|Waleed Al-Humaidi Talks About His African Experience in This Interview With Siraj Wahab|
JEDDAH, September 27, 2007 — Waleed Saleh Al-Humaidi describes himself as “a much-married person with kids.” A manager of SAB Express/TNT in Jeddah, you might think the 44-year-old Saudi from Unaizah leads a rather docile life, but if you turn the clock back a bit, you will find him in the isolated hinterlands of Tanzania making some very special deliveries.
Al-Humaidi was the first Arab to take part in the School Feeding Volunteer Program arranged by the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) in partnership with TNT. The son of a Saudi diplomat once stationed in Beirut, Al-Humaidi saw firsthand the horrors of the Lebanese Civil War and its consequences for the people. “Those were tough times,” he recalled. “I would drive around Beirut and see destruction everywhere. I was around 20 at that time and it was very scary.”
Those images haunted Al-Humaidi as Lebanon became a memory. “I left for the United States for a degree in Industrial Engineering Technology from Southern Tech University in Atlanta, Georgia,” he said. “After completing the degree, I came back to Jeddah and had a couple of jobs before joining Sheikh Salah Hamdan Al-Balawi’s SAB Express. SAB Express sponsors TNT Express in Saudi Arabia, and they have an employee program that allows you to do volunteer work. I applied because it was something I had always wanted to do.”
Al-Humaidi said the selection after application was difficult and long, but almost a year later, he was on his way to Rome to prepare for a mission to Tanzania. Nothing could have really prepared him for what he was about to experience. The East African nation’s infrastructure literally ended at the city limits of Dar es Salaam and Dodoma.
“There are no paved roads at all. The country is all desert, so cars get stuck,” he said. “Going from one place to another is a big hassle. Most of the people in Dar es Salaam are living in better conditions, but the rest of the country has huge problems.”
Getting the help to where it was needed meant a lot of driving over frequently rough terrain. “We generally traveled by car,” he said. “We would have a tent, a mosquito net and basic first-aid kits — and plenty of water in case we got stuck, and that was it. Because the roads are very rough we had three spare tires — one down, one in the trunk and one up. The first thing we would do was to set up a modern kitchen in the schools. Sometimes it was not possible to get back to base in time. Under UN rules, after sunset we had to stay wherever we were for security reasons — you might get mugged, or you might get kidnapped.”
Danger didn’t, however, stop them from delivering the much-needed aid. “We traveled around 11,000 km during our four-month stay and went all the way up to the border with Rwanda. We went to a Rwandan camp, and they were in great need,” he said. “Because of the war, Tanzania had opened its border. We saw malnourished babies, and most of them were HIV positive. They had no water and no food.”
Making the deliveries tested Al-Humaidi’s physical endurance. “We would drive for hours on end to get to the remotest villages in Tanzania and come back before sunset to the United Nations camp,” he said. “I had to be hospitalized once. I just fell down, and I almost lost consciousness because of the dust, heat and exhaustion.”
All across Tanzania, illness and poverty were commonplace. “It is indescribable. It has to be seen to be believed. It is too bad — extreme poverty — it is very, very harsh,” he said. “Those situations make you even more determined to help them. Once I was out of the hospital, I was back in business helping the poor villagers.”
For Al-Humaidi, it was a time of living dangerously. “HIV is rampant there; so is malaria,” he said. “I knew that I was putting myself in a lot of danger, but then that is the difference between those who take risks and those who shy away from them. It was challenging indeed. Once I was in the field in Africa, I wanted to give my all. The thing is if I was not giving my all then I was not doing justice to the mission. Yes, it was very scary out there, but I was so eager and enthusiastic that sometimes I overdid it.”
Al-Humaidi says that if more people in the developed world knew the truth, civilized men would not allow this to continue. “They don’t know about HIV; they don’t know about people in their 40s with five to six infected children,” he said. “There are no hospitals. I think World Food Program is doing a great job there, and the UN is doing a great job as well. They are at least trying to provide two meals a day to those poor souls.”
Two meals a day can easily be the difference between life and death. “The families there send their children to school for a very simple reason. It means the family is relieved of providing two meals,” he said. “The children are provided with two meals every day during school hours. At 10.30 in the morning they get porridge and then again at 1.30 p.m. So by sending their children to school the family is relieved of providing two meals a day. All they have to worry about is the meal at night. But there is no meal at night, so the kids wait until the next morning when they can eat at 10.30 again. The level of poverty there is unbelievable, and what amazes me is that most of the people in Dar Es Salaam, the Tanzanian capital, themselves were shocked at what was going on in their own country.”
In those remote regions, the signs of civilization disappear, and people are left to live however they can — alone and isolated. “They have no radios, no television, nothing,” Al-Humaidi said. “When the sun sets, that is it. People just sit around a fire and sleep. They have not heard of the outside world. They have no idea about Saudi Arabia.”
Many of the other volunteers had no idea about Saudi Arabia, either. “Most of the people from other countries thought I would be wearing my thobe while doing my work,” Al-Humaidi said. “Tanzanians speak Swahili, which has some similarities with Arabic. It wasn’t hard communicating with them, but before we went there we went through a 10-day crash course in Swahili.”
His adventure also meant challenges for his family. “My wife supports me 100 percent. She also wished that she was there, as well, helping people in charity work,” Al-Humaidi said. “When in Tanzania, sometimes I couldn’t get in touch with her for weeks, and I would remain out of touch — no communication — nothing. That was tough on her, but before going to the next destination, I would tell her I was going to such-and-such village. I would tell her I might not be able to contact her, so she was in a sense prepared.”
Now spending time at his comfortable Jeddah office, he is still in the delivery business, but he is still up for making some special deliveries on behalf of humanity. “Of course, I would like to help people there,” he said. “And I want to support the work of WFP. It is organizing programs to assess needs in Tanzania. It evaluates the needs of the people there. It finds out how many teachers are required, how many chairs — the food situation. I want to help the WFP in the future and I want others to join me.”
Al-Humaidi hopes more people will get involved. “It is only a question of education,” he said. “There is not enough media coverage. People just get some idea because of television — maybe through CNN — but, by and large, people are not aware of what is going on there.”
Although Al-Humaidi’s time on the front lines is over, he is comforted to know that some of his countrymen remain in Tanzania, making special deliveries of aid for Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah.
“The Kingdom is doing a great job by contributing heavily to the WFP programs, by sending direct aid to the people in need,” Al-Humaidi said. “When I was doing voluntary work in Tanzania, I met Saudis there who were representing King Abdullah and distributing aid. They were sincere about it. They flew from Dar Es Salaam to Dodoma; they went with the donations to the villages, which welcomed them. They themselves delivered the food. We were there; people from the government and the United Nations were there, as well. That aid from Saudi Arabia was like a lifeline for them.”