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July 13th, 2009
01:01 PM ET

'Carry boxes' – and more lessons I learned in West Africa

Editor’s Note: President Obama made his first visit to Sub Saharan Africa as President this past weekend. He and his family visited Ghana where the president gave a wide-ranging address to the parliament of Ghana, a western African nation seen as a model of democracy and growth for the rest of the continent. Obama’s visit prompted AC360° contributor Chris Guillebeau, to reflect on his four years working in the region.

Boats along the shore of Ghana's coast.

Boats along the shore of Ghana's coast.

Chris Guillebeau
AC360° Contributor

West Africa is the kind of place that is largely unknown to most people who haven't made a deliberate effort to study it. Travel writers struggle to describe the region without the clichéd contrasts: hope, despair, joy, sorrow. That's what you get when you combine a poverty-stricken area with some of the world’s happiest people.

Many people ask how they can get started in international development work. My answer: carry boxes.

Depressed after 9/11, I surfed the internet looking for volunteer jobs as far away from America as possible. I found one in a medical charity that needed a warehouse manager, which turned out to be a euphemism for box-carrier. Technically I managed a slew of donated goods for refugee camps and nurses, but mostly I shuffled boxes back and forth in a Land Rover every day.

No matter. It was the best job ever. I went to West Africa in 2002 with a two-year volunteer commitment. Before the end of the first year, I ended up running more than the warehouse. The organization needed a Programs Director to oversee the field work and coordinate relationships with host governments throughout the region. “Pick me,” I said, and for some reason they did.

All told, I spent four years in West Africa, beginning in Sierra Leone and ending in Ghana. I worked with presidents and warlords – who sometimes turned out to be the same people. I encountered all the clichéd contrasts writers are supposed to avoid, and struggled to avoid using them myself. Mostly, I encountered remarkable people in extremely difficult circumstances.

Here are a few of the lessons I learned from my time in the region:

Corruption is the greatest factor that holds Africa back. I saw it over and over, from embassy officials who put my $100 visa fees – always paid in cash – directly in their back pocket, to cabinet ministers who billed the central government for tens of thousands of non-existent expenses on a routine basis. Corruption is why most foreign aid never reaches the people it's intended to help, and why most African countries continue to be poor four decades after the end of colonialism.

For extreme travel training, head to West Africa. If you can successfully travel within that difficult region, you can travel anywhere. In my quest to visit every country in the world, I've been to more than 100 countries so far – but few adventures have been as challenging as hopping between Guinea and Togo, or the overland border crossing between Benin and Nigeria.

When confronted with hardship, gratitude is the best response. I travel a lot these days, and sometimes things go wrong. When I leave my iPod in the back of a Peruvian taxi (last week) or nearly get deported from Saudi Arabia (this week), I try to think back to the challenges faced by people who live on less than $1 a day. It's all a matter of perspective - something I acquired many times over during those years in West Africa.

The best time to leave the best job in the world is right before you get tired of it. In my final year overseas, I found my attention drifting to other things. I also noticed that some of my colleagues who remained in post-conflict settings more than a few years became bitter about international development or Africa in general. I don't blame them – the work can be draining, with little external reward – but I didn't want that to happen to me. I was ready to move on.

Except for one thing – part of me will never move on. The funny thing about transformation is that it usually involves permanent change. When you freely give of yourself and allow your world to be turned upside down for a while, you usually come out of the experience a much wiser and humble person.

Try it sometime. Feel free to start by carrying boxes.

Editor’s Note: Chris Guillebeau is a writer, entrepreneur, and world traveler with the goal of visiting every country in the world (111 down, 86 to go). When not traveling, he lives in Portland, Oregon and publishes the Art of Nonconformity blog at ChrisGuillebeau.com. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisguillebeau.

soundoff (8 Responses)
  1. Annie Kate

    Sounds like the corruption practiced by the nations (Belgium, Dutch, English, French, etc) who ruled these African countries during the time of imperialism are alive and well still today. Instead of the Imperialist person from the occupying country being the recipient of the bribery and graft and letting the Africans live in squalor, now its Africans doing it to their own. Hopefully in Ghana things can change and aid sent will actually get to the ones who really need it.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:26 pm |
  2. Fernando F.

    This is why some people are coming out saying that aid to African Governments should be suspended. The only hold they have in power is thanks to that aid money. As soon as the money is stopped, they will lost interest in managing a country, and maybe Democracy will be establish.

    Money shouldn't be given to Governments. It should be administer by the donation agencies. There should be agencies (doing hidden operations) trying to find who is accepting bribes and make it clear that they will place in jail. Make it public, so the bureaucracy will stop this cycle of corruption.

    July 13, 2009 at 10:06 pm |
  3. Anna

    "Corruption is the greatest factor that holds Africa back."
    OK, but who are the corruptors? where are they? and why do they do it?
    These are the questions that I would like to read about, and I guess I am not the only one.

    July 13, 2009 at 4:07 pm |
  4. Gail Ellis Duncan

    We also put corrupt leaders in office as well. A lot of Africa learned corruption from capitalism........we need to be honest and dig deep.

    July 13, 2009 at 2:43 pm |
  5. mame

    hey, u(chris) sound interesting. i'm from ghana studying in new york. would love to have coffee with u sometime. u make life exciting. keep it up.

    July 13, 2009 at 1:57 pm |
  6. Kristi

    great article!~

    July 13, 2009 at 1:53 pm |
  7. Julie

    Wow, this is all so true. I always thought the phrase – if you drive in Lagos, you can drive anywhere – started in Lagos instead of New York. I have also experinced trying to cross over from Benin to Nigeria and back. As a Nigerian who lives in the US, I love the fact that u metioned the visa fee in cash thingy too.

    July 13, 2009 at 12:50 pm |
  8. Luke Harris

    This is an inspirational story, Chris. I enjoy your writing. Having a grateful perspective for all I have is something I need more of.

    Its a unbelievable that greed and corruption in Government is stiffing many peoples good intentions to help others out of poverty.

    After reading your manifestos I wanted to do something to try and change the world for others. I just started something new on my blog to try and make a difference and I am excited to see if it can become of something.

    July 13, 2009 at 11:03 am |