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Lending a hand
Co-op linemen electrify village in Southern Sudan

by Jason Jenkins
The streets of Yei, Southern Sudan, are safer today thanks to lighting made possible through the NRECA International Programs. Photo courtesy of Boone Electric Cooperative.

From the moment their plane hit the runway, mingling wisps of red clay dust into the smoke of a burning airfield, the six linemen knew this wasn’t just another assignment.

They had all traveled to help other rural electric cooperatives before. From the Gulf Coast to the northern Great Plains, these linemen — including five Missourians — had restored power following the destruction of both hurricanes and ice storms.
But when they stepped off the plane in Yei (pronounced “yay”), Southern Sudan, Africa, all expectations of what the next three weeks would hold quickly vanished.

“When we hit the ground and we saw where we were working and what we were dealing with, it was a real quiet ride to the compound,” says Jamie Conrow, a journeyman lineman at Boone Electric Cooperative in Columbia.

Jamie — along with fellow Boone linemen Steve Baumgartner and Jimmy Goodnight; Troy-based Cuivre River Electric Cooperative linemen Craig Larkin and Mark Ziegler; and Valley Electric Association lineman Bobby Ball from Pahrump, Nev. — had volunteered for an NRECA International Programs project.

A subsidiary of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, NRECA International Programs has brought electricity to people in developing countries for the past 45 years. In addition to Sudan, the organization currently oversees projects in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Philippines and Yemen.

About one-fourth the size of the United States, Sudan is the 10th largest country in the world.

In Sudan, the Missouri and Nevada linemen were tasked with constructing about 1.5 miles of power line in Yei, including primary and secondary lines, all without the aid of power tools or hydraulic bucket trucks. For the Americans, working in Africa was both a physical challenge and a cultural awakening.

“We may have been nine hours ahead time-wise, but we were 200 years behind,” says Craig. “You see it on TV and in magazines, but it’s a whole different world when you’re over there.”

From mid-January to early February, the U.S. co-op linemen worked side by side with the Sudanese linemen, constructing both the planned single-phase line and nearly 4,000 feet of a three-phase line that will serve a new medical center, school, church and radio station. In total, the crew set 40 poles and strung nearly 20,000 feet of wire — all by hand.

“They might have been 8-hour work days, but it was about equivalent to a 12-hour day here because of the manual labor,” says Jimmy. “Everything you did was manual.”
Working alongside the Sudanese, the U.S. lineman discovered that despite cultural differences, they were more alike than different. Cutting up and joking among the crews was common, even if the men didn’t always understand what was funny.

“They’re so happy right now. They’ve never had this before,” says Steve, referring to the electricity and the political stability in Southern Sudan. “They don’t have much, but they’re happy.”

About one-fourth the size of the United States, Sudan is the 10th largest country in the world. Since 2003, the region of Southern Sudan has operated autonomously from the central government and has remained relatively stable after enduring 20 years of civil war that destroyed all existing infrastructure.

Hundreds of miles away, however, in Sudan’s west-central province of Darfur, war, famine and genocide still rage on.

Referred to as “Little London,” Yei had once been a conduit for trade between Sudan and neighboring Uganda and Congo. NRECA first sent volunteers to Yei in 2003 where they trained local Sudanese linemen and helped them establish their own cooperative.

Boone Electric Journeyman Lineman Jamie Conrow, left, and Yei Electricity lineman Hakim James string a secondary wire on a pole they set. During their three weeks in Southern Sudan, the U.S. co-op linemen strung about 20,000 feet of wire. Photo courtesy of Boone Electric Cooperative.

By all measures, the Yei project has been a success. Electrical service has been in operation since 2005. Since the lights first came on, the city has grown from 30,000 residents to more than 180,000, driven by the safety and economic development the electricity has provided.

In total, the NRECA project has overseen the construction of more than 10 miles of line, connecting almost 400 customers in the service area. At night, 130 streetlights now brighten the streets, allowing children to both play and study. By contrast, the Southern Sudan capital city of Juba has only two working street lights.

Within the next five months, the transition to local Sudanese control of the cooperative will occur, according to Vivek Talvadkar, senior vice president of NRECA International Programs in Arlington, Va.

“These young men were just absolutely incredible,” says Vivek, who spent five days with the linemen. “They showed the best face of who we are as co-ops and also about who we are as Americans.

“I really want to thank Boone, Cuivre River and Valley. It’s wonderful to see these American men coming there to really get nothing out of it but to volunteer. It really showed a remarkable face for our country that normally doesn’t come out in papers.”

The group did take one weekend away from working, traveling to Murchison Falls National Park in neighboring Uganda to view Africa’s famed wildlife, including elephants, giraffes and Nile crocodiles.

While trying at times, all the linemen agree their experience was worthwhile, from the work they did to the friends they made. Each man says he’d like to return in the future.

“The names might fade away, but the faces never will,” adds Mark.

Missouri linemen will continue to contribute to the Yei electrification project this spring when Karl Brandt of Gascosage Electric and Danny Brown of Macon Electric will travel to Sudan to assist with the construction effort. Both Karl and Danny are repeat volunteers with the international program, previously working on a project in the Dominican Republic.

For more information about NRECA International Programs, visit www.nrecainternational.org.

Rural Missouri - September 2014
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