Globetrotting as an aid worker

Ndungu Kahihu, global youth advisor for Plan International. Photo by: personal collection

At 60, Ndungu Kahihu is considered a junior elder in Kenya, expected to sit under a tree and give out advice to those who seek it.

In a way, that's exactly what he is doing, recently sharing his thoughts on the crisis in South Sudan, where he worked part time as a technical support officer in program implementation and design, and then as a resource mobilization specialist before taking on his new role as global youth adviser for Plan International in late 2013.

But unlike men his age, Kahihu isn’t spending his days under a tree shooting the breeze with his pals. He continues to travel — which he has been doing since entering the development and humanitarian field over ten years ago — although on a more stable, better organized schedule. This week in fact, he returns to the South Sudanese capital of Juba to offer some of his expertise in the shaping of Plan’s emergency response program as well as in finalizing the handover of his old position.

And on the side, he hopes to meet up and have a round of beer with old colleagues, which is what he does often in his travels abroad.

“They would want to hear what's the latest stupid thing that happened to me somewhere,” Kahihu told Devex.


Kahihu’s career as an aid worker started in 2003, as part of Save the Children’s humanitarian programs. But soon, he found himself jumping to Plan and becoming part of its newly launched disaster response initiative. He stayed a couple of years in Canada, then to Eastern Africa, and later to Sudan — until the South's secession in 2011.

“I’ve got involved [in development work] for the excitement of it, but stayed for many other reasons ... A lot of us do this because we think we're making a difference, when you know if you don't act, people die,” he said.

But it’s not just the difficulty of navigating bureaucracies or unsafe territory. Sometimes, the headache comes from the travel itself.

During one of his trips to India, where he was set to attend a conference on leprosy elimination, Kahihu found himself completely lost, off the grid and without his luggage.

“I just got into a plane and forgot to get the contact details of the people I will meet. I knew the name of the organization, but I didn't know anybody,” he recalled.

The event was to take place in Chennai, which was known back then as Madras, capital of Tamil Nadu. He arrived a day early in Bombay (now Mumbai) and waited for his host, having forgotten that he needed to transfer planes to get to his destination. When he realized his mistake, it was already too late and so had to spend the night in the city and fly the next day to Chennai.

“My host waited for the whole day. They tried to call our office in Nairobi to ask what happened, but they couldn't get through. During those days, the telephone lines were terrible,” he said.

His ordeal didn’t end there. Upon arrival in Chennai, he learned his luggage had been misplaced, and he would have to wait for days to get it back. So for a full week he was forced to wear a loincloth around his waist or what they call shuka in Swahili, which Kahihu said is only worn by untouchables in India.

“It was comfortable and easier for them because they do hard labor. But for the whole week, I was being confused for a dalit,” he said.

Kahihu had twice been involved in a turbulent plane ride, one going to London and another in India, too, and sometimes finds himself in the barest of airports where the only thing standing is a shed. In Kapoeta airport in South Sudan, which local herdsmen use for cattle grazing, the government had to hire someone to chase away the goats.

“Sometimes, I feel like I've spent more than half of my life in the airport,” he said, although he could no longer remember how many countries he has visited in the past decade.

The downside

Kahihu loves traveling, although he said recently he finds himself missing the comforts of home — although he quips "not the cold" back in Canada.

“I do miss days in other places. But I'm also 60 years old. I need to leave it to younger people who have the energy,” he notes.

But he cautions: Don't make aid work a career if you want to lead a “normal” life.

Kahihu says working in the humanitarian sector is not easy, especially those who prefer to live a more steady, predictable existence. That's why not many people stay long. A lot of them lose any or all stability, and it's almost impossible to maintain relationships.

“I think you'd find our group as having the most failed marriages, and most neurotic people I guess. I know a couple of colleagues in South Sudan who got into alcoholism for there was nothing else to do,” he shared, advising others who have taken on a similar job to develop relationships that help them “anchor somewhere.”

Kahihu said: “It's very helpful because of the things we have to do, things we have to see ... I find it easier if there are people you can talk to,” he said, noting that what saved him was his wife.

“I happen to have married a wonderful woman. She hates traveling herself, but she's the one who made a home for me and my children, and kept it when I was all over the place.”

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About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.