|Among the Villagers
Roy Hunt, P.Eng., poses with villagers in Sierra Leone, during a nine-month stint
helping improve conditions in the aftermath of the African country’s
devastating civil war.
BY BILL CORBETT
When Roy Hunt, P.Eng., signed on with Médecin Sans
Frontières in 2001, all he knew about Sierra Leone
was its location on a map and its recent emergence from a
bloody, 10-year civil war. He’d be learning more.
In fact in a few blinks he was spending nine months as a
water and sanitation specialist, helping the ravaged West
African country get back on its feet.
At an age when most young Canadian engineers are intent on
building a career, the 25-year-old Mr. Hunt put it all on
hold to do a humanitarian stint with MSF – called Doctors
Without Borders in English – in an unstable country
with none of the resources engineers here take for granted.
And he’s glad he did.
“It was a fantastic experience,” says Mr. Hunt,
who returned to Canada in 2003 and now works as a water and
wastewater engineer for Calgary’s Komex International
Ltd. “It added some value to my profession, but far
more importantly it allowed me to see what can be accomplished
with a small investment in water and sanitation in a country
where the bottom has fallen out.”
This interest in humanitarian issues was instilled by his
parents and his rural Alberta upbringing in Sundre. Those
feelings were reinforced by subsequent travel in developing
nations and by international work as a young engineer with
Waterworks Technologies of Calgary.
The final impetus came in 1999-2000 when, as a Waterworks
project manager, he worked on the design, construction and
commissioning of two wastewater treatments plants in post-war
Kosovo. “It was my first exposure to the disaster-relief
concept, and I had a strong urge to become more involved
in international humanitarian aid,” he says.
Not long after, Mr. Hunt moved to Vancouver to join BCA-Clearwater
Group as an environmental project engineer. Though the work
was stimulating – involving water and wastewater treatment
systems throughout Canada and the United States – he
was soon applying for overseas aid work. Médecin Sans
Frontières called and, following an intensive training
period in the Netherlands, he was bound for Sierra Leone.
Catching the Curveballs
As the only non-medical member of a five-person team sent
to Sierra Leone’s Tonkolili District, he was in charge
of logistics, finances and communications with local chiefs.
That meant dealing with everything from hiring and paying
150 local staff to coordinating the shipping of two large
truckloads of medical supplies a month to satellite clinics.
His other priority was rebuilding a decimated 200-bed hospital
so doctors could perform surgeries and provide other critical
care. Wards had to be rehabilitated, beds built, rainwater
catchment and wastewater systems established, lighting and
air conditioning installed, and pit latrines built. Six destroyed
satellite clinics had to be restored to service.
“There was a lot of problem solving, where my project
management experience proved very useful,” he says. “I
was probably dealing with 30 to 40 requests a day. There
were always curveballs being thrown at you, like the outbreak
of bloody diarrhea in a refugee camp or a bed bug infestation
or fixing a broken generator.”
Intimidated at first by the sight of armed rebels on the
streets, he grew to feel safe on the compound where the aid
team lived. Travelling to the satellite clinics was less
secure and could only be done as a day trip – six hours
each way on bad roads, with some precarious bridge crossings.
Because of the humanitarian organization’s critical
care mandate, Mr. Hunt could not undertake small, extraneous
engineering projects such as restoring fresh water delivery
to nearby villages. But any such frustrations, or the occasional
feelings of being overwhelmed, were put in perspective by
working alongside doctors who performed three or four major
surgeries a day.
“It was really inspiring to see their commitment and
the energy they needed every day,” he says. “One
of the big things that keeps you going is getting to know
the people in the community and those who come into the hospital.
“If you’re expecting to make a difference that’s
more than a drop in the bucket, it disappears quite quickly
when you see the huge scale of difficulties and obstacles
these people face. In the end, what you take away with you
are the relationships you form, knowing you did your best
and seeing a lot of people who are alive because we were
The experiences have served him well at home. Following
his overseas assignment, Mr. Hunt was hired by Calgary-based
Associated Engineering to work on area wastewater treatment
He then joined Komex, where he has combined his engineering
expertise and international interests by working on a wastewater
treatment plant and effluent re-use system for a rural development
project in Jordan.
Interest Lives On
Mr. Hunt hasn’t abandoned his interest in disaster
relief work. He is still involved with MSF locally and has
signed up with the Canadian chapter of Registered Engineers
for Disaster Relief, hoping to do another overseas stint
in the not-too-distant future.
And he’s maintained a personal, long-term link with
Sierra Leone – by marrying a local woman, who recently
joined him in Calgary.