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IAmA European Engineer who moved to Africa to repair bridges. I’ve survived malaria, basically dodged an 18-wheeler truck falling from a bridge 15 m high, faced a spitting snake, and struggle daily with water. Last week I needed trash bags and learnt I

Mar 1st 2013 by sahba • 51 Questions • 1689 Points

I just realised the title may be misleading: I'm still here (in Africa), I haven't left yet.

I added proof in this comment.

EDIT: I'm going to sleep... this is the latest I've gone to bed in a long time. I will continue answering questions tomorrow! Thanks everyone for an enjoyable AMA (at least for me!). Oh, and <obligatory frontpage remark>.

Q:

What's been your best experience so far?

A:

Pfff, where to begin. Possibly last week actually. I am a Bahai (that's a religion). I found a couple of fellow Bahais here when I arrived, and last week we were talking and one of them commented that he's been by himself (i.e., no other Bahais around) for years - he said "I was so lonely that at night in bed I would often cry". He just became emotional and was really happy that "once again I get to spend some time with my fellow Bahais".

I don't think most people can relate to it, and I could share a more relatable experience, but this may just take the cake for "best experience" so far. There are so many though.


Q:

What's been your worst experience so far?

A:

Either the malaria experience or dealing with that fallen truck / dead passenger.

The malaria experience was freaky because one minute I was feeling fine, 5 hours later I couldn't stand on my feet. It's a bit scary considering how very remote my location is (i.e., no proper healthcare available anywhere nearby).


Q:

Were you born and raised in europe with that religion? Where are your parent's from?

A:

In the Bahai faith parents don't "pass the religion" onto their children. Children are encouraged to make their own independent and free investigations of reality.

This being said, yes, my Parents are both Bahai (and originally Persian). The Bahai faith, meanwhile, is the first or second most geographically dispersed and diverse religion in the world (according to Encyclopedia Brittanica, last time I checked).


Q:

Are you working on a Bahai development project?

A:

I am not. However, together with the few other Bahais I've found here, we're trying to establish what in the Bahai community is often called "core activities": e.g., classes for children, where they are taught the virtues of generosity, compassion, etc.


Q:

Make sure you also teach them that 'non-virtues' (anger, envy, hate, etc.) are normal and don't make them 'bad'; just human. It's how we express those feelings. Making children feel shame for being human is destructive.

A:

Full on, brotha


Q:

This is great I'm currently reading this in Haifa... Right next to the Bahai world center :)

A:

Haaaa, awesome! Enjoy! Are you a Bahai on pilgrimage? Or just live there?


Q:

Cxu vi parolas esperante?

A:

Hmmm... no?


Q:

What thing have you worked on that make you most proud and why?

A:

Breaking social barriers.

I could spend a whole day telling you about interesting experiences I've had in this regard. One guy went and named his son after me just because I told him not to call me "boss" (context: I'm white and Africans often use this term for whites).


Q:

Patrão?

A:

Sim, infelizmente.


Q:

I would like to hear about this terrifying snake from the title...

A:

The spitting snake spits it venom at you (usually aiming for the eyes) from a distance.

I was just standing at the site and heard a ruckus by the workers near to where I was standing. I went to see what was happening: they had found a snake under some materials. I was kind of paralysed - as I knew it could just spit and screw you up. The snake was starting to swell its "neck" (an indication it's about to spit) but the guy next to me (a local) was a quick thinker and HE spat first! Apparently this makes the snake temporarily back off. The snake "unswelled" its neck and the guy promptly bashed it with a stick, killing it.


Q:

this happened to me in panama, wasn't a spitting snake (cobra?) but a mamba or viper or something, luckily the neighborhood gardener chucked a machete from like thirty feet a way and decapitated the snake.

A:

Frikkin hell!


Q:

Opinion/viewpoint on increasing Chinese investments in infrastructure (and thus bridges) traded against acquiring land and resources?

A:

Very good - and difficult - question. I'll make my job easy by just pointing out that most of those deals are being done with very little to no transparency at all - which is a bad sign by itself.


Q:

I'm an engineering student and am interested in going to 3rd world regions to help build power systems, water filtration, bridges, ect. Any advice?

A:

I'm going to sleep but wanted you to know I intend to answer your question tomorrow. It deserves some reflection.


Q:

Sahba , I am persian and born Muslim ( althought I dont belive in religons ) , From one Persian to another Bahai Persian, I love you and wish you bests. now the question , do you do this for charity or is it just your work location , If you had a choice would you prefer working in IRAN ?

