“Be the change you want to see in the world”- Mahatma Gandhi

There’s no telling what a week in Guinea-Bissau will bring.  It’s been a truly thrilling one for me. Between the hectic UN office, the bumpy streets of Bissau and two weekend trips to the middle of the country I have lost track of time.  There are days in the office when I don’t feel like I’m working just because so much of the running around, phone calls, report writing and laughs are distracting (in a good way). Even after the workday, an inner excitable force propelled me to meet up with Dr. Natalia, a Portuguese doctor and founder of an NGO called “Viver 100 Fronteiras” (translated to Living 100/Without Borders), almost every day.

In a previous article I mentioned that when travelling one must seek out local organizations, agencies or foundations with which to do some volunteer work. I’m a strong advocate for local and global action because regardless of whether you’re at home or abroad, there are people who need care. All of us seek to live a “balanced” life which, for me, means being able to be within my immediate community- wherever that may be- with those who need the most attention, while simultaneously working to improve, enhance, and add to their lives in my workplace.

I live by the same kind of ying-yang philosophy while I travel.  The trick is finding those local NGOs who have their roots very firmly planted in that place. They are sometimes completely hidden; sometimes you find them in travel books or fiction novels;  or sometimes they come to you on a seemingly boring Saturday at home.

Meeting an Incredible Woman

The latter is what happened to me with Dr. Natalia. She came to the house to check on the house-maid, Ms. Filomena, who had recently undergone eye surgery the day before. When leaving, she handed me her card and said, “Dr. Ramos Horta told me about you.  You are here on a mission right? You want to do good right? Well here’s my card, call me if you want something to do.”

Checking children's teeth in Geba.
Checking children’s teeth in Geba.

This encounter, which happened almost three weeks ago now, has shaped my experience here and changed my life.

Since that Saturday, I have capped off almost every afternoon with visits to hospitals, maternity wards and orphanages. And then when I’ve been lucky, I’ve been treated to a deliciously Portuguese home-cooked meal by yet another Portuguese Natalia, at night.  With Dr. Natalia’s daughter-in-law, Carolina, the three of us have had a great time not only just being together, reveling over the beautiful jewelry and boubou (African fabric) but also experiencing places and people I wouldn’t otherwise. For example, I owe it to her for letting me witness my first ever childbirth (of another woman, of course)!

Visiting Geba

I also owe her for the past two weekend trips to Geba. Geba, a village three hours inland from Bissau, along a gorgeously green and vibrant river bank, was one of the first inhabited places when the Portuguese landed on this shore. With the first Catholic church in its center, the village is now 30 huts large and entirely Muslim. We went there for a few reasons:  to conduct teeth check-ups and plan three renovation projects.

Although I am no dentist, I was able to assist Carolina (who is a dentist) with the children’s check – ups, filling in paperwork and somehow teach 289 children how to form a decent line.  I also assisted Dr. Natalia with measuring and photographing three renovation projects she’s undertaking in the same place: two schools and a completely run-down health center, which, much to my surprise, is still functioning.

Health center of Geba, still in use.
Health center of Geba, still in use.

We stayed with one of the nicest families from that area, known to us only through Dr. Natalia, who cooked fresh fish caught that morning and provided us a lovely room to sleep in. At night we danced with their children to music blasting from the car speakers and distributed toys and shoes among them as well.  By getting to know the “locals” you build those really important connections and relationships that one day will bring you back. There’s no doubt I will be back!

Making Change…Locally

The connection I’ve already created through Dr. Natalia is incredible and I know that she alone will bring me back to this country. If you manage to meet a person who works locally either individually or with an NGO  in a country or city or town or even just a village, you will be able to enrich your experience there ten-fold: they know their way around, they know the situation beyond the four walls of an office, and they know the locals!

One person can affect change be it locally or globally. You can either meet that person or be that person. Dr. Natalia is that person for me, and one day I hope to be that person for others.