Going somewhere new and doing a job you’ve never tried before can be a daunting prospect. But Toby Biddington is up for the challenge. June 2012 sees him fly to Sierra Leone to continue work with DT’s percussion drill project.
The Gola Forest Programme is a new National Park in the southeast of the country where DT is working to provide borehole water wells for the HQ and Staff Village. Toby will be living in the forest and working with a small team of local men, helping to secure a long-term supply of safe water. While he was preparing for the trip we asked him for his perspective.
DT: Tell us a bit about yourself and your background.
TB: I always had a fascination with the way things worked but when I left school I never really knew where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do with my life, in fact I think I only really figured out what I am supposed to do very recently. I was in and out of college for a couple of years and then took a job in a shop. After a year or so I went back to college to study engineering full time at Gloucester College. From there I went onto complete and advanced modern apprenticeship with SPP Pumps. During my time with SPP I gained a massive amount of experience in the design and manufacture of high quality pumping systems. I spent a large period of my time in design, development and test.
After completing my apprenticeship and accepting the position of R&D technician I decided to leave SPP and went out to Australia and New Zealand for a period of time. I enjoyed my time out but always felt like there was something missing, like I didn’t do enough. When I came back I got a job with a company called Hydrovane developing vane compressors, after a year I moved to Smart Stabilizer Systems to a development technician role working on the development of down hole directional drilling equipment for oil and gas. I have always worked in development as I have always liked improving things. Then I found the role with DT.
DT: How did you hear about DT and the well drilling project in Sierra Leone?
TB: Once I realised I needed a change of direction I decided to find another route. I came across an association called Engineers Without Borders and signed up to their monthly placements email. From this I found out about DT. Originally I applied for a position working on ambulance trailers in Tanzania which had already been filled and through this application was informed of the position in Sierra Leone. I went for a chat with Ron Dennis at his home where we discussed the position and the next day I agreed to take up the position.
If I’m honest I’m kind of glad the other role was filled as well drilling is leaning more to the side of aid work which suits me best. Plus if ever I want to find work abroad and somebody asks me if I have experience working in a third world country they can’t really argue with Sierra Leone on a CV.
DT: What are you expecting when you get there? How much of a change will it make in your lifestyle?
TB: That’s a hard question, if I’m honest I don’t really know what to expect, I’ve had discussions with people who have already been there and they’ve given me a good idea of what to expect but I’m a firm believer in experiencing things first hand to fully appreciate what it’s like to live and work in such a place. It is one of the poorest countries in the world so living conditions will be very basic and I will probably, as a white man, be asked for food, money and many other things as the people out there have nothing of their own.
As for a change in my lifestyle this is the bit that I’m strangely looking forward too. It’s a case of just learning to live within your means and not expect much. I will have no TV, no internet, a lack of electricity and if I want to make a phone call I will have to walk up a hill to make one. Of course there is a down side in that if I get sick I am miles from any medical help and it might take days for any assistance to arrive.
DT: What do your family and friends think of it?
TB: My family were very shocked – more about the destination, not necessarily the work. There is still a lot of stigma attached to SL because of the civil war and the unimaginable suffering imposed on people during that time period. Most of my friends think I’m a little crazy but some have been very supportive and encouraging and think it’s a brilliant idea. One even said “you’d be an idiot to pass up the opportunity, you don’t know where it will take you” which is very true.
DT: Are you nervous?
TB: Yes of course, there are going to be many challenges along the way. Working in a different environment and learning to work with a different culture and gaining an understanding of that culture. The biggest challenge will be dealing with the extreme poverty considering the fact that the country has been rated one of the lowest in human development by the UN and hearing that there are people dying every day will be extremely challenging and if I’m honest I don’t really know how I am going to react to it. You only know how you’re going to react when you are in the situation. It would be easy for me to say it doesn’t bother me but I wouldn’t be doing it if it didn’t.
DT: What kind of preparations do you need to make – don’t you just get on a plane and go?
I am the sort of person when I do something I will try to get as much information as possible. So in the case of the project out in SL I have done a lot of research on the history of the country and where it is today. I have also done some research on the percussion drilling technique because it is not what I am familiar with: in oil and gas it is rotary directional drilling which is a little more complex although I think both techniques have their own difficulties with respect to the end result.
There are the usual preparations when going to a country like this – like getting immunisations and going to the dentist and all the usual stuff really. It’s a little different to going to somewhere in Europe or in Australia and New Zealand what with it being a third world country in sub-Saharan Africa during the wet season.