A:

My dear brother, I am so touched by your kind words. As you know the Bahais in Iran are very strongly persecuted by the regime. Just last month my cousin was thrown in jail - just for being a Bahai. So I am very touched by your very kind words. I love you too and wish you all the very best.

I have never been to Iran as I am also a Bahai and it's complicated, as you know. But I am very eager to visit the country. I speak farsi fluently and many stories told my grandparents/parents are very dear to me.

As for your question, I came here very much inspired by the Bahai philosophy of trying to serve mankind as best as we can.


Q:

Other than disease and freak accidents, have you ever had your life threatened by a tribal solider/ gunman?; Are civil wars still prevelant where you are located?

A:

I've had a couple of incidents where I sort of witnessed the African fury, but fortunately it was nothing serious - just people being a bit aggressive.

Where I am, the war killed like 10% of the population and fortunately now, after 20 years of peace, the population is still very much aware of how precious peace is. Plus, the people here are generally very gentle and kind, nothing like stories I hear from other countries.


Q:

Did you ever have to bribe an official?

A:

Yes, I did! And I'm surprised it took so long for this question to pop up.

Officials asked for bribes 3 times. Luckily I managed to talk my way out of it each time. The amounts were petty, but the concept of bribing isn't good. In one case the police office was so touched by my argument ("Look, if you want to fine me, I'll suffer financially, but I prefer that than to hurt this wonderful country with corruption") that he apologised, promised he'll never solicit bribes again, and we became friends.


Q:

Have you been in Mozambique only? Or you have visited other countries from Africa as well?

A:

Moz, Swaziland, South Africa. Very briefly though, almost exclusively Moz. Oh, and Addis Abeba airport... :-)


Q:

What's Swaziland like?

A:

I was only there for a couple of days - and before I first visited Mozambique. I can tell you that my first impression when I entered Mozambique was "omg this place is so dirty". Swaziland, in contrast, was very clean, neat, and organised. And the people seemed very... meek.

Random fact: Swaziland, IINM, has the highest AIDS incidence on the planet, at over 40%.


Q:

What motivated you to leave a life of ease in Europe?

A:

"Everything is amazing, nobody's happy"


Q:

Do you think any real difference can be made? I've been hearing of people trying to help the region for as long as I could think of, yet it never seems to get better. So I guess my real question is do you see any fruit from what you've sown?

A:

Your question is rather deep and difficult to answer. I'll dodge it with a story:

"A young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement.

She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!”

The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied,

“Well, I made a difference to that one!”

Answering your last question, yes, I do.


Q:

this is gold baby

A:

Gold, Jerry, gold!


Q:

Great answer

A:

You're pretty.


Q:

Did you go to Mozambique with a NGO or on your own? If so, what sort of misconceptions did you have about development work before arriving? Has your perspective changed at all and how? What skills do you as an engineer feel are the most valuable in your work now?

Sorry for the deluge of questions - I am an engineering student who is interested in working in development and so I am very curious to hear about your experiences.

A:

I came to Mozambique on my own - upon finding a job in a local engineering company.

I could talk to you about development for hours, so I'll keep my answers very short, to not bore you:

I don't think I had any particular misconceptions about development work because I didn't really have too many preconceptions. But one thing that does not cease to surprise me is how good some of the development workers have it. Insane salaries, etc. It feels very paradoxical.

I am simultaneously an engineer, an expatriate, and a human being here. Each of these gives me a specific responsability. The first two give me the responsibility of trying to be as dedicated and excellent in my work as I can. The latter requires me to contribute socially as well. This can mean anything ranging from asking the locals to stop calling you "boss" (just because you're white) to feeding refugees in a UN camp.

One short story that kind of shaped my view of development/aid:

Just after arriving, I flew out to this province with my boss (who's been here for decades). He's a good man, but kind of scary. While driving, he stopped by the side of the road to buy some cashew nuts from some of the local kids (think extremely poor). There were 4 kids, and each bag of cashew nuts cost 200 meticals. After thinking for a moment, by boss (very loudly and "bossily") said "I want 5 bags of cashew nuts, and I will give each of you 200 meticals". The kids are always so desperate to make a sale, so they just hurriedly handed my boss the 5 bags. My boss then hande out one note of 200 meticals to each of the 4 kids. These are small kids mind you. Maybe 12 years old, and they might have the intellectual capacity of an average European's 6-7 year old. Anyway, to cut to the chase, the kids were a bit confused, and said "but boss, we gave you 5 bags, and you are only giving us 4 times 200 meticals."

