"Transport is necessary in achieving a wide range of objectives including economic growth, personal welfare, governance and empowerment as well as security." ~ P. Njenga & A. Davis, Drawing the Roadmap to Rural Poverty Reduction

Sunday, August 19, 2007


As I've found with every trip I've taken like this, the end comes too quickly, although home is always a welcome thought. Every exposure to a different culture brings with it lessons to learn and apply to our own lives - here are a few of my observations from this trip:

1.) Slow the heck down. I wish I could photograph the expressions I get when explaining how much Americans work to the locals here. They're astounded. The drive to succeed and be profitable is what has made America the economic power it is. It seems, however, that we've forgotten how to relax. Personally, I'm convinced a lot of the heart problems abounding in the United States stem from our inability to relax. Two months ago, my blood pressure was way high for someone my age...now I'm finally back to postorial hypotension making me lightheaded every time I stand up. Ask yourself, when's the last time you took a vacation? How long was it? Taken your spouse on a date lately? Written a letter to a friend (a real one, with a pen and paper) in the past month? Read a book?

Most of the time, it's not easy. It takes a special kind of person to want the type of job requiring constant access to oneself. As if cell phones weren't bad enough, someone had to go and market the Blackberry, destroying any possibility of a private life. Some people love them, some hate them. I can see their worth, as long as you have the ability to turn them OFF. Here in Meri, cell phone reception isn't available in the house, or really anywhere near it, so the phones are off most of the time...it's been nice.

2.) Try something new. While things catch on in the U.S. pretty quickly, many innovations are overlooked because they're not mainstream (e.g.: electric cars, recumbent bicycles, etc.) Read a book on a subject you don't know about. You'll find time if you try. Ride your bike to work, or the grocery store, or walk. Bake bread from scratch. Read about what's going on in your congressional district. Do something differently.

Here, the people tend to welcome change whether or not ideas are popular. They give new ideas a try, and for that, development is taking good steps forward. The culture of change towards what is popular has been shown to cause problems, as SUV's don't fly off the lots like they used to, and people who own them are, in many cases, looking for alternatives. Even the search for appropriate technology, which can sometimes demand giving odd ideas a try, is simply a search not for the most advanced solution, but the best one (see previous article). Flexibility and acceptance of change is the best way a society can drive innovation, and it starts with every one of us, as consumers.

3.) (and this is the biggie) Try and understand global contexts. While that statement says little, bear with me here: one of the many supervisors I've had in the past few years said something that has always stuck with me: "How can you come home from that and feel like what you're doing here [manufacturing engineering] is significant?" Kurt had a good point. In light of the developing world's multifarious problems such as malaria, potable water, genocide, oil corruption and subsistence farming, producing fluorescent lamps can seem a bit...superfluous. At some point, we must question the global value of our work.

I've found that Kurt's question has two real answers: you can and you can't. One must realize that the reason we can enjoy such infrastructure is because of plants that produce millions of fluorescent lamps every day. Someone has to do it - obviously they're getting sold somewhere. We can't consume what can't be made, so on some level, every little cog in the economic machine is essential to its operation as a whole.

HOWEVER - we cannot assume that we are fulfilling our duty to humanity simply by going to work each day. As voters in the most powerful country in the world, we have the onus of understanding how our actions (economic policies, consumer expenditures, even lifestyles) affect the rest of the world. In a society of such globalization, it's hard to sneeze without making something happen across some border somewhere. Therefore, we need to start reading up on the rest of the world.

Know what's funny about the rest of the world? They know a whole lot about us, even though we don't know much about them. I can't even tell you when Ghana's last national election was, but Ghanaians know who the different candidates are in ours, and their platforms. Humbled? You should be. I am.

So, ask yourself questions you don't know the answers to, then go find the answers. Here are some to get you started:

What are the five largest countries in Africa? What are their exports?

What started the Darfur Conflict? Who is involved?

What countries make up Eastern Europe?

Where does gasoline come from? 'Middle East' won't cut it here...look up Nigeria.

