After two weeks in the dusty, southwest corner of Angola helping to electrify a remote maternity hospital, Alex Alcantara was full of emotion as his "unbelievable trip" came to an end.
A trip sponsored by Electrical Workers Without Borders North America sent New York City Local 3 members to Angola last summer to work with Italian electricians on a solar array to power a rural hospital.
"I missed my family to death, but I miss those people I had the honor of serving in Angola as well," the New York Local 3 journeyman wireman said on social media, where he'd been posting videos every couple of days.
"I can't get that out of my head and my heart," he wrote, all caps. "I have way too much. Material things don't matter any longer. Humanity, friendship, love, health… that's my goal for a better world for all."
Alcantara, who goes by "Archie," traveled to Angola with fellow Local 3 journeyman Lou Alvarez last summer to work with Italian electricians on a solar array to power Chiulo Hospital, the only medical facility of its kind for hundreds of kilometers.
"We have a skill set that many people don't have. We can give somebody a resource that they can't afford," Alvarez said. "To me, that's fulfillment. It's not just about earning a living. It's about what we can give back."
That spirit imbues Electrical Workers Without Borders North America, an IBEW-supported nonprofit that sponsored the journey to sub-Saharan Africa.
The organization is one of the legacies of the late, visionary International President Edwin D. Hill, who lived and breathed the words of the union's century-old declaration, "Our cause is the cause of human justice, human rights, human security."
A devout Catholic and proud trade unionist, Hill dreamed of EWWBNA as a way to serve those principles, said Don Siegel, the group's president and Hill's decades-long friend.
"He saw this as a way to fulfill both missions," said Siegel, who retired as Third District international vice president in 2017. "He knew that when he retired he would need something to do. He had so many plans. Ed envisioned this becoming a worldwide organization — tied to the IBEW, but with an arm's-length relationship — that would spread the message of the IBEW and build our reputation throughout the world."
PREGNANT women show up at the walled Chiulo compound well before their due date, some walking a hundred or more hot, arid miles to give birth assisted by doctors and nurses. It is their best hope in a country with one of the world's highest infant mortality rates.
"Sometimes they come with their own mothers to give them a hand, sometimes with two or three children," Alvarez said. "They walk, with big bellies, from miles and miles away just to get to the waiting area."
A small house provides shelter for some women. But many others pass time on benches during the day and sleep in tents on the compound's primitive grounds. "When they go into labor, that's when the hospital opens the door," he said.
The team at work outside Chiulo Hospital in southwest Angola.
Local 3 Business Manager Chris Erkison tapped Alvarez to head the mission, just as he'd trusted him to lead past hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico, the Bahamas and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Alvarez brought Brazilian-born Alcantara on board, knowing his fluency in Portuguese, Angola's colonial language, would be invaluable. He filled out the team with journeymen Everest Campbell and William Bonaparte, who arrived mid-month to help finish the project as their Local 3 brothers headed home.
As they worked, they watched women endure long waits outdoors, tending to restless children, rationing food and pulling what water they could from wells. Though charities provide aid, food is scarce and water more so as Angola suffers its worst drought since the 1940s.
It hadn't rained in seven months when they arrived in June 2019. Alvarez said they didn't see a single cloud, "not one little puff," cross the brilliant blue sky their entire two-week stay.
Drought has killed crops and animals, deepening the agony of Angola's rural poverty. At times, Alcantara couldn't believe his eyes.
"The amount of stuff that we just waste, the amount of water we waste — these people don't have water to drink or shower in," he said. "I came home and I said we need to conserve water, we need to do this and that. These people, they're showering in a hole in the ground, the same hole a cow's drinking from, the same hole where a lady's washing her clothes."
But among the Angolans they met, they found more strength than despair.
"One of the things I came back with is how strong women are, especially when it comes to their children," Alvarez said. "We saw a lot of sad things, but also you learn about the resilience in people. It's pretty amazing how people learn to deal with their environment."
DELEGATES to the IBEW's 2016 International Convention in St. Louis enthusiastically backed the resolution that created Electrical Workers Without Borders North America. Hill had retired a year earlier, but he was invited on stage as members rose to speak in support.
Most referenced the global humanitarian work that IBEW members were doing already in places that included Haiti, Suriname and St. Kitts.
"After the devastation of the earthquake in 2011, I was one of over 75 Local 103 brothers that traveled to Haiti to help build a new 320-bed hospital," Boston Local 103 Business Manager Lou Antonellis said. "I saw what the people of Haiti went through after that tragedy, and I saw firsthand real tears of joy and appreciation from the children and families that were most affected by the generosity of the IBEW."
Brady Hansen, a Seattle Local 77 journeyman lineman who led earlier training missions to Suriname and continues to organize EWWBNA trips, said every IBEW member who volunteered "will tell you that it has been a life-changing experience… I rise in support of this resolution because when you take a look at who we are, we are humanitarians of light and power in our communities."
EWWBNA would support and expand those efforts, formalizing what had been a patchwork quilt of good works.
About a year earlier, the Italian Federation of Electrical Utility Workers and energy companies did the same, establishing Elettrici senza frontiere Italia, or Electrical Workers Without Borders of Italy. Similar groups operate in France, Germany and other European nations.
The U.S. and Italian organizations were conceived and nurtured by the relationship between Hill and Carlo de Masi, then-secretary-general of the Italian Federation of Electrical Utility Workers.
Planning accelerated in 2015 when de Masi came to the IBEW construction conference on the heels of a trip Hill made to Italy to receive one of its government's highest honors, the Golden Eagle award. He was the first American recipient, honored in part for his support of Italian unionists and his overtures to Italian companies operating in the United States.
