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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.

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