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My one-man mission to build a school – and keep a promise

Adventurer and ex-soldier Jordan Wylie on his new book The Power of the Paddle, which is about using the spirit of adventure to have a positive impact on the world.

Almost three years ago, on the Horn of Africa, I made a promise to a young boy called Ibrahim. I promised him that we would build a school for him and his friends, many of whom had been displaced by conflict in the countries neighbouring their new home, Djibouti.

Although I didn’t initially realise the magnitude of the challenge ahead, I quickly discovered that, with purpose and passion and the generosity of complete strangers, truly anything is possible in this world if you are prepared to keep going – even when the odds are dramatically stacked against you. 

And so it was that I found myself rowing solo across the pirate-infested Bab el-Mandeb Strait in a world first; running extreme marathons in ice-cold climates; and embarking on a world-record attempt to be the first person to stand-up paddleboard around mainland Great Britain, all to raise funds for Ibrahim’s school.

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The Power of the Paddle is all about how we can use the spirit of adventure to have a positive impact in the world by helping others. 

During my time as a soldier in the King’s Royal Hussars, I saw first-hand the plight of children affected by war in conflict zones.

I was horrified at what I witnessed and also realised that even though I didn’t do well at school, I’d had something more than most kids in the world: the opportunity for education.

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As I have learnt through my travels later in life, education is the one thing that can inspire hope for a better future. I have been moved by many people over the years, and I hope my journey in The Power of the Paddle can encourage others to follow one of my favourite quotes and ‘be the difference that makes a difference’. 

It is also important to recognise that the success of the projects and expeditions highlighted in my new book is certainly not down to me alone; there are so many people – friends, teammates, volunteers and kindly good Samaritans from across the world – who made sacrifices to help us deliver my promise to Ibrahim, and I salute each and every one of them.

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I met lots of incredible, supportive people along the way while trying to build the school, including the national minister of education in Djibouti and Her Majesty’s ambassador to Djibouti from the UK, Jo McPhail. One of the ways both these people impressed was their passion for equality and making sure at least 50 per cent of the pupils who attended the new school were female. 

The school project also created many jobs for local people over the past three years. Local tradesmen, such as builders, drivers, labourers, and more than 100 other people benefited from the project, which had a real positive impact in the village of As Eyla.

The Horn of Africa will always have a special place in my heart; there is truly something about the warm spirit and culture of the amazing people that just makes me want to get back there and spend as much time with them as possible.

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The past 18 months have been incredibly tough for the entire world, with not just the Covid-19 pandemic itself but also the deepest global recession since World War 2 and more than 168 million children having had their schools closed for almost an entire year.

However, for this project, in May 2021 there was a huge shining light at the end of the tunnel when I was invited by the Djibouti government to open the new school we had designed, fundraised for and built over the past few years. To see 250 smiling children’s faces is a sight I will never forget, and cutting the ribbon at the opening ceremony was one of the most fulfilling experiences I have ever had. 

The Power of the Paddle by Jordan Wylie is out now (Biteback, £9.99)

Since the school opened, we have continued to build relationships with locals and recently sent over a team of volunteer instructors to deliver a ‘Train the Trainer’ teaching package on sign language. This has enabled children with hearing and speech impediments to access education, inspiring hope for a brighter future.

As a professional adventurer, I have had the privilege of travelling to some of the most challenging, remote and complex parts of our planet, and I have learnt many valuable life lessons along the way. In my latest book, I share those lessons, which I hope will encourage others to go out and fulfil their passions in life while also helping those less fortunate than themselves. 

This isn’t really a story about me; it’s a story about the special person deep within all of us who is dying to get out of our comfort zone, push boundaries and explore what is possible, finding a purpose much bigger than ourselves. I hope you enjoy my latest book and that it sparks your own ideas for a purposeful adventure one day in the future!

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