Accepting the award in Assisi, Hill evoked the town's famous saint, "The spirit of St. Francis is badly needed in today's world. Growing inequality and violence threatens all that we stand for. And we must continue to stand together to be a force for good."
ANGOLA, which was in the planning stage at the time of Hill's death in December 2018, embodied his vision.
The late International President Edwin D. Hill, who established EWWBNA, pictured at left at a 2014 awards ceremony with his friend Carlo de Masi, head of the Italian electrical trades.
Italians, Americans and, earlier, a Chinese team of electricians lifted up an impoverished hospital and changed lives — including their own.
"What happened was something magic," said Felice Egidi, president of Electriciens Sans Frontière. "A perfect blend between Italian mentality and U.S. mentality."
Far off any electrical grid, the 224-bed hospital had limped along on diesel generators to fulfill its many obligations: maternity care, surgery, outpatient services for more than 300,000 widely dispersed people, and training nurses for a network of rural health clinics.
Local 3 volunteers helped the Italians complete a 50-kilowatt solar mini-grid and renovate the electrical system throughout the hospital compound.
"Although fuel is inexpensive in Angola, it still costs the hospital money to run the generator 24/7," Alvarez said. "So the Italians' idea was to store energy from this solar array. They did a great job designing the system."
Enel, an Italy-based energy multinational with a growing footprint in the United States, provided the solar panels, storage batteries and other materials. The Americans arrived with a wealth of donations from Milwaukee Tool, hand-held equipment they left behind for the hospital's maintenance workers.
"They were astonished, the Italian guys, astonished because the guys from the states arrived with a lot of materials and tools," Egidi said. They told him, "Oh my god, they have everything!"
THE Italians hosted the Americans at a secure compound near the hospital that serves as a regional home base for Italy's Doctors with Africa.
Access to the aid organization's housing was essential, Egidi said. "First, from a security point of view, because you have volunteers, you have to decide that a country is safe. A second point is to have a structure on site to receive us. Not five-star hotels we're talking about, but something acceptable."
For most of their stay, Alvarez and Alcantara worked with a team of three Italians. The men became fast friends, sharing a house and forging what Alvarez described with amusement as their own Romance language. They mingled English and Italian, with Alvarez and Alcantara adding Spanish and Portuguese to the mix.
It bridged the gap as the Americans got a crash course in Europe's electrical system, the foundation for the hospital project. "It operates on a different frequency than ours; the voltages are higher, their circuitry is broken down, branched out differently and their color code is different," Alvarez said.
The men's bonds grew over joyous, leisurely meals. "We not only had an African experience, we had an Italian cultural experience," he said. "The great company of these Italians, they were amazing hosts."
They were also amazing cooks, who'd brought olive oil, pasta, coffee and wine from home. "Every morning we'd get up and they'd put on a table cloth. We'd have a light breakfast and were out the door at 8 o'clock," Alvarez said. "At 12 o'clock, about 15, 20 minutes before, someone would leave and start preparing lunch."
They adapted to the European schedule, a relaxed meal and siesta dividing their mornings and afternoons. "At first, I told Archie, 'I can't work like this, what's wrong with these people?' We're used to taking a half-hour lunch and jumping back in."
Soon they understood how much they could accomplish by taking time to recharge with good food and rest.
By the third day, Alvarez said, "we were kicking off our boots, putting on sandals, taking a siesta, enjoying our lunch and finishing up with a nice espresso, then going back to work until about 6 o'clock."
In Italy, Egidi heard nothing but glowing reports about the Americans from his volunteers. "They teamed up fantastically," he said. "They were eager to learn from each other and to teach each other."
Egidi took the helm of ESFI at the request of Enel, where he'd been an energy manager. He spoke with The Electrical Worker by phone in late March, several weeks into Italy's coronavirus lockdown. Holed up in his workweek apartment in Rome, he was far from his family's home in Milan and expected it would be at least another month before he saw them. But he brimmed with cheer talking about the success of the Angola mission and what it holds for the future.
"Having done this experience, it is quite easy now to discuss other missions," he said. He cited projects being planned or already launched in countries that include Peru, Zambia and Kenya, as well as an eventual return to Haiti, where IBEW and Italian electricians have partnered in years past.
Meals were a bonding opportunity for the New Yorkers and the Italian electricians, who also served as hosts. Each day, they prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner from scratch for themselves and their guests in a shared home near the hospital.
Haiti, in fact, is central to EWWBNA, with projects at schools, hospitals and a vocational training center. But Siegel said security concerns in the country have put progress on hold.
Now, COVID-19 is causing delays around the world, such as plans for a 20-kilowatt solar field at a Peruvian school. "We were ready, just before the virus hit, to send one of our people down to Peru to meet up with an Italian project manager and assess the scope of the work," Siegel said.
THE pandemic struck just as EWWBNA was regaining momentum after the shock of Hill's death.
"It was 2018 when we really got going and started to research how to fund these projects and get everyone on board. Everything stopped around mid-August when Ed got ill," Siegel said.
"He was a great communicator, a great leader. We have big shoes to fill."
When he passed, Siegel said, a Catholic priest they worked with in Haiti cried, "Our dream has died." In Italy, de Masi's heart broke, and he feared what would become of EWWBNA without Hill.
But Siegel and others devoted to EWWBNA, aided by generous help from International President Lonnie R. Stephenson and IBEW staff, are determined that Hill's vision will be fully realized.
The virus is interfering for now, but it won't always be that way.
"In founding EWWBNA, President Hill did something very special that not only reflects well on the IBEW but also confirms his lifelong commitment to his faith and trade union principles," Siegel said. "We're not going to let him down."
Learn more about EWWBNA and how you can support its mission at: www.ewwbna.org