When Dr. Lien Chia-en (連加恩) went to Burkina Faso in September 2001, he did not think he would become the youngest recipient of Taiwan's Friendship Medal of Diplomacy.
"I'm overwhelmed by this unexpected present," Lien told a room crowded with friends and family after Minister of Foreign Affairs Eugene Chien (簡又新) awarded the 27-year-old physician the medal at the ministry yesterday.
Lien, a graduate of National Yang Ming University's medical school, joined the alternative diplomatic service program instead of doing two years of compulsory military service.
He is one of 37 men who have taken part in the scheme since it was introduced more than two years ago.
Compared to the nation's diplomats, Lien said what he accomplished during his 20-month stay in Africa was of "trifling importance."
But others say what Lien has achieved was beyond expectations.
"He has helped dig wells and build an orphanage," Chien said.
"What impressed me most was his initiation of a `clothes-for-trash' campaign that not only won him the friendship of the locals but increased environmental protection," Chien said.
Lien began the "clothes-for-trash" campaign with an e-mail to his church in downtown Taipei, Glory Star Church (
He then encouraged people in Burkino Faso to collect bags of garbage to exchange for the clothes in an effort to fight the serious litter problem plaguing the west African nation.
The Taipei church was soon shipping boxes of used clothes to Burkino Faso, an undertaking that was widely reported in the local media.
"I am delighted," said Lien's girlfriend Kao Li-ting (
With a master's degree in public policy from a US university, Kao said she would be able to help Lien with his project when they return to Burkina Faso in January.
The couple will get engaged next month and plan to marry in early January.
"I will return in my capacity as a member of Taiwan's medical mission and I want to complete my orphanage project," Lien said.
Lien has established contacts with several international foreign-aid groups stationed in the Francophone country.
When he found out that an orphanage founded by a Dutch group was facing a funding crisis, he contacted Christian charities in Taiwan looking for ways to offer financial aid to the institute.
Donations from Taiwan also helped him purchase land worth NT$200,000 in order to reconstruct a local orphanage.
Lien plans to collect another NT$2 million for a vocational-training center for the orphans.
Lien urged local volunteers who can speak French to join him and his future wife in his efforts in the west African nation.
"God is helping him with all these projects ... I feel moved," said Lien's father, Lien Yih-shong (
He said he and his wife rang up huge phone bills calling their son every two days over the last 20 months.
When receiving the medal, Lien Chia-en said he was merely repre-senting those who have helped him.
"Helped by her Filipino maid, an old lady in her 70s walked with a stick to the church in Taipei to make a donation. And a six-year-old boy brought his piggy bank to the church to donate. I am here to represent them," he said.
Lien's father said the six-year-old recently bought his third piggy bank to the church to help his son's efforts.