My boss became very loud suddenly and said "I TOLD YOU IN THE BEGINNING THAT'S WHAT I WAS GOING TO DO!!! If you don't want to sell, I'll go buy elsewhere!" - and he took the money from the hands and headed over to the car.

The kids of course panicked and said "no, boss, boss, come, we accept".

I was feeling miserable because the kids were being treated in such an aggressive way, and were so scared. I kind of wanted to say something, but didn't have the courage.

When we got in the car, I noticed that the poor kids were confused, because now they didn't know how to split the money between them (as one of them had given an extra bag). So as soon as I sat down and closed the door, I mentioned that to my boss.

My boss very calmly said "I know. That was an act. You see, sahba, we as engineers have a responsibility here. We have to help those kids. Right now they're going to struggle with how to split the money - but they'll be forced to learn some basic math as a result. We can't spoonfeed them like every other foreigner does. They'll grow into crippled men."

The conversation kind of flourished and deepened beyond that, but I hope I was able to explain the point: it was a very vivid example of how aid mustn't simply "give".

PS if you're into the topic of development and aid, look into the notion of "dead aid". Some are arguing that aid to the third world has essentially failed in the last 4 decades. The US Congress's creation of the Millenium Challenge Corporation (seen by some as USAID 2.0) is a small reflection of that.


Q:

Thank you so much for such a detailed answer. I actually work with a development organization at my university and I've learned quite a bit about 'dead aid' and other reasons why most aid is quite ineffective. It can definitely be discouraging to read about and to see so much failure in an industry, but I still think that if aid is given intelligently to grassroots organizations that are working with and enabling their African partners, it can be effective.

If you're willing to answer another question, I would be very interested in hearing what your opinion is about foreign investment in developing countries. Do you think that investing in African companies and buying African products would help bring people out of poverty? I mean, we invest in our own country's companies and buy our own local products to support our own economies, so do you think consumers could play a role in alleviating poverty by buying African-made products? Or do you think that would create more harm than good?

A:

I'm going to sleep but wanted you to know I intend to answer your question tomorrow. It deserves some reflection.


Q:

How the heck do you have a working internet connection but something as simple as trash bags comes as scarce? I'm assuming trash bags was underlying for larger necesseties like tampons or homogenized milk?

A:

Good question. The internet of course isn't very good... but the reason why there are no trash bags is because barely anyone has a proper "house" where they would use a "trash can". People just sort of pile up the trash outside their "shack" and burn it once every couple days. Some items like this, that are so current to us, are not current at all here.


Q:

What's the most moving/sad thing you've seen?

A:

When I was in the capital, someone asked me for money (a beggar). His tone was so sad, so desperate. Long story short, his employer wasn't paying him and he had no idea how to feed his family that night. The way he spoke is what really pierced my heart. Hard to convey.


Q:

what are the craziest things you have seen since you moved to Africa? most horrifying, most unbelievable and funniest. three of them please, I want no stone unturned

A:
  • Most horrifying: helping extract the dead body from the truck who plunged down from the bridge. His body was all messed up. We weren't sure if he was dead already, but after we removed him the police just picked him up like a sack of potatoes and threw him onto the back of a truck and took him away. I'm sure he died. That night I REALLY wanted to go home.

  • Most unbelievable: maybe the night sky. I've been here almost a year but I still gasp every time I see a clear sky. It's just... unbelievable.

  • Funniest: so many.... once I asked a local if the rivers would have too many snakes during the rainy season (as we work by the rivers). He said "no, no, don't worry, no snakes in the rivers". Then, after a pause, he said "only crocodiles". Or maybe when I saw an 18-wheeler truck speeding down the road, fully loaded with cargo, and on top of the whole cargo was standing a... goat. It looked scared shitless, poor thing. I laughed so hard.


Q:

I chuckled at the goat story. Just picturing him up there all like "what the fuuuuuuuck"

A:

Sometimes I think of that poor goat and laugh. It was like 500 meters away but I swear I think I could see its eyeballs sticking out like "what the fuuuuuuuuck". It was just so... FROZEN, like it didn't dare move. I mean, think about it, million of years of evolution could not have prepared him to "fly" 5 meters above the ground like that...

