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Castlepollard architect helps build better future for Africa

This article was published in the Westmeath Examiner on 15th January 2011.  For Castepollard architect John Smyth, settling down to married life was never on the cards “some people definitely think we are mad to do this, especially as we’re only married six months” but for he and his Italian wife Elisa, returning to do aid work overseas was always the plan.   They met while working in Northern Ethiopia six years ago, and are now heading off again, this time to work with Nobel Peace Prize-winning aid agency, Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

John will be putting his skills to use building a clinic in Sudan, and Elisa has already left for Ethiopia where she has been working as a health promoter since December.  “We knew we wouldn’t get a placement together with MSF the first time,” explains John “but we see this as leading towards something that will put us together next time.  We had heard good things about MSF when we were in Ethiopia and we were attracted to the very specific goals the organisation has, and how it seems to be in places where other NGOs don’t get to.”

Southern Sudan, where John will be based, may well become the world’s newest country after the independence referendum which has just taken place earlier this month.  However while the political situation attracts a lot of attention, John’s work will focus on addressing the health needs of the people.  Malnutrition is chronic; pockets of violence continue to uproot whole villages; and the region is currently battling the biggest outbreak of kala azar in eight years, a parasitic disease caused by the bite of a sand fly which is fatal if left untreated.    “This clinic will be an upgraded health centre with maternity facilities and a small operating theatre” says John.  “It will be the only one for miles”.

I’m not sure what to expect in Sudan,” he continues. “It will be extremely hot and the situation will be challenging.  The basics of the job – site management, project management, a little bit of design - are similar to a normal construction project, but in Ireland you’d start at A and finish at Z.  In Sudan I imagine I’ll need to be thinking on my feet, improvising, and dealing with fluid situations.”

Self-employed for the past four years, John previously worked as Senior Architect at John Fleming Architects in Mullingar, and worked on the Ballymun Regeneration programme with Gilroy McMahon Architects in Dublin.  “It’s been a balancing act informing my clients that I’m heading off with MSF and only taking on work that I can be sure to complete, because being self-employed if I don’t take on work I don’t eat.   But generally clients have been very supportive.”

“I’m looking forward to getting out on site and working with local contractors.  Seeing something, not necessarily ‘concrete’ but finished when I’m there would be a great achievement,” continued John.  “I’ll miss my family and friends when I’m away but I think six months is doable.  There’s a river near the clinic and I’m hoping to be able to go fishing.   And Elisa and I are hoping we can plan our R&R together and meet up during our missions somewhere in East Africa.”