COLUMBIA — Steve Baumgartner, a self-described homebody, has lived in Boone County his entire life. He’s only been on a plane once.
But on Saturday, Baumgartner, a lineman with Boone Electric Cooperative, will depart on a three-week trip to Africa to bring electricity to 30 families in the continent’s largest country, Sudan.
“It will be a culture shock,” Baumgartner said. “I don’t know anything about their culture. ... It’s almost surreal. I don’t know when it’s going to set in that I’m going to Africa. It will probably be the best time of my life. My friends think I’m losing it, because I never travel anywhere except for work, not even for vacation, because I love my job so much. Work is vacation for me.”
Two other mid-Missouri men, one from Columbia and one from Fayette, both linemen with Boone Electric Cooperative, will join Baumgartner on the trip. Two linemen from Cuivre River Electric Cooperative in Troy and one from Nevada will go with them. The trip is sponsored by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s International Foundation, which brings electricity to underdeveloped countries.
This is the first group of linemen from Boone Electric to participate in the association’s International Program, said Vicki Kemna, director of communications and human resources for Boone Electric. They were chosen based on recommendations from their superiors and an interview process.
“It’s something we’ve been considering for quite some time,” she said. “Our board decided that right now, we were in the position with our labor force to do it and still have an adequate number of linemen on duty here.”
The association is paying for the volunteers’ expenses and airfare to the village of Yei, located in southern Sudan, near the borders of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The village population is estimated to be 55,000, though a reliable census hasn’t been taken for over 20 years. The closest city is 105 miles away.
Traveling to Yei will take about two and a half days, Baumgartner said.
During their stay, the linemen will build a distribution system to provide electricity to about 200 people who have never had it in their homes.
The association sponsors projects at various times of the year and has already installed a generator and erected and wired 87 poles in Yei. Twenty-five streetlights have been put up to light main roads.
Kemna said the project is a hardship assignment, meaning all work will be done manually, without utility vehicles or power tools.
“They will have to climb every pole,” Kemna said. “Back here, they have the luxury of using a bucket truck.”
The men will train local Sudanese to use tools and then will leave the tools for the village, she said.
“Because of the inefficient delivery system in Africa, we weren’t able to ship the tools, so (the volunteers) have to pack them to take on the plane with them. We’re also collecting used lineman boots for the Africans, since they don’t have any,” she said. Boone Electric Cooperative is donating 1,000 feet of wire to the project.
Fayette lineman Jamie Conrow, who has never traveled outside the U.S., said the linemen have been making final preparations to leave, including packing necessary tools and personal effects that they’ll use in the third-world country.
But he’s been looking forward to the trip since he volunteered to go in October. “It was an opportunity we didn’t want to miss out on,” Conrow said. “We’re going to be thrown right in the middle of it and see what they actually deal with, to see their way of life.”
The men had to get several vaccinations for diseases such as typhoid and yellow fever, and pills to avoid malaria. “It’s hard to tell what you’re going to need,” Baumgartner said.
After bringing electricity to the village, the men will experience an African safari for fun. But Baumgartner said he finds it fun to help other people.
“In this line of work, you look for people who appreciate what you’re doing,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll find people more appreciative than (the Sudanese). This is another way for me to fill my need for excitement.”
Conrow agreed that it’s “awesome” to help people who have never seen power in their own homes.
He said, “I’d like to see when we make our final connections in one of their houses and see the look on their faces when we turn on the lights for the first time, to see people who have never had that convenience.”