Born in Kitchener and raised in Elmira, Neill McKee knew at an early age life would take him beyond the borders of Waterloo Region. Well beyond, as it would turn out.
His wanderlust would lead to a 45-year career in teaching, filmmaking and international development with stops in 80 countries. His global journey started with a little place very far from Elmira, a village on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo.
McKee’s journey, from his beginnings in Elmira to his travels east in 1968 to the Malaysian state of Sabah, is the subject of his new book, Finding Myself in Borneo: Sojourns in Sabah.
McKee is now making his way back westwards on a book tour, with stops planned this weekend in Waterloo Region. On Saturday, McKee will be signing books at the Chapters bookstore in Waterloo, and the following day Sunday will be giving a secular talk and sharing photos of his experiences in Borneo at the Rockway Mennonite Church in Kitchener.
“I grew up in Elmira and decided to leave probably very early, that I wouldn’t be staying there,” says McKee. “I went to the University of Western Ontario for a year; that wasn’t good enough. I went to the University of Calgary, and I really didn’t know where I wanted to go or do after my BA degree at Calgary.”
McKee was born the son of the esteemed local entrepreneur Russell McKee, who along with his twin brother Gerald, manufactured farm machinery in Elmira. The ingenuity of the brothers led to such breakthrough designs as the McKee One Man Harvester, the McKee Harvester and Stacker, and the “Insta-Hitch,” and would see them inducted into the Waterloo Region Hall of Fame. McKee Farm Technologies thrives in Elmira to this very day.
Not one to put down roots, Neill McKee struggled to find direction, but that would soon change, as so often happens at university, by chancing on a poster from the Canadian University Service Overseas, or CUSO (now Cuso International). It touted an adventure overseas, and though it was short on certain details – like where exactly he would be going – McKee took the plunge.
“It was just happenstance that I saw a poster,” he says. “I applied on the University of Calgary campus, and I found myself about four months later in Borneo,” he adds with a laugh. “So that’s part of the title, in that it also is a place where I find myself: in a sense, what I wanted to do or be with my life. What I wanted to be in my career.”
McKee joined Cuso as a volunteer secondary school instructor, and had just a few short weeks to learn everything he could about his posting.
“You have to work out what you’re going to do there. I had a job teaching secondary school for two years, but the subjects, before you arrive, you don’t know what you’re going to teach there, whatever you’re just assigned. Whatever the gaps are,” he says.
“It’s just like being thrown into a completely new world. You don’t quite know the rules, you have to learn the culture. We had orientation in Malay language, but three weeks in Vancouver and UBC (University of British Columbia). But, really, I had to start over.”
Borneo was home to a wealth of ethno-religious groups including Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and a variety of languages, but the lingua franca of the land was Malay. McKee would teach in English, but to communicate with the community at large, including the parents and the majority of people, he eventually picked up the basics of Malay.
“I went back there many times. The volunteer experience and then I was sent back as a field staff, deputy director of the Cuso program in Malaysia for two more years. So I spent four years living there,” says McKee.
It was also during his time in Malaysia that McKee developed his love of filmmaking. With a friend’s 16mm camera, McKee developed recruitment films on Cuso’s work.
“They took me up on it! They sent me money,” says McKee with a laugh. “I had almost no experience making film, but they allowed me to do it. They sent me travel money and film stock money, and I headed off visiting different volunteers in many different places all through East Malaysia, and that was my first documentary film.
“From then, after I finished my two years as a teacher, they sent me back through Asia and Africa, and I made them a series for two years.”
Through his experiences in Malaysia, McKee really did find himself, and the skills he picked up there would go on to serve him for years to come. He would continue on with a career that spanned 45 years in 80 different countries, including a period with UNICEF where he would rise to head of communications at the Bangladesh office.
But it all started with Borneo, and he is hoping to share his experiences with his fellow Canadians.
“I loved the people and I loved the country. I didn’t know what I wanted to be or do, but really through that experience and getting into filmmaking, I found what I wanted to do. I wanted to tell stories through film. I wanted to document the world and open up the world for people back in Canada,” he says.
McKee will be signing books in Waterloo at the Chapters-Indigo store in Conestoga Mall Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. On Sunday, McKee will be discussing his experiences at the Rockway Mennonite Church on 47 Onward Ave., Kitchener at 10:30 a.m. The talk is open to all.