We sat down with Balang Tulus Harefa, a 14 year veteran of SurfAid. Tulus started as a contractor and has been instrumental in establishing successful water and sanitation projects in SurfAid’s partner communities on the island of Nias. A lack of clean water, sanitation, and proper hygiene are major contributors to high rates of disease and death among mothers and newborns. SurfAid is currently in the final year of a four year Mother and Child Health program that focuses on enhancing the health of women and children under the age of five in 37 remote villages.
Learn more about what it takes to work behind the scenes at SurfAid, and how our communities inspire people like Tulus to dedicate their lives to helping others.
Can you tell us about how you joined the SurfAid team?
My first job at SurfAid was as a contractor. I was hired to build a small office space for the staff and volunteers. While working on the project, I got to know the team and was encouraged by my supervisors, Herman and Greagh, to apply for a recently opened up Water and Sanitation (WATSAN) program position. I was selected out of eight people to take on the role of technical trainer.
The job involved teaching and training people how to build clean water facilities and latrines in Nias and a few of the outer islands. Many years later, I still laugh with Herman and Greagh about their role in bringing me on to the SurfAid team.
You’ve now worked for SurfAid for over 14 years, did you expect that when you were hired?
Wow, it has been a long time! After my first project ended, I was asked to continue working as part of the technical staff. I held this position until I was hired for a temporary contract with the Spanish Red Cross. When my contract ended, I came right back to SurfAid and resumed my position as a WATSAN program assistant in two new partner communities in Nias based in the Alasa and Hiliduho districts.
I finished every project I started with SurfAid and am always hired back because of my experience and dedication. I feel fortunate to have joined SurfAid and to have helped establish so many projects in Nias. Being a part of these programs has taught me many life lessons. We live in the communities where we work, and while we teach how to build latrines and handwashing stations, it’s the volunteers doing all the work. They aren’t getting paid, it’s for the good of the community. I’m a native of Nias and I’ve seen so many lives changed through SurfAid.
What has been your biggest challenge while working at SurfAid?
It is a slow process, what may not look like anything is an important step of figuring out what the community wants. How will they respond to learning and the training we provide? Initially, we start with training on building clean water facilities, but not everyone responds to SurfAid’s approach. Some may prefer to work independently, or they don’t show up for the training. We have to have patience and build trust with the communities in order to find solutions. All problems can be solved, but it takes time and energy. Initially, people may not want to contribute to the project, but because our approach is sincere and the results are successful, we overcome this and then it’s twice as rewarding.
How has your time at SurfAid impacted your life?
Working in so many villages I’ve been exposed to the difficult conditions and how isolated they are. Many people don’t get enough to eat and they have to walk miles to get to a more developed sub-district centre or school. Being from a more developed area of Nias, I’m grateful for what I had growing up. Many people are so thankful for our activities and having help to get access to clean water and latrines. There are still more people to help, but I am grateful we are here.
You are known for being friendly and using your sense of humour to help connect with community members. How has this helped?
I am a person who likes to have fun. I also like being around people. If you are a part of the community, there is a bigger chance people will want to get involved. The key is to be friendly and funny and keep adjusting based on the conditions. I never make fun of or patronize anyone, it helps to get to know the people you are working with.
Can you tell us a little about your family?
I am married and even though the job requires time away from my family, my wife supports my work at SurfAid. Working in different areas, I had to learn to be independent, but happiness is a result of the sacrifice. Weekends are my time for family and since I began my career at SurfAid, I’ve had four children, they are SurfAid children! My first child is about to enter high school and my youngest is in kindergarten!
What are your hopes for Surfaid now?
I have a lot of hopes for SurfAid! I hope our programs continue to grow. It would be great if I could stay in Nias, but there are still so many in need of programmes like these. I hope that my friends and our communities continue to work together at SurfAid.