It was the image of his father as a reedy teenager in khaki shorts, driving solo across southern Africa in a Chevy pick-up truck that first inspired Robert Akester to volunteer with Cuso International.
The memorable road trip was taken in 1960 when his father Tony was just 17. He'd left his home in England and caught a Royal Navy frigate across the sea to spend a year in Botswana with a British aid organization in Lobatsi and Kanye.
There, he worked for the office of the district commissioner introducing government programs, settling local disputes, and providing water to outlying communities on the edge of the Kalahari Desert.
The experience would prove both life and career changing; the challenging nature of the job pushing him to grow up fast.
“I was thrown into the deep end and it was great,” says Tony, now 68 and a veteran of five international assignments.
In his father’s global footsteps
His son Robert was searching for a similar kind of personal transformation when he packed up his life in North Vancouver in 2005 and signed on for a two-year stint to help build sustainable fisheries in the remote, conflict-ridden region of Lanao del Norte in the Philippines.
Photo: (Left to right) Tony Akester of North Vancouver shares his memories of a 1960 volunteer assignment in Botswana with his son, Robert Akester, daughter, Sarah Vanhee, and wife, Sue Akester. In 2005, Robert followed in his father's footsteps and volunteered with Cuso International in the Philippines.
Growing up amid a family of avid globe trotters, travel was nothing new to him. But Robert was looking to be more than a tourist.
His father's stories of Africa – of the freedom and the responsibility – had long ago made a deep and lasting impression on him.
He was filled with a desire to explore, to get to know the people, and understand their culture.
He wanted to live their reality to the extent he could, and help to create a better future.
“The moment was right for me,” Robert says.
Like daughter, like mother
For Umeeda Switlo, her decision to volunteer as a fundraising advisor to disability groups in Kigali, Rwanda was inspired by her daughter, Nareena.
Umeeda, 54 and a public engagement staff person with Cuso International in Vancouver, was born and raised in Uganda, but fled with her family to Canada when she was just 15-years-old after Idi Amin seized power and dispelled Ugandans of Indian descent.
The violence of that separation, and profound feelings of rejection it left within her, had kept her from returning to the continent for decades.
It was Nareena, Umeeda says, who triggered the feeling that it was time to go back.
Photo: Umeeda Switlo at the Vancouver office of Cuso International. Umeeda credits her daughter, Nareena (whose image appears on the computer screen) with inspiring her to volunteer as a fundraising advisor to disability groups in Rwanda.
The moment of clarity came upon her on Christmas Eve, 2010, while visiting Nareena in Zanzibar, where the 26-year-old University of Victoria graduate was volunteering with Cuso International.
Umeeda recalls the wonder she felt watching her Canadian-born daughter playfully chatting, in near-perfect Swahili, with a group of local children. Nareena had become a part of Africa, Umeeda discovered.
“And my heart just said, “I want to do this too.’”
A tale of two islands
Leya Duigu of Toronto has yet to make the leap as an international volunteer, though she finds herself powerfully drawn to Cuso International and its humanitarian mission.
Like Robert Akester, Leya, 33, is the child of an international volunteer. Her mother, Joan Duigu, was a fresh-faced teacher from Newfoundland when she got on a plane and flew more than 15,000 kilometres to Papua New Guinea in the early 1970s to volunteer with Cuso at a local school for a year.
But fate had other plans for Joan. Sometime during that assignment, she met and fell in love with John Duigu, a young agricultural teacher and native Papua New Guinean. The pair were married in 1975 and continue to live in Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, where Leya and her sister, Josie, were born and raised.
For the past 10 years, Leya has been building her career in Toronto. But the young management professional believes firmly that an overseas assignment is in her future. Last September she took the first step in achieving that goal by helping to put together Cuso International's 50-year reunion.
For Leya, it was an important chance to connect with volunteers through the decades, hear of their experiences first-hand, and learn how Cuso helped to shape their lives.
The lesson? “People change people,” she says of the powerful impact the organization has made around the world.
She can see herself working in Papua New Guinea or South America, lending her professionals skills towards development. “It would be something (my parents) would be proud of.”
Nareena Switlo, who is back in Africa this year, working in Kenya with Canadian aid organization Me to We, said the shared experience of overseas volunteerism has brought her closer to her mother.
“It is definitely something that we talk about a lot,” she wrote in an email.
But she questioned exactly who was the original inspiration.
Nareena says it was Umeeda's work with Cuso International in Vancouver that led her to apply with the organization to begin with. But she agreed she may have provided her mom with the push she needed to make her own international journey.
“I had some tough times in Zanzibar, and saw some really unfair treatment of Zanzibaris and did something about it," she says. “I think that made my mom see that even though things are tough, and hard to handle at times, the overall work and joy of volunteering is worth it.”
Robert and Tony, who continue to be neighbours in North Vancouver, enjoy a similar bond.
Robert's stories of his journey – and an impressive digital archive of some 5,000 images – have become part of the family’s collective adventures. The stories and photos are shared with a whole new generation of Akesters with much laughter and mutual appreciation.
Tony wouldn't have it any other way.
His 12 months in Africa seemed to stretch forever at first, but went by too quickly. By the time the assignment was over, his sense of home had shifted.
“And I just couldn’t see how I could go back,” he says. That is, until his son went back home for him.