"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

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.

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