We have the power to understand this information at our very fingertips. It is up to us to use it.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

En Afrique

While the end of my trip is sadly about halfway through, I must admit I'm having the time of my life. I truly believe I've figured out what it is I want to do for the rest of my life. Not only have I been enjoying spending every possible minute with Jess, but it's been amazing to see how my project work has begun to take shape.

About two weeks ago, Jess and I threw a Christmas in July party (complete with Texican decorations - yes, I said Texican...sorry to Mom and Ross - and Tex-Mex food) to which a lot of the area Peace Corps volunteers came. One particular volunteer brought her Cameroonian boyfriend, Alaji ( I hope I spelled that right), who is apparently in a technical field himself. They live in a local big city, and they both got very excited when I explained to them what I was here to do. Alaji, it seems, will be an invaluable contact, as his English is about where my french is, and he knows the industrial world here rather well.

While I was in Tokemberé about three weeks ago, I found a book at Jamie's house left by a former volunteer titled 'Appropriate Technology Sourcebook'. It is full of very good examples of appropriate technologies for developing communities, and what's more, full of other sources that go in-depth about them. The book is, unfortunately, about as old as I am, but it may lead to some interesting finds. Alden (my Alma Mater's library) has a copy that I intend to pick apart even further than I have the one here already. Jamie was kind enough to bring the book when I forgot to take it with me back to Mèri, and I've been taking down quotes and information from constantly since.

Appropriate Technology, as explained in the link above, is an integral part of this project. The
Appropriate Technology Sourcebook talks in depth about the ins and outs of appropriate technology, and why it is so deeply needed. Essentially, to bring a developing nation from their current technology level (be the technology at hand a mechanical, electrical, industrial or other type of design) to a modern level, small steps must be taken. This can be seen in the use of OLPC's as light bulbs, and hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of foreign road-building equipment left on the side of the road where a single part failure rendered the machine unusable (picture coming soon).

It's easy to look at a problem and come up with a solution that would be acceptable in the societies we're used to. With this vehicle, we hope to bridge the two, by not only presenting an option that is affordable and sustainable in the developing world, but perhaps one that gives a person in such an area advantages not enjoyed by people in more developed parts of the world. The openness to different ideas makes these areas ripe for new schools of thought and applications of the design process.

For example, in the United States, it is nearly impossible to find an affordable recumbent bicycle. Why? Actually, it has much to do with the French, an (IMHO) inferior cycle design, and hubris. This has created a hundred years of manufacture and use of a bicycle that is so far less efficient at converting human power to usable work that recumbents are not allowed to race next to them. Parts of the world where this history has no place, however, are hot-beds for development of newer, better designs that can be optimized using today's manufacturing and design capabilities.

One of the things I love about Africa is the willingness of the people to adapt when they need to, using whatever they can to get ahead. The cultural barriers can be difficult at times (working 50-70 hours a week sounds ludicrous to an average West-African, etc.), but I'm enjoying everything that I'm learning (which has been a lot more than I bargained for a year ago).
It has been very nice to be able to pick the pace at which I'm doing things, and to take the occasional stormy afternoon off to read a Ken Follett novel, or to watch a movie with Jess. I know now that I'm where I'm supposed to be, doing what I'm supposed to do, and it feels great. I've never been so excited about a project in my life. Now, just to make it all come together....that's the easy part, right? :-)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Rainy Season

Cameroon is quite different in the wet season. I think Jess described it best by saying, 'the desert came to life'. I wish I could upload a picture right now for comparison - I will do so as soon as I get home - because the contrast is startling. Everything that was brown on the previous trip is now bright green. There are new animals and insects everywhere (especially mosquitoes), and it rains about every other day. This is nice for several reasons: the nights it rains I actually feel cold. It's much easier to keep a full cannerie out front, and Jess and I collect rainwater in buckets for bathing and laundry.

Rainy season has its downsides, however. Humidity can be extreme at times, making a slightly hot afternoon unbearable. Also, as we are in a very rural area, power goes out from time to time as storms 20 miles away knock it out. Mosquitoes, absent in the dry season, necessitate much more precaution now, as I am not about to sign up for a dose of malaria.

