Monday, August 2, 2010

My 4th and possibly last trip to Kenya with Engineers Without Borders

In just a couple days I'll be heading out to Kenya again with EWB. I'm currently in a rush to take care of lots of little things before I go, but I'd like to step back and put my current thoughts down on paper so I have some documentation of this exciting time before I forget it the details.

Why this trip will be our best one yet

It took our group about 2 years to adapt to the Kenyan culture and their ways of doing things, but we are finally headed in the right direction. Our very first trip back in 2008 was purely an assessment trip where we did nothing but talk to people, so I can't say we did anything wrong there. But each of our next two trips, we went in with the mindset that we are going to get so much done and maximize every second of our time to help as many people as possible. While that sounds nice to our American ears, this was the totally wrong approach to take. We were moving too fast for our Kenyan friends, we weren't taking the time to build solid relationships with each individual in the community, and we were working so hard that the villagers began seeing the project as our project instead of theirs. In a nutshell, the villagers of Orongo began to let us do our own thing while passively watching the project unfold.

Last trip, however, we began to figure things out. Instead of continuing our fast pace and trying so hard to push people to get a project off the ground, we made a concious effort to take a step back and slow down. We spread out and talked to as many people as we could, we sat and had tea with both officials and residents, and we did not rush the process despite our short three week trip. I remember one of our main friends Steve Obongo saying at the end of our trip, "Now you understand us. Now I truly believe this project will succeed."

Indeed, by slowing down and focusing on building relationships instead of on building our project, we somehow got more done. Our main contacts are finally beginning to see this as their own project and are contributing time and effort to it.

Our trips are only 3-4 weeks long, leaving 10 months of the year when we do not have students in Kenya. The most important thing we can do is to keep our contacts contributing enthusiastically to the development of our projects while we are gone. During these past 6 months, we have received several email correspondences from our contacts giving us status updates, something we struggled mightily with before.

Now that we seem to have figured things out, I truly expect things to continue running this smoothly if not moreso.

Why it took 2 years to get to this point

It is hard to explain how difficult it was to buy into the slow pace of things. People literally show up to important meetings 2 or 3 hours late, or sometimes not at all. But the most shocking part is that if you are the person being stood up, you are expected to not get the least bit upset about it. The villagers joke that there are three meeting times in the day: "morning", "mid-day", and "night". If we schedule a meeting with someone for 3pm sharp, it is perfectly acceptable to arrive any time between 3 and 6.

I'll give an example of how much we bought into the mindset of this during this last trip. We bumped into Alex the assistant chief and scheduled a meeting at 5pm with him the next day at his home. That next day, Nate and myself were helping prepare dinner and looked at a clock and realized it was about 5:45 so we then starting on the 25 minute walk over to Alex's home. Not surprisingly, he wasn't there. We called him on his cell phone and he said he was running late but he was on his way right now and should be there in 20 minutes so we should wait for him. However, Nate and I were getting hungry and there was not much light left, so we asked him if he really would be there in 20 minutes. He hesitated, then admitted it would take him much longer to arrive and that he would just stop by the home in Orongo where we were staying. So we took the 25 minute walk back to our home, ate dinner, and never heard from Alex that night.

The surpring part of this story is not that it happened (stuff like this happens every day in Kenya), but that Nate and I were honestly not bothered by it at all.

My goal for this trip

My goal for this tirp has very little to do with technical achievements or visible milestones. My goal is simply to pass on the knowledge that Nate and I gained during our first two years working on this project.

Nate and I were the first two project managers after taken our first trip to Orongo, and very early on we learned that the people benefitting most from our project were the students. Our organization is not focused on relief where we immediately step in and save lives, and our organization is not big enough or well funded where we can quickly drop down one or more colossal projects that we can then leave and move onto the next village. Instead, we are focused on closely partnering with a single community for many years, learning as much as we can from each other, and incrementally improving the quality of life in the partnering village.

I strongly feel that this partnership benefits the students at least as much as the village.

These last two years have certainly changed both mine and Nate's lives in a positive way so I hope to use these next four weeks to inspire the same type of self-introspection. I feel that having new young members who truly care about this kind of work is the key to keeping this project thriving well after both Nate and I are gone (well, Nate is not a student anymore but he's still contributing a lot so maybe he'll be around for a while!).

It may be my last (for a little while)

I am really lucky to be able to go to Kenya 4 times with this project. However, after this trip, I feel like the project will be able to stand on its own two legs without either me or Nate doing anything. Thus, even though I'll be part of EWB for another year, it might be best if newer students are the ones traveling and learning and growing. Right now I feel like I've gotten more than my fair share of great opportunities and since I hopefully won't be needed in the future, I would like to share the wealth.

There is still a very good chance I'll be going back on my own separately from Engineers Without Borders. One possibility for next summer is for Rachael and I to go to Africa to volunteer for a while before she takes off for medical school. Knowing this, I'm really not too bummed that this may be my last official EWB trip to Kenya.

As a side note, if you want to read updates from this next trip, please check out our travel blog!