The following post was written by Gerard Steehouder, a Technical Project Leader for TNT Express, and voluntary COMETS Implementation Manager for North Star Alliance.
I’m Gerard Steehouder, 50 years of age, and working for TNT Express Benelux as a Technical Project Leader within the ICS department in Houten, running diverse IT-related projects.
Implementing and training people to using new software, hardware, etc. I also frequently facilitate departmental movements and reconstruction work, all in the “IT” work field.
In October 2010, a message was sent from Moving the World that North Star Alliance was in need of an implementation manager. Several Roadside Wellness Centres (RWCs) in East Africa were ready for deployment and required IT support. I was the lucky one to be chosen for this exciting task, and from 15 November to 18 February 2011, I travelled across East Africa and had a truly life-changing experience.
North Star is a not-for-profit whose mission is to provide mobile populations, namely long-distance truck drivers, sex workers and surrounding communities, with sustainable access to basic health care and safety. TNT and the World Food Programme established the Alliance in 2005 as a means to address the spread of HIV/ AIDS among these populations in Africa. Today, North Star operates 22 centres in 10 African countries.
My assignment was to run the COMETS implementation project at 11 North Star locations in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. COMETS (short for Corridor Medical Transfer System) operates like a personal health passport, capturing important data from clients visiting a North Star centre. I provided on-location training to medical officers and nurses who needed to work with COMETS and I supported via remote connection to ensure that all the data was consistently formatted.
Upon my return from Africa, I was asked to introduce North Star to TNT Benelux employees by taking part in a unique TNT-North Star Alliance European Road Show.
In the month of May, I travelled to 10 TNT Benelux locations in Belgium (Antwerp, Kortrijk, Brussels, Liege) and the Netherlands (Eindhoven, Rotterdam, Schiphol-Rijk, Arnhem, Houten).
In each location, I presented the model Roadside Wellness Centre to employees, explained North Star’s connection to our broader partnership with WFP, and shared my personal experiences working for North Star in Africa.
My time in Africa has changed my way of interacting and working with people. For one: I had to learn to be patient. I continuously had to cope with power outages and consequently no Internet connection, that was challenging throughout my project, but somehow I managed to get the Centre staff properly trained.
I also had many emotional encounters, meeting North Star ‘clients’, namely truck drivers and sex workers. I once had a mother put her sick baby in my arms, asking me to take care of her. It was heartbreaking. As a parent, I know that fear of losing your child.
The TNT-North Star Road Show was an interesting informal closure of my project. About 400 TNT Benelux colleagues visited us during the Road Show, and most were pleasantly surprised about the set-up of the Centre. Together with local Moving the World ambassadors, I was able to explain the purpose of North Star’s Wellness Centres and how they function in the field, providing visitors with medications for common illnesses like malaria, TB and hypertension.
Many Road Show visitors took the opportunity to watch a 7-minute documentary “At the Crossroads”, which provides a glimpse of the life of a Malawi truck driver. Few visitors knew that long-distance truck drivers in Africa have twice the HIV infection rates compared to the general population. The film tells the story much like I had been experiencing in Africa. I demonstrated the COMETS system to visitors, explaining that I still support North Star staff on my own time.
It’s hard to ‘let go’ after being so closely connected with a team that works day and night for a safer and healthier Africa.
I also answered a lot of questions like:
What is it like being in Africa for such a long period without your family?
While it was sometimes difficult and challenging, it was really worth it and so fulfilling. That’s hard to describe if you have never been in such a country or situation.
How did the locals react to your presence?
At first they watched me and asked the caretaker or nurse what I was doing there. After some explanation, some people called me “doctor”. They assumed that by teaching doctors and nurses, I must be one myself.
Were you afraid of meeting people who are HIV positive or had other dangerous illnesses?
You always have to be careful but through good preparation and training in advance, there’s no need to be afraid. Understanding what the centres are about, and the impact they have on visitors, it strengthened me to be there.
Sharing my Africa experiences with TNT colleagues made the Road Show a very, very interesting experience. All in all I think we reached our goal: engaging TNT Benelux colleagues in the important North Star Alliance story.
A special thanks to Rosanne, Karin and Willem (the Road Show chauffeur and former TNT driver) for organising the Road Show and assisting me and all the Moving the World ambassadors.
To all our visitors: thank you for your support, for visiting the Centre, giving us feedback on the Road Show and TNT’s Moving the World programme and for sharing your comments on the questionnaire.
Asante sana (thank you very much),