Speaking of sickness, about a week ago I began to feel a bit funny inside during lunch. Before I could say jenesaisquoi, I was shivering on the couch, feeling like I'd been hit by a truck. Luckily for me, fever, nausea and severe joint ache/headache only describe about 75 percent of the serious illnesses I may have had. We took a blood smear for malaria testing, but 25 trips to the bathroom later we surmised I probably had dysentery. The hospital confirmed this the following morning, and 48 Ciprofloxacin-filled hours later, I felt fine.

Beyond the dysentery, it's been a great trip so far. I've had the opportunity to look at some local farms, watch more village activity and understand applications and needs for my project work. Jess and I have been able to talk about our projects at length, and it's been fun to see her work and mine collide. We both become rather animated at the discussion of farming/life in Africa.

There is enormous opportunity here.

Much like Ghana, a typical farmer will only own a hectare or two (half an acre to an acre, roughly) of land, usually split into four or five different pieces in different places. Here in the mountains, continuous, flat land is a rare commodity. Bicycles and hand cycles are used very widely here, by both genders and all age groups. After talking to Jess, it seems there is some good ,etalworking capability nearby. in Tokèmbere. While we were there, I saw several skilled braze welders and some extensive bike/moto repair. I'm excited to see what Maroua has to offer.

As the project is beginning to evolve into something real, I'm beginning to feel the same excitement I've felt in the past, but with the even greater happiness of being able to work alongside my future wife.

Friday, July 13, 2007

'Give Me Some Money'

While it's true that every project needs money at some point, the common misconception is that money is what people in developing countries need. I was startled yesterday when not once, but twice in the same morning, I was directly ordered 'Give me money.' The disturbing part wasn't being asked for money - after a while in West Africa, one almost gets numb to it - it was the sense of entitlement with which the orders came. I can understand the common (albeit totally incorrect) assumption that because I'm white and American, I have money growing out my ears. It worries me, however, that of the little English the people spoke, 'Give me money' came just after 'Hello' and 'Goodbye.'

As I was walking to photograph the worksite from our previous stay in Maase, two children carrying trash to the trash pile about 50 yards away spotted my glaring white skin. 'Hello!' one hollered. 'I echoed 'Hello!' with a smile and a wave. 'Goodbye!' the other yelled. I again replied in like fashion. As I continued down the path, they simultaneously yelled 'Give us some money!' What ideas are being passed form one generation to the next that the children would say those three phrases, in that order, to a complete stranger?

As aid has been provided in the form of money for many years in such areas now, the giving of it seems to have become an expectation. Even now, as EWB works with the village elders to build their building, they expect us to pay for it, even after we agreed otherwise. One of the village leaders here has repeatedly tried to get me to call Jeff and tell him we (EWB) still owe $3000 to the project.

Of course, the money has to come from somewhere, right? And, of course, we put our own money into these projects. The common school of thought here seems to say we are endless money piles, and our travel here is rather easy. At one point, when I got an incredulous look for saying I didn't have much money, I finally pulled my airline ticket stub to show Kwabenah what it cost. It wasn't until I explained that it took the cost of the house (30 million cedis) just to fly me, alone, over here and that it had all but cleared my bank account, that he seemed to understand the sacrifices we make for our work.

Where I come from, most people are too proud to outright ask for money (although I completely understand that poverty is not so prolific, and I've been asked for money plenty of times in the US). I honestly believe that what has established the United States as the power that it is has been the determination of the American people to bring themselves up by their own bootstraps. Solid capitalistic economies are not established by donation. They are founded on the fundamental principle that one's financial responsibility lies only with oneself.

Just as a responsible parent must, at times, force their children to depend on themselves to establish independence, so must a more developed economy, at times, force a less developed economy to stand on its own two feet, rather than on a crutch. Without this, there is little hope for financial and thus political independence. While I will no dole out money to people who want it, I'll gladly pay a little bit more for some goods and services from Africa. This is the relationship that has to be developed, one where the money is earned by the people.

