"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? :-)