The Ride of His Life

When SIL LEAD board member Nelis van den Berg was just ten years old, he told his parents he wanted to ride his bicycle to his grandparents’ house. But Nelis’s grandparents didn’t live just down the street, or even a few blocks over. They lived one hundred and twenty-five kilometers away. Nowadays, even considering a request like that could get your neighbors calling social services on you.

Nelis’s parents pulled out a map and helped him plan his route.

It wasn’t just because it was a different time. Nor was it because he was a Dutch boy living in the Netherlands, where bicycle riding is more the norm than the exception. Nelis’s parents recognized in their son an independent young person with the will to take on big challenges.

In the Netherlands there are three tracks in secondary school, and Nelis was placed in the academic track—the one that prepares students for University. Nelis describes himself as reasonably good at everything academically, but not really excelling at anything. So he initially struggled with what to study after secondary school. Initially he thought technical engineering. After half a year of that, he realized it wasn’t nearly people-oriented enough for him and switched to educational psychology.

At the University, Nelis met the woman who was to become his wife—a woman who was absolutely confident (and had been so since she was a little girl) that she wanted to work with SIL, in linguistics.

That was fine for her, but Nelis did not enjoy the study of language when he was in school.

“I hated English, I hated French. German was probably even worse,” he laughs. But since working with SIL often requires couples to relocate abroad together, Nelis made an effort to add linguistics training to his education. Now, all these years later, Nelis and his wife live in Germany, Nelis works regularly in Francophone Africa, and he speaks English every day. Nelis laughs about this as “one of those ironies—one of those humorous things that God does.”

 Nelis enjoys a bike tour with family.

Nelis enjoys a bike tour with family.

Ironic, yes. But it’s clearly also a testament to the resilience and will instilled in him by his parents.

While doing his thesis work in Cameroon, Nelis discovered that although a lot of work was being done in SIL to meet the people’s linguistic needs, there were gaps that he was uniquely qualified to help fill. His educational psychology training helped him build tools that would equip communities to learn to read their languages, but even more importantly, to start using their own languages in written form: write songs, stories; publish a newspaper.  So although there were challenges involved in stepping so far outside his comfort zone when he and his wife moved on from their education to work with SIL in Cameroon, Nelis was well equipped by both his nature and the nurture of his parents to really dig in and make a difference. His parents were schoolteachers and, Nelis says, “A great example of service. Of looking out for the world, rather than just themselves.” Nelis absorbed the strength their faith gave them, and when he felt a clear call to service himself, he was ready.

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For the next twenty-one years, Nelis lived and worked in Cameroon. He and his wife raised three children there, and his early adventurous spirit stood him in good stead as he traveled extensively around rural rainforest areas. The roads were generally too bad for bicycle travel, but on motorcycles and in trucks they managed to make it work.

Nelis moved into management, and he worked hard to increase the role of the local community in determining their own future. With this as his background and focus, when (as the director of SIL in Cameroon) he became aware of SIL LEAD, his interest was piqued.

Later, he was thrilled to be asked to be a member of the SIL LEAD board, where he works to represent both the interests of SIL to SIL LEAD, and vice-versa.

“SIL LEAD allows SIL to do what we’ve always believed in, but were not equipped to do,” he says. “We’ve always engaged with communities, but what is new is to do it in a way that engages and builds credibility with organizations like USAID. This allows SIL to further professionalise and extend our reach to policy levels in new ways. SIL LEAD in turn is able to grow by using SIL staff as consultants for their projects.”

In a situation where qualified linguists are often in short supply, this relationship makes it easier to hire talented professionals, as well as bring in local talent—further accomplishing Nelis’s vision of enabling communities to take an active role in their own development.

The problems facing development workers are enormous, but Nelis has always had the kind of determination necessary for the job.

“We’re not going to have very much impact on the development statistics (literacy rates, poverty etc.) individually or even as one organization,” he says, “But everyone together does.