COLUMBIA — In the town of Yei in Sudan, neighborhood children were playing among the newly installed streetlights near their homes. Three Boone Electric Cooperative linemen, Steve Baumgartner, Jimmy Goodnight and Jamie Conrow, had made a rare nighttime trip out of their housing compound to watch.
“Kids were playing peekaboo with the shadows,” Conrow said. “For a lot of them, it was the first time they had seen the streetlights.”
Before, the children had been unable to leave their houses or neighborhoods at night because of safety concerns.
“When it’s dark in Africa, it’s dark,” Baumgartner said.
Baumgartner, Goodnight and Conrow were in Yei for three weeks as part of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association’s international program. The organization sends volunteers to sites around the world. In this case, the men were expanding Yei’s minimal electric grid (powered by a diesel generator), extending a main line toward a residential area and further educating the local linemen.
The three left the United States on Jan. 12, and arrived in Yei after a 22-hour trip — not including layovers. Getting to the town was a challenge because there are only dirt roads. Goodnight said the conditions in town were primitive, though Yei holds about 180,000 people by best estimates. There is also a large daily influx of people traveling through the town, Conrow said, with many of them coming from refugee camps.
Adjusting to life in Yei took some time, Baumgartner said. Yei is detached from the rest of the world because it lacks a mail system and has limited electricity. The men stayed in a compound, where conditions were better than they expected but still rudimentary. Noises, such as drum beats from a funeral celebration and bonfire, kept them awake for the first few nights.
“We had no idea of the poverty level, the amount of dirt, the lack of infrastructure,” Conrow said. “There would be nights that the land mines would go off. It was surreal.”
Sudan recently experienced a civil war that ended with a tentative peace agreement two and a half years ago. There are still many live land mines around Yei left over from the war.
Once Baumgartner, Goodnight and Conrow were in town and adjusted, they started work on the town’s electrical system. A large part of the job involved raising electric poles and extending lines. Without equipment such as trucks or booms, the process took much longer than it would have in the U.S.
“Everything was done by hand,” Conrow said. “It took a lot more guys.”
Even the holes for the electric poles were dug by hand. They extended the main line toward residential areas during the first week of the trip. The local team of workers can now run smaller lines to individual huts in the future.
The electrical cooperative program has been in place in Yei since the end of the civil war. It has mainly focused on building infrastructure and installing public streetlights. Yei has 138 streetlights, while the capital of southern Sudan has only two, said Goodnight. Now with the new main line, residential areas are getting power. Eventually, the association will turn over the electrical program to the town to run as a self-sustaining cooperative.
Baumgartner, Goodnight and Conrow said their time in Africa was an eye-opening experience. It made them more aware of the conditions people live in worldwide.
“It makes us appreciate what we have,” Goodnight said. “They just struggle to stay alive and feed their kids.”
Their connections with the people of Yei were also rewarding. Baumgartner said one child in particular stood out because of his joking manner. The child would often offer his hand to shake and then jerk it away at the last minute, laughing the whole time.
“You wonder why they smile and laugh because to us it’s not a fun situation, but to them, what they have right now is a big deal because they have never had it before,” Baumgartner said.
All of the local people kept asking when the three of them were coming back, Conrow said. Baumgartner, Goodnight and Conrow all would like to go back at some point, and they encouraged anyone else who might have the opportunity to take it.
Several other humanitarian aid groups had volunteers at Yei, some who stayed for months at a time. With that in mind, Baumgartner humbly pointed out that his own contribution to Sudan was small.
“We don’t feel like we have done anything that someone else has not done 100 times over,” Baumgartner said.
The transition back home was just as difficult, Conrow said. One night after their return, he woke up and didn’t know where he was until his feet hit the carpet next to the bed.
“I didn’t even know how I got there, but I knew I was home,” Conrow said.