Q&A: Professional volunteering through the eyes of Matt Lillis

Matt was one of EWB's professional volunteer engineers who helped manage the WAWAN project. As Assistant project manager, Matt was also a great mentor, here are few details from Matt's stay on Ambrym Island, Vanuatu!


Q&A with Matt Lillis

What was the most challenging part of the project? 

This has been the most challenging engineering project I have been a part of, and I couldn't single out a moment, but some gems are:

  • Landing on Ambrym Island in Vanuatu to kickstart the project again and finding myself in a village with some great people with whom I shared no common language, in 35-degree heat, high humidity, and with almost no water. It gave me a lot of appreciation for the problems we are trying to alleviate.
  • Battling with Vanuatu's immigration department to get a visa for Kyle (our site engineer).
  • Discovering partway through construction that the rafter beams in the structures were impossible to shift into place with the available tools because they were too heavy. We had to devise a method to fabricate the beams in 4 parts and stitch them back together, and do so under urgency with parts already available on site.
  • Keeping all the project stakeholders happy and well informed, including the local villages, the Wawan Council, the multiple Rotary groups funding the project, the project team, EWB management, the consultancies (particularly Beca) who contributed to the project.

What was the best part of the project? (an awesome moment, your favourite technical aspect, maybe?)
I really enjoyed working with and mentoring students on a real project. I have been really impressed with the work and leadership various students have shown on the project over the last year.

How has the experience helped you grow as an engineer?
The project management and problem-solving experience I was able to get in a really challenging environment have been invaluable to my work as a project engineer for Hamilton City Council. Although the problems are of a different scale when working in New Zealand, the principles and skills are very similar.

What is something you learned? (technical, cultural, totally random?)
Bislama is the main language of Vanuatu, and I had to learn it very quickly in my time on Ambrym. I have lost most of it, but it was the first time I was genuinely bi-lingual!

Another story about miscellaneous... when something unexpectedly worked out? Best thing you ate? The cultural experience? A friendship you cultivated? The most fun time you had? 
I was travelling through an isolated region in south east Ambrym when our party came across a community gathering, where school fees were being discussed. I got out my camera and chased the children (known in Bislama as "pikininis") around the small village and videotaping the whole thing, then played back the video tape to the kids. They loved it! On other occasions while visiting villages, kids would burst into tears at the site of me as they'd never seen a white man before.