As mentioned in many of my other blogs I was going to be traveling with Engineers Without Borders to Ohto Abwao, Kenya and now here’s the recap. Our trip was filled with many different experiences that truly made it a once in a lifetime opportunity. Driving to the village was interesting as we got to see a wide array of environments and living styles. The vast Rift Valley and baboons on the side of the highway were pretty cool. The roads themselves were intriguing to me as a future transportation engineer. Driving on the left side was new, but the lack of striping and stop signs was really interesting and the driving culture was unique, a first-come-first-serve approach as you had to be aggressive. Seeing the constructed tanks that I helped design put things into reality as most of my co-op work was preliminary stuff and I never saw much of it completed.
Providing someone with easier access to water might not sound like much too many people in our society as water is readily available, but until you understand someone’s life you see the importance. For many villagers using the foot pump to get water takes hours each week that could be used to tend crops, help children, and for women, attend school. For some people the work involved to get water from the borehole is too much and therefore many resorted to gathering water from the ponds and other dirty water sources. Many times I saw children getting water from these locations and I’d just sort of make a mental comment of “just a few more days and you won’t have to get water from there anymore.” The benefit of our system is that we will use the sun to help kill some of bacteria that is in the water via a removal roof on the tanks, which also allows easy access to clean the tanks when sediment accumulates in the bottom. Many of the villagers were concerned why the tanks had no roof as most of the concrete tanks in the area had roofs, but these systems allowed bacteria to grow inside, thus contaminating the water in the tanks. Engineers also understand the limits to which they can design for and we understood we couldn’t treat the hardness of their water, but the fact that we are making their water easier to access is a top priority. The true impact of our system won’t be clear for another few months as health assessments and other feedback will be completed.
Probably the single event that made the whole project hit home was the first night we arrived in Otho Abwao. As we were making our first walk up to the tanks along the trench an older gentleman walked up to me and shook my hand and simply said “thank you” in English. That simple phrase rarely has much meaning to most people in our society as it’s just a common saying with little real meaning, but this was probably one of the few times I felt the full grasp of a thank you. I feel I’m really in tune with the power we engineers have in society, but that act made me really understand the impact we have on people. Along the way we were joined by dozens of kids and more adults until we reached the tanks and looked over the village and towards Lake Victoria. This was another feel good moment as we got acquainted with the people whose lives we were changing for the better.
We were told we would be followed by kids all the time, but until you are surrounded by them watching your every move you don’t know what to expect. For me it was kind of like working with my four year-old niece, Taylor, except that these kids weren’t asking a million questions and grabbing all the tools and materials, but rather fascinated by our work. The trip had many stressing situations and simply working on your tasks and being surrounded by smiling children shows you that you can’t let one thing overcome you. We all knew that the water system would allowed them to have more time in school as they would be able to spend less time gathering water and the water would be a bit safer so they won’t get sick as much. And everyone loves seeing pictures of cute kids smiling.
Engineering is full of adapting to situations and this trip allowed everyone to be flexible because well, TIA (This Is Africa, our motto) and you can’t control everything so you have to just go with the flow. For me this facet is usually easier said than done as I prefer most things to be planned out with little hitches. But having to redesign the roof system, have the contractor back a few piping changes, and going shopping in Kisumu were the best opportunities I had at improving my engineering experience. As Andy would later say “trying learning that in a class room,” which continues to show people the true magnitude engineering has to our thought process.
The hardest decision we had to make and cope with was that we wouldn’t see the full completion of the project because of customs issues we had we our pump and a few solar panels. To see water being pumped from the borehole to tanks, then into the distribution network, and finally seeing villagers fill their jerry cans at the tap stands would mark a completion of the project. For many of us this represented a failure to complete a job and that doesn’t sit well with most people, engineers may be a bit more uneasy about it. For Andy and Neil, who have been involved since the beginning of EWB-UCIN, I think this might have been a bit harder on them. Professor Dan helped explain the situation and helped us refocus our personal feelings about leaving an unfinished project. By reiterating the fact that we can complete the stuff we have power over, we should feel that we completed the project and to let things we can’t control be just as they are. We all had total confidence in Dan completing things for us, but again it’s just an internal feeling that’s hard to write or talk about.
Although this project was real and our decisions have effects on everyone involved, it’s another learning opportunity we have in our education, but for us this opportunity is truly unique and one that everyone should experience. For us seniors it has allowed us to use all the work we have done on co-op and in the classroom to make an impact in the world, one small village at a time. For our freshman member, I can’t really speak on his experiences, but he got the opportunity to see how far engineering students progress in less than five years in regards to our professionalism and how we make decisions. I told him this was his first and he would get a lot more out of this experience than it might seem. I really enjoyed traveling and working with my friends which made things easier for all of us since everyone enjoys working with friends. When you have complicated and intense situations and decisions to make its more fun with people you’re comfortable with. Even though we did have some disagreements about stuff, we understood it’s from an engineering perspective, not personal.
It wasn’t all work and we did have a lot of fun. As I mentioned before, being around friends as great in that you can always joke around with them. Some things that happened can’t be talked about because, “What happens in Africa, stays in Africa,” but we had many laughs at the dinner table and on the porch. Everyone got picked on and everyone dished it back which helped us relax after a long day in the sun and heat. Dan is very interesting to be around and he really made things fun even though things weren’t always rosy. The plane and van rides were long, but we had some fun along the way.
The flights home were interesting, I got patted down in both Nairobi and London and Andy got it in Chicago. I was hoping not to 3 for 3 in Chicago, but I passed otherwise I was going to scream. Our problems in Chicago started in London as we got delayed on the runway for 30 minutes. This delay got us to Chicago at 4:30pm for a 5:10pm flight. A little tight even if you’re flying domestic, but we had to pass through customs, collect and recheck bags, and go through security. Liesbet is a Belgium citizen so she had to go through a different, slower customs line. Neil volunteered to stay back with her, which left the rest of us to sprinting to the gate. The American Airlines counter people didn’t think we had a chance and sent us to schedule a new flight. The next counter told us we could make it and checked our bags and sent us up to the gate. Chicago’s airport is annoying in that you basically have to go halfway across the airport to get anywhere. We passed through security at a line where there weren’t very many people, and this is where Andy’s moist toilette got him stopped for a few minutes. After he passed through we sprinted to gate H-1B about 400-500 ft from where we came from. At the counter, one guy wouldn’t let us on (the plane was still sitting there), but another co-worker let us on. Turns out the plane hadn’t been fueled up, so we had a few extra minutes. We were hoping Neil and Liesbet would make it in time but they didn’t. We got home about 8pm on Wednesday the 25th in Cincinnati where we were welcomed by 40 and rain compared to the 90 and dry sun. Right now it’s a matter of getting the sleep cycle back down before classes start on Monday.
Come back for more updates as we disucss the project as a group and do final tasks to closeout the implementation part of the project. For comments from the other members I traveled with please check out the EWB blog http://ewbucin.blogspot.com/