This narrative spans seventy years of my life. The journey begins with my family in Africa, growing up in Canada, joining the Canadian Army then leaving a promising military career to return to university to follow my calling, my life’s passion as a civil and agricultural engineer and hydrologist serving the least of our brethren. It chronicles a road less travelled—where I went, what I experienced, what I learned, what I missed, what I left behind…what I witnessed in a journey that took me to developing countries around the world. My calling often meant taking risks for the sake of others, pushing the limits, and living on the edge—not intentionally but simply because it came with the territory.
On my journey there were few external signposts or maps to guide me. I was on my own quest and found my way by the ancient art of dead reckoning. Like the mariners of old who found their way across unexplored oceans and came home safely “by dead reckoning,” I alone was responsible for finding my way through life’s distant and sometimes dangerous places by following the “direction finders” that were built into me. Time after time, that is what guided me through and brought me safe home.
So what is “dead reckoning”? In a sailing vessel it is finding your way when you are without fixed reference points—as when you are out of sight of land, in fog, or there are no stars to refer to. Then you have only direction, time, and an estimate of your speed to steer by. These come to you from the only things you have: your compass, your watch, and your own sense of speed gained from a rudimentary instrument called a knot meter, or the state of the wind, the appearance of your wake and the “feel” of the rudder in your hands. Your watch is the only instrument that gives you accurate measurements; the others are subject to variables which themselves vary with the thing you are trying to estimate—where you are on the face of the earth! With long practice, a good navigator develops an intuitive sense for this, especially its variability.
When you are on a journey that takes you far beyond the realms of everyday life as you have grown to know it, it becomes an almost spiritual quest. In the moments when there is no-one to walk beside you or come to your rescue, you must trust the presence of the Spirit that set you on your path. When you have faith, trust, in this you begin to discover you are not alone. And, like the mariners of old setting forth from a safe harbour to cross an uncrossed ocean, you will have the cosmic faith and courage to set out and do it.
If, in a moment of extremity, you let go of your faith and the courage it engenders you will find yourself suddenly immersed in a sea of terror. At the moment of your greatest need you will have let go of your moorings and be hopelessly adrift—lost in a storm. But all is not lost, like the mariners of old it is always possible to recover your moorings when the storm has passed. Provided, of course, that you survived the storm in your very small boat.
When living and working beyond the limits of our western culture among some of the poorest people on our planet, to be of any help one must be able to “stand in their shoes.” This comes about through a willingness to spend time with them in the place where they live, in their daily lives; to learn what is important to them, so gaining some understanding of “why they behave the way they do;” and being open, without judgement, to very different religions, cultures and ways of doing things. When you have gained their trust and respect you can work together—standing in each other’s shoes.
My work as a water resources engineer serving in the Third World took me far from home for months and sometimes years at a time and into situations where I lived by my wits and sometimes risked my life. I got along by never abandoning the principles and values I learned in my childhood and growing up: I was brought into the world to serve my fellow man and take care of the natural world around me; I was of intrinsic value and must trust others to be of equal value; I must speak only the truth, and in doing that I must have the courage to value my integrity above all else.
My life and work in less developed countries around the world played out against the backdrop of the larger sphere of foreign relations and foreign policy. In my work I experienced the transformation of foreign aid from its altruistic origins to its present-day function as a dedicated instrument of foreign policy. First hand, I witnessed the strategic military focus of Western foreign policy growing apace as the climate for foreign aid became increasingly doctrinal and peremptory. Working in the front-line trenches, from time to time I would run smack into the destructive results of foreign aid built on policies grounded in military and economic advantage.
The last chapter provides a historical overview of the mutation of foreign aid into the political instrument it has become today. I conclude with some personal reflections of how this transformation impacted my life and my career—with attendant broader implications for how contemporary foreign policies impact all our lives.
Like the mariners of old, we all experience passages of sheer terror and let go our grip on our moorings. But, like the mariners of old, if our vessel is stout and we handle it well we will survive the storm, recover our moorings, and sail on to a better day.
We can all do it.William H. Ellis