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The School Of Life: This Volunteer Dug Deep For Students In Need Of Education

Brett Nelson
January 22, 2020
Anna-Lena Andersson knows that to build a better world, you have to lay a few bricks.
Last October Andersson, head treasurer of GE’s Steam Power division, joined eight of her colleagues to break ground on an elementary school for 150 students in Kaolack, Senegal. “I’ve always believed any kind of change has to start with education,” she says.

Andersson spent five days on-site in Senegal building the school as a joint project for GE and the nonprofit BuildOn. The village of Santhie Nguedi (pronounced “Sahn-tee En-guh-edge”) is a seven-hour drive from Blaise Diagne Airport, in Dakar. Life is fragile there, she says. Residents live off the land, farming peanuts and millet. The narrow roads flood during rainy season, cutting off medical care — though many can’t afford it anyway. (Asked what happens when someone gets very sick, one villager flatly responded: “What do you do if you get hit by lightning?”) By coincidence, new piping for running water arrived the same week as the GE volunteers. “We got to experience the joy of having a tap to turn in the yard,” Andersson recalls. Shelter consisted of a small concrete-walled hut with a straw roof, mattress and mosquito net. “At first you’re a little scared,” she admits, “but after the first night, I felt like this was my home.”

Each morning began with beans, lentils and instant coffee at 8 a.m. Then came the work: Andersson first tried shoveling out the building’s foundation, but soon moved on to making concrete bricks from a mixture of gravel, cement and water. Volunteers worked in pairs to stir the concrete and pour it into a brick-shaped mold. Then two burly men from the village would lift the mold and let it drop — tightly packing the concrete — before curing it in the hot sun. “You learn you can do something awesome with small things,” Andersson says. “It gave me strength.”

Above: Volunteers worked in pairs to stir the mixture of gravel, cement and water and pour it into a brick-shaped mold. Then two burly men from the village would lift the mold and let it drop — tightly packing the concrete — before curing it in the hot sun. Top: Anna-Lena Andersson, head treasurer of GE’s Steam Power division, was part of the team who spent five days on-site in Senegal building a village school as a joint project for GE and the nonprofit BuildOn. In this partnership, GE raises capital while BuildOn selects sites and leads construction, with help from local laborers and volunteers like Andersson. Image credits: GE Power.

Afternoons included cultural workshops. One group of women demonstrated how to grind, wash and steam the millet to make couscous, an eight-hour process. Communication could be tricky — “Naturally, we didn’t speak Wolof,” Andersson jokes — though a few interpreters were on hand. At the closing ceremony, the villagers cooked a full goat in honor of the volunteers, and Andersson tried “making some moves” on the dance floor. “I wanted to go out of my comfort zone,” she says. “That’s when you start to connect with people and grow.”

Sub-Saharan Africa is a far cry from cozy Baden, Switzerland, where Andersson manages cash flows and currency-exchange rate risk. As a young girl in Finspång, a small Swedish industrial town, Andersson never dreamed of working with numbers; she liked to paint. “My parents had finance-related careers — my dad was an internal auditor, and my mother worked in a bank — and I had no intention to be like that,” she laughs.

After being rejected from a university art program, Andersson landed an internship in an accounting department where, to her surprise, “I fell in love with debits and credits.” That pivot paid off: Andersson has been rising through the ranks at ABB, Alstom, and now at GE for the past 30 years. This week, Andersson shared her Senegal experience during her keynote address at GE Steam Power’s annual leadership meeting in Zurich, Switzerland.

Residents live off the land, farming peanuts and millet. A group of women demonstrated how to grind, wash and steam the millet to make couscous, an eight-hour process. Image credit: GE Power. 

Last summer one of Andersson’s Steam Power colleagues gave a presentation about BuildOn’s work in Nepal. Jim Ziolkowski, a former GE finance employee — founded the nonprofit in an effort to fight intractable poverty and illiteracy by building schools in impoverished areas. In this partnership, GE raises capital while BuildOn selects sites and leads construction, with help from local laborers and volunteers like Andersson.

Thus far, GE and BuildOn have launched 46 schools across seven countries, including Haiti, Guatemala, Nepal — and Senegal, which ranks 162nd out of 187 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index and has just a 43% literacy rate.

Team members from GE's Steam Power division helped to break ground on an elementary school for 150 students in Kaolack, Senegal. Image credit: GE Power.

When BuildOn first announced what would come to be called the GE Switzerland School in Senegal, Andersson supported raising $30,000 for the build. Half came from Steam Power employees, and the rest from the GE Foundation, GE’s charitable arm. Then, last fall, she rolled up her sleeves.

The Switzerland School opened in December, just five weeks after construction began. Next up: Another 150-student school in Nepal, a $36,000 project over four months. (Preparing for earthquakes requires more time and preparation.) Andersson, still energized from her magical week in Senegal, plans to be there.

“This is now a lifelong commitment for me,” she says. “When I think about how easy it is to do something that impacts generations, how could I stop?”
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