Oh man, just doesn't get old


Q:

What was the weirdest thing you've done/seen there?

A:

Nothing occurs for "weirdest"... I can tell you most disgusting though:

I treated the infected wound of a local, whose leg would've probably gangrenated had I not done anything. He would possibly have had his leg cut off or died.

While I was trying to remove the pus, the wound sort of exploded and the pus gushed onto my bare arm... I scrubbed reeeeeally vigorously when I showered after treating him...


Q:

how do you know how to treat injuries? you are an engineer.

A:

I have quite a bit of experience in wound management since I took care of my diabetic grandmother.


Q:

But still, helping that guy take a lot of strength and kindness.

A:

Thanks brother. I don't think anyone would not help him, seeing his condition and knowing that a little help could save his leg/life.


Q:

Any pics to post for r/popping?

A:

NEVER AGAIN


Q:

sup fellow westerner engineer in africa. I'm in east africa and work in telecoms. it really is the best thing ever (especially at night -- oh my the stars. THE STARS) but can be so damn trying.

may I ask what kind of premium you're getting over what you'd be paid back home for a similar position/job?

A:

heyo!

may I ask where in East Africa you are?

yes, tiring is a good adjective.

if the financial crisis hadn't hit Europe, my premium would be about... 100%. But since the crisis has drastically lowered waged in Europe, I can say that I'm making 4 times more than friends in Portugal with a similar resume. it's not so much that I'm making a lot of money, but that they are making very little.

just before coming here I was offered a prestigious full time job as an Engineer making... 450€/month, net.


Q:

Are the antimalarials giving you crazy dreams? I was on Malarone when I was in Uganda and didn't have any side effects but when a friend who did a safari in Kenya and Tanzania had absolutely batshit insane dreams on whatever he was taking.

A:

I only did malaria prophilaxis for the first few weeks, then decided to give it up. Fortunately I didn't have those hardcore side effects. A friend of mine did though...


Q:

Hey, do you have a mailing address? I am sure someone can mail you some.

A:

Oh, man, thank you so much bro!

As for me having a mailing address... yeaaaaah no.


Q:

your story sounds similar to the plot of The Ghost and the Darkness. have you ever seen it? although... if you plan on staying there for a while maybe you shouldn't until you're back safely

A:

your story sounds similar to the plot of The Ghost and the Darkness. have you ever seen it? although... if you plan on staying there for a while maybe you shouldn't until you're back safely

Thanks for your movie recommendation! I just added it to my "DO NOT WATCH" list.


Q:

watch it eventually. it's about a badass european engineer who wants to experience africa and goes to a remote village to build a bridge.

A:

Awww, you just implied I'm badass... That's the nicest thing you've ever said to me, supdoc16.


Q:

How do you listen to music? Do you have an iPod/radio/instrument? If you don't, what kind of music do you miss?

I think I would really miss listening to music if I didn't have access to it.

A:

Before I actually moved here, I did a 1 month trip to make sure I really wanted to do this. For that trip, I skipped music on purpose (note: music is maybe the one thing I don't think I could live without). I wanted to really immerse myself, and it was a great experience.

I currently have several gigabytes of music with me... :-) I have an iPod as well as music on my computer.


Q:

Why did you decide to go to Africa, was it for work or something else? You ever feel like leaving and enjoying the conveniences of modern life again?

A:

It's surprising how quickly we forget about the "conveniences of modern life". In the beginning I struggled horribly with the water difficulties. Just last month I managed to take a shower (incl. hair) with just 2 small bowls of water and thought nothing of it.

I decided to come here because I felt strangely drawn to this continent. I wanted to experience Africa.


Q:

How does someone struggling to find essential water, have time for an AMA? :)

A:

Haha, funny enough the last thing I did before sitting down at the computer was go outside and talk to a few people and pull a few strings to ensure I'll have water tomorrow...


Q:

What kinds of strings did you have to pull for something as essential as water?

A:

I made it sound more Godfather-y than it really was. In short, the guard who is protecting the compound where the water pump is had (absolutely random and arbitrary) instructions to not turn the pump on. All I did was very humbly and apologetically beg him to turn it on despite his orders.

I've noticed that when a white person displays (sincere) humility, it can go a loooong way.


Q:

Odd. Is there a danger of the well running dry? It does seem like a very odd order.

A:

I've been learning that much of life in Africa is like this. Odd, random, hanging by a thread. In the beginning I would worry about things like this ("might the well run dry?" etc.) but now I just go with the flow. It's easier.