So, we'll continue to buy our airline tickets and small parts/materials for our projects. We'll continue to leave our Ohio University t-shirts with our friends, but when a call comes 'Pay my tuition', 'Bring me a computer', or 'Take me to America', we must be cautious about the long-term implications of our actions. We measure our success in requests such as 'Teach me to do this' and 'How does this work?'.

I've decided to start a small fundraiser where I will buy some African art (mostly paintings and carvings) and auction them in the US. Every dollar (even the ones I spend) that it brings in, will go towards funding our engineering projects. Then, we are no longer donating money, but simply using globalization to open a market that can help these people earn money. If you're interested, please email me.

Thursday, June 28, 2007


This story starts a year ago, nearly to the day. After a long senior year of college in Mechanical Engineering, I was taking a trip with Engineers Without Borders to Ghana. The whole thing had been on a whim one day in my circuitry class, where Dr. Jeff Giesey stopped in to give a brief overview of what EWB is, and what the OU chapter was planning. I went to the meeting that night, and before I knew it, found myself on a plane to West Africa.

Our chapter of Engineers Without Borders was on a mission to develop and build affordable housing with modernized amenities (septic system, etc.) to help a rural village attract teachers. We had a bunch of engineering equipment, the clothes on our backs, all the money we'd raised for the project over the previous 12 months, and lots of malaria pills - we were ready for whatever Africa might throw at us.

No, we weren't.

If it's not the blast of hot, humid night air that slaps us in the face the moment we get off the plane, then it's either the lack of health care, infrastructure, potable water, flushing toilets, or some other abnormality to we Americans that, when we directly experience it, makes us acutely aware we're NOWHERE NEAR HOME. Most of us have spent the better part of our lives in developed societies, and thus only have the image of developing communities our televisions have fed us over the years. Those images simply aren't real enough.

At any rate, we eventually arrived in Maase - Offinso, just north of Kumasi, a major city in south-central Ghana. I've realize I've skipped over about 5 days of events in the past sentence, between language and cultural training (greetings take more than 5 minutes, never wave with the left hand, never cross your legs in front of a chief, how to communicate without talking, new foods, etc.) and experiencing Accra's markets and historical points - I could, but will not, drag on about them. That is for another time.

As we worked with the locals in Maase to build the house, we also assessed many other problems we could assist with - lack of public toilets, drinking water of possibly substandard quality, constant brown-outs, semi-functional water pumps, and the like. One such problem Dr. Kremer and I observed was a lack of safe utility transportation. There wasn't a safe, cost-efficient way to move building materials, farm crops, or other goods from one place to another - not even over a distance of just a few miles, or even a few hundred yards.

While motor vehicles exist (mostly in the form of taxis and the occasional VW Bus), gasoline is roughly $4.00 a gallon. Even by American standards, that's pretty darn expensive...then you have to consider that the GNI per capita in Ghana is roughly $600. That doesn't buy a lot of gas. More often than not, people will use a cart like this one to move things from place to place.

A typical Ghanaian cart

When I say things, I mean anything - from corn crops and sacks of cocoa to bricks and building materials to whole cars. The only things consistent about the carts are the unstable design, and the inordinate number of children grouped around one, which seems to be directly related to the weight of the object on the cart. It's not uncommon to see one get stuck, start rolling the wrong way when headed uphill, or tip over.

The purpose of this project is to address these problems, and perhaps a few other small ones ('low-hanging fruit', if you will) along the way.


During the coming year, I'll be working on a Master's thesis with Ohio University to design a sustainable transportation solution for developing countries. This blog is to record my experiences working with engineering projects in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as here at home in the good ol' US of A.

There will be pictures, stories, and much of the like to follow. If you'd like to know when I update the blog, toss me an email, and I can drop you a message whenever I add to it. Also, you can use an RSS Feed (don't be afraid, RSS is actually really cool, and really easy) to be automatically notified. For instructions on how to get started with RSS if you use Mozilla Firefox, go here.

More soon.