Giving back to a community can mean so many things for so many people. Every opportunity to give of yourself is fulfilling and rewarding, sometimes more for you than for the recipient. There are many volunteer opportunities that last a week or a month and fit into our otherwise busy schedules and lives. This beautiful family, Olen and Danae Netteburg, have made a lifestyle of giving to a community that has touched their hearts with their sincere need, deep cultural roots, and genuine relationships.
Both Olen and Danae volunteered in rural Africa when they were young and single. Both formulated a plan to seek education and return with a skillset so rarely found in this area. They were fortunate enough to have met while obtaining that training. They now World School their 4 children and have impacted more lives than they probably realize. Here is their inspiring story below.
Tell us about your family!
We are a family of six Americans living in Tchad for the past seven years at Bere Adventist Hospital, where my wife and I both work as physicians. Our kids are 8, 6, 4 and 1.
What have your volunteer experiences been?
Well, we have volunteered around the world, and together we have probably traveled to around 70 countries. However, we’ve actually been employees here in Tchad all seven years.
Volunteered? Oh boy. A lot of Central America doing short-term things. My wife spent a year in Zambia during college. I spent six months in Korea and six months in ten different countries in east Africa producing videos as a volunteer. We have also volunteered medically in Malawi, Ethiopia and Nigeria. Oh, and Cameroon. Well, no, I take that back. Cameroon was more hospital administrative assistance than medical.
What sort of services did you do?
We have done a bit of everything as volunteers, from construction to evangelism to farming to maintenance to electrical and plumbing and car repair to medical work. Pretty much all various forms of medical work. In Korea, I taught English and religion. For six months after college, it was volunteer video production for fundraising projects. Lately, most of my travel seems to be to help out in administration more than medically. But out here, everybody needs to pitch in with whatever needs done. No egos allowed.
How significant was the need there?
Oh, mercy. The medical need here in Tchad is insane. One of the least developed and poorest countries in the world. Depending on when and where you take your statistics from, Tchad has been named the most corrupt country in the world, the worst country in the world to be a woman, the worst place in the world for a child to fall ill, the world’s worst maternal mortality rate, infant mortality rate and under-5 mortality rate. All needs here are immense, particularly the medical needs.
How long was the experience? Was it a single episode or ongoing?
Well, this “volunteer trip” will be seven years and counting on December 12.
What, if any, was the role of the children in the experience?
Our children are troopers. We came here before three of them were born. It’s definitely home to them, although they are neither fully Tchadian nor fully American. They belong everywhere and nowhere all at the same time. The children obviously aren’t really participating in patient care at the hospital!
How did you choose this experience?
We chose it and it chose us. We were supposed to go to Nigeria, but we are both very rural people and didn’t feel like going to a big city in a country that was already pretty developed with tons of doctors and teaching hospitals. So we asked to be sent to a second site to look at. We were supposed to fly into the capital of Tchad and then cross the border into Cameroon to check out a hospital there. Our employer got us the visas for Tchad, where the plane was landing, but forgot to get us visas to enter Cameroon! We had less than a week so we decided to not waste all our time chasing a visa. We knew there was a hospital in the south of Tchad, so we went there to pitch in for a couple days. While there, the doctor asked us to come permanently and we accepted and took his place. A couple years later, Boko Haram came into the small village in Cameroon we were supposed to have gone to and kidnapped the only westerner in town. We can only imagine what might have happened had we been there instead.
What did you and/or the children learn from the volunteer experience?
Well, we have learned a lot and we continue to learn every day, despite the fact we had had pretty extensive experience living overseas and in third-world places before. Tchad is simply another beast unlike any other. It’s hard here. Very hard. The climate is brutally hot. The malaria and other parasites are endemic. The culture is 180 degrees opposite of American culture. It’s a trip. We definitely get judged for having our children here, by family, friends, strangers, concerned anonymous individuals. I understand their concern. My two best western friends in Tchad have both buried their sons due to malaria. In fact, I pronounced one of them dead. I had another 42-yer-old volunteer I pronounced dead from malaria. So I get it. My kids all get malaria several times a year. Each kid. Each year. Every year. Guaranteed. But I can’t really say my kids’ lives are more important than that of a Tchadian, and I know our presence here, our medical skill, saves lives every day. In fact, while I’m writing this, I’m sitting in the operating room while we operate on a man with dead bowel. He’d be dead by tonight if we weren’t here. Last night, there were two other cases who wouldn’t have survived the night without surgery. It happens all the time. Every day.
We do worry about our kids and their physical health and their ability to interact in socially-appropriate ways when they go back and play with their American peers. But not too much. The experience they gain here, they speak French, a little Tchadian Arabic, a bit of local languages, their worldview, the fact they’ve seen what genuine hunger and pain and poverty and suffering is, instead of thinking they will die if in iPad runs out of battery… this is what I want for my kids. And if they’re a hair odd for Americans, I might be ok with that. Their parents are a bit off too. And do you really want your kids to fit in with what current American culture has become lately? Ugh. Turn off the tv!
Our kids play and learn every day. And occasionally they get to pitch in. Like today, my 6 and 8-year-olds are translating for a short-term visitor who’s building water purifiers. Sometimes they escort visitors to the market. They share Bible stories when we go out into tiny villages. My kids have it good. I envy them. When they don’t have malaria.
Were you able to meet the local people in a meaningful and interactive level or did it feel superficial?
I hope so. Some of them are my best friends! I’ve brought a few Tchadians to America with me to visit or to other countries to go to conferences. So we work together, we travel together. We attend funerals and cry together. We go to church and worship together.
Did you pay to be involved? Do you remember how much?
When I did short-term volunteer work, I always paid my own way, recognizing the service I was giving was benefitting me as much as anybody else. For the last seven years however, we have been employees.
What were your accommodations like if you traveled to do it?
We live in a small house. My four kids sleep in one room. We usually have generator-fed electricity, but not always. We usually have running water for cold showers, but not always. It’s hot and dirty and uncomfortable, but when it’s all you know, it’s not so bad.
Would you do it again?
Unequivocally yes. We’re still doing it!
Would you recommend it to others?
Unequivocally yes! There’s something irreplaceable to putting yourself out there. Way outside your comfort zone. Experiencing how the poorest live and joining them in their lives, sharing with them their joys and their sorrows, their successes and their sufferings. You can’t get that from a movie or a book.
What sort of person would be well suited to do what you did?
Well, a doctor, I suppose. But I genuinely believe everybody has something to give, no matter what their profession. There’s always something for somebody to do that will fall within your skill set. But you need to be extremely flexible and without ego to do this. You have to have a lot of initiative, but also be able to pull back and collaborate with others when necessary. It takes a special person. Or more so, a special attitude. But everybody can provide something, if they have that attitude.
What sort of skills are needed?
Here? Medical. Well, I take that back. Really all skills are welcome. Outside the medical realm, financial and administrative types, evangelistic types, mechanical and construction types. All types!
Are there many roles for different individuals or is it a focused effort?
(Can they take teachers, babysitters, medical, engineers, etc or is it strictly a medical mission for example or a farming mission? And if it’s a very focused mission, do they need behind the scenes help with organizing groups, taking enrollments, logistics, paperwork?)
Yup. All that stuff. Hit the nail on the head. It’s like you’re reading my mind. Scary.
How can we learn more about the organization you work with?
Our parent organization can be found at ahiglobal.org
They are an amazing group.
Did you write a blog about the experience where we could read more?
Well, we maintain (sort of) a blog at: missionarydoctors.blogspot.com