Q:

I have some questions for you that aren't all related to Africa, hope you'll reply to me though. I've finished highschool 2 years ago, haven't found anything I like yet. The only thing that comes close, is everything you are describing here. Traveling, repairing buildings/structures, the social experience.

I'm rather curious as to how you got to this point in your life, being able to do all these things. Also, what do you do on a day to day basis? Is it truly as great as it all sounds?

A:

I'm going to sleep but wanted you to know I intend to answer your question tomorrow. It deserves some reflection.


Q:

Do you ever get depressed by the conditions there?

What country are you from?

What country are you currently in? What does that country need to do to improve it's future?

A:

Haven't gotten depressed yet, no.

I'm from Portugal.

I'm in Mozambique. As for your last question, that's kind of the million dollar question, isn't it... If only I knew.


Q:

If there was a zombie outbreak, what would be your zombie plan?

A:

Surround my house with treadmills and wait it out.


Q:

I am guessing you have witnesed a vast mojority of poverty and death over in Africa; when you talk about "I'm making more money than I would back home" ; making massive amount of $$ , do you feel as if you are an Imperialistic figure residing in Africa; or do you feel as if Africans think you are?

A:

I'm making more than in Europe, but not insanely more.

It's very difficult to begin to comprehend the poverty (and death) here. In the Western world unemployment is around 10% and everyone is losing their minds over it. Here unemployment is 80%.

We have a cleaner working full time in our office/home. Most of the time he doesn't have work but he works full time just as an excuse to give him full pay. So, you could say he is quite privileged as he at least has work, and a salary.

If he buys one loaf of bread every day per each member of his family (5 people), by the end of the month he will have spent about half his salary. If he buys one tiny fish for a single meal, that'll be 15% his salary.

Per month, I can easily spend 5 times my cleaner's salary just in groceries - and I'm a veeery frugal guy. And he has to sustain a wife and three children, too.

In short: Africans definitely see me as an "Imperialistic figure" in their midst. Of course this is only in the particular village I'm living in. In the capital, there are countless Africans whose wealth would make me seem a homeless guy.


Q:

Ok. Context. Give us some background I'm a structural engineer myself. I work in Houston designing offshore oil platforms. :P

But how exactly does one end up repairing bridges in Africa?

A:

I'm sure you know there's a lot of oil/extraction stuff happening in Africa now!

Tbh, one just needs to look for jobs... In my case I put up a very extensive job search and through a contact I found this job. But I had limited experience and a very specific set of requirements, so it took me a while. But if you send your CV to some recruiters, I'm confident they'll hook you up with lots of stuff.


Q:

What do you do to pass the time when there is nothing to do? (besides Reddit)

A:

Durings the weekends I try to do some social work. Couple weeks ago went to visit some refugees at a UN camp.

But during the week, between a full-time job, just "making things work" (making sure you have water, maintaining the old house, etc.), preparing meals, and a couple of personal projects, not much time is left.

(You specified "besides Reddit"...)


Q:

Did you have a chance to talk with the refugees in the camp? What was their reason for displacement? How did the overall structure of the camp work, exactly?

A:

Yes, I did. I had heard that there were many Bahais (my religion) in the camp, so I was particularly curious to visit them. Having a shared religion kind of makes it easy to start a conversation.

They are originally from the Congo, and fleed the conflict there.

The camp is not what you'd imagine with tents, etc., but more like a "refugee town". You can see that it is an artificial location (since the "houses" aren't all bungled up, but sort of follow along a main avenue in the camp). Socially, over the course of my 2/3 visits there I've been able to observe that the refugees are quite destitute (it's particularly heart-breaking to see how their children have no materials in Swahili). Also, I was pleased to notice that the UN has a bunch of initiatives to help the refugees become independent (by starting small businesses). Many refugees have succeeded in this and have managed to leave the camp.


Q:

Is there an AIDS epidemic in the area where you live?

A:

i.e., the village/province? AFAIK, it's not any worse than in the rest of the country (approximately 18% infected I believe). Swaziland, a neighbouring country, has 40-50% infected - IINM, the highest rate in the world.


Q:

I'm heading to Burkina in a few months for the Peace Corps - any suggestions on things to bring that didn't cross you mind until you were already there? Or that you never would've thought you'd want/need/have use for before arriving?

A:

I'm going to sleep but wanted you to know I intend to answer your question tomorrow. It deserves some reflection.