World

Finding contentment on high adrenaline

To a Canadian aid worker in East Timor, happiness comes from helping people in the world’s worst trouble spots

Warren Caragata January 17 2000
World

Finding contentment on high adrenaline

To a Canadian aid worker in East Timor, happiness comes from helping people in the world’s worst trouble spots

Warren Caragata January 17 2000

Finding contentment on high adrenaline

To a Canadian aid worker in East Timor, happiness comes from helping people in the world’s worst trouble spots

Warren Caragata

For Ottawa’s Steve Gwynne-Vaughan, the problems just keep coming. Mundane problems, stomach-churning problems. Those easily fixed and those that will defy solution long after he has left his post as director of the CARE International program in the devastated land of East Timor. Trucks: a simple matter really—just buy them. But the crisis in Timor has led to a run on threetonne trucks. From Sydney, Australia, to Singapore, there’s hardly a three-ton-

ner to be found. Larger vehicles, he worries, will be too heavy for Timor’s poorly maintained roads during the rainy season. His local staff, like just about everyone else in Timor, have seen their homes destroyed, families shattered. They need not only places to live, but trauma counselling. To pay them, he needs to import money—there are no banks. Then, there is the overwhelmed and poorly equipped port in Dili. Shipping companies are threatening to stop sending vessels if they cannot be unloaded more quickly. And, of

course, the biggest problem of all: trying to help the people of East Timor rebuild their economy, and their lives. “It’s a bit frustrating,” says GwynneVaughan, gold ring in his left ear, as he sits in a canvas chair surveying the ceaseless activity in the mud-paved parking lot outside CARE’s Dili compound. “You see the need, but you can’t respond as quickly as you’d like.”

Some people might find the hassles too much, especially when there is no life outside work—home is a sleeping pad and mosquito net in the office, with a latrine out back. But for 37-year-old Gwynne-Vaughan, who manages to appear at once calm and coiled, jovial and serious, Timor is not much worse than what he has seen in an aid career spanning 18 years and three continents. And so far in Timor, unlike previous postings in Liberia and Angola, no one has pointed a gun in his face in anger, and no one has murdered any of his colleagues. Despite the terrible damage, there is a sense of optimism that he welcomes. “Some people see the destruction, I see the hope,” he says. “I don’t want to go back to more bullets and bombs.”

Darren Whiteside/Reuters

Gwynne-Vaughan arrived in East Timor on Oct. 19, when an Australianled, Canadian-supported international peacekeeping force was starting to restore order after the violence that followed an Aug. 30 vote in the former Portuguese colony for independence from Indonesia. The rampage of killing and destruction by pro-Indonesian militias left burnt-out shells of most buildings and forced much of the population to flee. Gwynne-Vaughans experience in providing emergency humanitarian aid in the most difficult situations was exacdy what CARE needed.

What goes around, comes around. Years before, doing aid work was exactly what he needed. In 1981, the Vancouver native was a high-school dropout working in an Ottawa valve factory when a friend told him about Canada World Youth, a program that pairs people from the Third World with Canadians interested in development work. He quit the factory and ended up in a small town in the impoverished West African nation of Mali. The experience whetted his appetite both for working overseas, and for making more of his life:

“It was so evident how many opportunities I had back in Canada and I guess I felt I was squandering them.”

After the Mali assignment, Gwynne-Vaughan returned to Canada and settled on aid work as a way to travel and get paid for it. Doing a fouryear BA in international development at the University of Toronto, he spent a year in southwest Zaire, working on a Canada World Youth water project. In a village of 100,000 people living in mud huts, eating a manioc porridge called fou-fou twice a day (“it tastes like uncooked bread dough but not quite as sticky”), Gwynne-Vaughan became hooked on an existence where everything was a challenge. “It was pretty high-energy stuff, much faster than the 9-to-5 grind at home.”

Back in Canada, he finished his degree, became a ski bum in Whistler,

B.C., for a winter, then started a master’s degree in geography at Carleton University in Ottawa, all the while pestering aid agencies for work. After calling CARE Canada every month, he landed a post in Angola in September, 1989, if he could be ready in a week. “My girlfriend at the time wasn’t too happy about it,” he says.

He was in Angola three years, cutting his teeth on how to provide aid in a place where “war was going on bigtime” and radio communications were frequendy interrupted by the sound of bombs. Much of what he learned in university had to be discarded. “When people with guns want to steal your car,” he says, “some of the theory goes out the window.” He was evacuated in

September, 1992, just before the rebels blew up the airport, but returned to coordinate emergency aid for a few months before transferring to Mozambique for a year.

Then came the west African state of Liberia, with a French agency, Action Contre La Faim. “I thought Angola was bad, but it was a cakewalk compared to Liberia,” he says. “It was Clockwork Orange in Africa.” In one incident, rebels stole 72 vehicles from aid agencies in a single day. Medicines, food—everything was fair game for thieves. Another time, when he was travelling with a senior U.S. official, the car was stopped by a boy at a checkpoint who was convinced they were spies deserving death. But the kid with the assault rifle was still a kid, and he had a slingshot in his back pocket. To

Gwynne-Vaughan’s amazement, the American dared the young soldier to let him try to hit a distant target with it. The American hit the mark, and the impressed youngster let them go. After high-adrenaline incidents like that, on top of four evacuations, GwynneVaughan decided it was time “for a change of scenery.” He returned to Canada for about 18 months to rebuild links with his homeland and finish his master’s degree.

And now, after two short stints in northern Brazil providing emergency aid to people stricken by drought, Gwynne-Vaughan is in East Timor, where the job only grows. As the United Nations begins the task of preparing East Timor for independence, he hopes to put aside what he knows of running food convoys past checkpoint gunmen and help build a country. “I’d like to turn my focus from emergency aid to development,” he says.

How long he will stay is unclear. The posting is only for him: his Brazilian-born partner, Darlene, whom he met in 1998 in South America, remains in Ottawa but will join him later this month, at least temporarily. Gwynne-Vaughan acknowledges how difficult it is to maintain relationships during frequent and prolonged absences, and his years away from home have exacted a personal cost. “This job is really good to me—it’s a very hopeful place—but I can’t do it at the expense of the rest of my life,” he says.

Not that Gwynne-Vaughan is complaining. “I count the things I have gained, not the things I have lost,” he says. For him, happiness has been watching an emaciated African child enter an emergency feeding camp and come out 28 days later, laughing and running in the yard. Now, he looks forward to seeing the first maize crops grow in Timor from seed that CARE is distributing. All the frustrations and heartache fade to insignificance at such sights. “Buy me one of those moments,” he says. Gwynne-Vaughan has already done so, happily paying a price that has bought him a life’s worth of contentment. E3