By Mike Federman
When the opportunity came to travel to the other side of the globe and help people improve their lives, Bobby Ball said absolutely.
The Valley Electric Association lineman left his job based in Pahrump, Nevada, for three weeks in 2008 to ply his skills in Yei, Sudan, as a participant in NRECA International, a global outreach program sponsored by the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.
Bobby says photos brought back by a co-worker who participated in the program were enough to peak his desire.
“I thought, ‘Man, if I ever got a chance to do that, I would,’” Bobby says. “It was an opportunity to help out people who had never experienced electricity before.”
After arriving in Sudan, he went to work modernizing the electrical system in Yei, which has become a haven for refugees of many tribes in the violence-torn nation.
“One of the big things for them was lighting security for the township,” Bobby says.
Most people in Yei live in unlighted tukles—a mud hut with a grass roof. In town, “a few businesses might have a light bulb,” Bobby says.
Raising power poles with security lights without a bucket truck was a challenge. Mechanized equipment so vital for line work in the United States is nonexistent in Yei, so most of the work was done by hand.
“Just to load equipment in a truck takes a lot of people,” Bobby says, noting his penchant for hard work. “I really enjoy the physical part of it. We had no other choice than to do it by hand.”
It wasn’t all work, though. Bobby was able to make a side trip to Uganda to visit Murchison Falls, a famous waterfall on the Nile River.
“It was just a chance to see something extraordinary so far away,” he says.
Rebuilding American Samoa
For Siaosi Panapa, a lineman with Lane Electric Cooperative, based in Eugene, Oregon, “far away” is actually home.
Siaosi was born in American Samoa. He did his apprenticeship and earned journeyman status there before coming to the mainland about three years ago. His family has lived on the island for centuries.
An 8.1-magnitude earthquake followed by a tsunami on September 29, 2009, devastated the Pacific islands of American Samoa, Samoa and Tonga, killing more than 200 and wiping out homes, businesses and infrastructure.
Siaosi’s wife, Madi, lost her grandmother as attempts to save her were thwarted by a wave of water that reached more than 40 feet high in some areas.
Siaosi did not hear whether his mother and other family members were OK for three days after the disaster. Even after hearing from them, he was determined to return to his home country to help out any way he could.
Lane Electric told him if he took along his tool belt it would be considered a work trip, allowing the cooperative to help fund his expenses. Siaosi was joined by three other Eugene-area electric utility workers who went to American Samoa to help restore electricity.
Lighting the World
Besides assisting the effort in American Samoa on its own, Lane Electric has had linemen participate in NRECA International as recently as 2007.
Since the international program was established in 1962, more than 100 million lives in more than 40 developing nations have been empowered with access to safe and reliable electricity, according to NRECA.
Representatives from American electric utilities teach people how to build and maintain simple power grids and run their own utilities. They also introduce people to the cooperative business model, showcasing what electric power can do for schools, health clinics, farms and local economies.
Funding comes in part from the NRECA International Foundation—a registered charitable organization and part of NRECA International Programs—and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
NRECA International is so popular even a small cooperative such as Kotzebue Electric Association (KEA), based in Kotzebue, Alaska, finds a way to contribute.
Besides monetary donations to the foundation, KEA donates used but still serviceable equipment.
In the past, used KEA utility trucks were barged to Seattle and sold at auction to raise funds for the NRECA International Foundation, says KEA General Manager Brad Reeve. This past year, KEA donated transformers it replaced during an upgrade to its distribution system.
“We believe in recycling what we can, and not just throw it in the trash for the grandkids to find later,” Reeve says, noting the KEA transformers will be used in the Philippines. “We thought we would try the international group. There always seems to be someone who appreciates our help.”
Learn more about NRECA International at www.nrecafoundation.coop
Photo: It takes a lot of manpower to raise a power pole by hand in Yei, Sudan. Photo courtesy of Bobby Ball.