living and working in rural Sierra Leone. He works for a small not for profit, First Things Foundation, that sends volunteers to the poorest parts of the world to live and work alongside those they serve. Before moving to Sierra Leone he backpacked in Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa and was a manager at a software development company based in Colorado. Austin has ‘starred’ in a Sierra Leonean movie and when not working spends his time chatting up locals, reading John Henry Newman, or doing push-ups. He can be reached at [email protected].
Working or volunteering abroad is a dream for so many people. Please tell me a bit more about your work in Sierra Leone.
I’m living in rural Sierra Leone (West Africa) in a small village called Kailahun. I work for a small NGO that sends people to a country to “live like the locals do,” in an attempt to understand the culture and to form real relationships. For me that means living simply since that’s how people around me live. For example I shower using a bucket and wash my clothes by hand. I also walk most places and go through my body weight in sweat everyday since A/C is non existent.
The best part of living here is my “day job” or rather “day jobs”. Some days I’m working in one of the many rice swamps. Other days I’m mixing huge buckets of dough that will later be baked and sold around town. My favorite job is “mashing banga” which involves jumping up and down on a pit of palm kernels to manually press out their orange / red oil. Think mashing grapes by foot, but Sierra Leonean style. After the foot smashing is done we pour boiling water over the kernels to bring the oil to the top. Next it is skimmed off then boiled again to remove any excess water.
Wow, sounds super interesting. What made you decide to work in Sierra Leone and how did you make it happen?
Before this I was working a 9-5 job in the IT sector. It was a good job and I worked with talented people. However, I wanted to try something that would completely take me out of my element and would be simple at the same time. I found First Things Foundation (a non-profit) which was advertising just that. It was small and had a philosophy I liked. That by living simply, living locally, and by suffering and celebrating with those you work with you’ll learn more about that community and about yourself.
After I decided this is what I was going to do, I gave my notice, packed my bags and flew to the otherside of the world.
As for finding the day jobs I do in my village it’s pretty simple. I tell people that I want to learn how to farm, bake, teach, etc and that I’m willing to work for free. Most people think I’m joking at first, but when they figure out I’m serious almost everyone is more than willing to take me on.
What do you like the best about working in Sierra Leone?
The relationships I’ve been able to build. The other day I was “mashing banga” with Howa, one of my friends and while we were working, she told me her story. How she had to flee to Guinea during the Sierra Leonean civil war and how her children are still there. How she buys and sells palm oil across Guinea and Sierra Leone, braving the disaster that is the public transportation system here. How she wants to have enough palm trees to exclusively sell her own product and not have to travel so much. Doing physical labor with someone has a mysterious way of quickly building deep relationships.
I’m also grateful that in a country like Sierra Leone I can volunteer to do almost any job and people will take me. I’ve helped in field surgeries, baked bread, farmed, attempted to harvest palm wine, and many more things that wouldn’t be so easy to do spur of the moment in other countries.
Sounds really interesting and worthwhile. But nothings perfect right? Are there any downsides?
Yes, of course. The work is hard and it’s not always easy to get motivated to go to work on a farm for a full day or teach math to a 100 students at once. It’s also hard being the “outsider”. While I’m doing my best to integrate by learning the language and working like everyone else there are still obvious differences. I’m one of the handful of white people in my village and it’s not uncommon that a toddler will see me (the first white person they’ve seen) and will start to cry.
Do you have one standout highlight or biggest achievement?
There is a drink here called “palm wine” which is harvested by climbing to the top of huge palm trees and hammering a tap into the tree. The climbers are usually from one specific tribe and are highly respected because it’s hard and dangerous to climb these trees. The other day I offered to try and climb one of the trees, everyone thought I wouldn’t get off the ground. I got almost half way up. It was then that I decided I better leave it to the professionals. But half way wasn’t bad.
And what has been the greatest challenge?
Like I mentioned before, complete integration is hard. I’m 27 and it’s expected that I should have a wife and at least a few kids so people get confused when I tell them that I’m not married. After that sinks in people are often a bit confused and might even say they know a few women in the village who are looking for a husband. There are other things that are quite culturally different between my U.S. background and the Sierra Leonean way of life.
What do you wish you had known before you started working in Sierra Leone?
It’s hard to say. There are so many unknowns about working in a new country and in a new role. I don’t think I could pin down one thing that is particularly relevant. Maybe, that I should have brought more mosquito repellent?
So, what are your plans and ambitions for the future?
I’m working for First Things Foundation for another 6 months, after that I have a few businesses that I want to start. I do freelance project management / development work and I’d like to get that rolling again. This experience has also made it clear that I need to be doing something where I’m getting my hands dirty so maybe I’ll start a garden or something similar.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what tips would you give for people wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Relationships are key. The work matters, the culture matters, but relationships are king. In my experience authentic relationships are found by living and working with those around you. The best relationships are built when you’re working at the same level as someone else and living life as they do. It’s not always easy, but it’s incredibly fulfilling.
Thanks so much Austin for the tips and for sharing your story, its really inspirational.
Don’t forget to check out the other interviews with people working and volunteering abroad.
If you are working abroad contact me to be featured here next.
Very cool Austin. It’s better you don’t make it to the top of that tree, I hear that’s where the snakes live.
This sounds like you had an incredible experience in Sierra Leone! Being able to live there and help everyday sounds amazing.
I recently visited earlier in the year to take part in the Sierra Leone Marathon in aid of Street Child and I loved my journey. Thanks so much for sharing this!