Thursday, September 9, 2010

What is Your Proudest Achievement?

This is the first week of another semester of classes, and I was recently filling out a standard student questionnaire. I was flying through it without thinking, since the questions were the basic "why are you interested in this course" and "what are your hobbies outside of school" types of questions. However, one question came out of nowhere, and made me pause for a moment. It read:

"What is your proudest achievement?"

Within about 10 seconds I had written down "the Engineers Without Borders project that my friend Nate and I headed up". But the question stuck with me after I clicked submit.

While I was walking over to a grant hearing for our EWB project (which we were successfully rewarded, btw!), this question resurfaced and I really thought hard to narrow this down a bit more. Why did I choose EWB over my academics? What about not-so-tangible things like relationships?

When I began comparing this Engineers Without Borders project to my academics, there really was no comparison. My masters program in CS here at UW-Madison was outrageously easy and my undergrad experience at UCLA was actually much easier than my time at Naperville North High School. And since I didn't even finish in the top 10 at Naperville North (after trying really hard, I might add), I couldn't really call that a big success. So in terms of how challenging these things were, Engineers Without Borders was much tougher.

Then I decided to rule out accomplishments like relationships because comparing those to tangible things is like comparing apples and oranges. So I am glad I put down "EWB project" on that survey and continued thinking about what made me proud about it.

I realized that the moment I am proudest of in the entire time I have been working on this project came very recently. On Monday, August 23rd, 2010 to be precise. This day was the culmination of all the work Nate, myself, and several others poured into the project over the past 2 years. I am sad that Nate was not there on this trip with me to experience this, because I know that none of the other travelers were able to appreciate the magnitude of this event.

On that Monday in Kenya, we held a long meeting that consisted of the farmers of Orongo, the chief, the assistant chief, the ministry of irrigation, the ministry of agriculture, and our hosts the Springs of Life. The meeting was called to announce and discuss the selected committee that was to oversee our new irrigation project in the village. Before this meeting happened, a combination of the officials in the community had chosen to select a committee instead of elect it and thus we all knew there would be a bit of resentment from the community in regards to who was chosen. The number one goal of this meeting was to discuss this new committee structure with the farmers and make sure that everyone was okay with it.

The meeting was scheduled to start at 2pm, so naturally at 2:30pm there were about 10 farmers in attendance. We started around 3:30 once the chief arrived, and we ended up with over 100 in attendance. Our group had had a long day so we were pretty exhausted, and I could see it was a bit of a chore for all of our members to stay awake during some really long speeches. It was also very hot out and the meeting was conducted entirely in Luo so it was very hard for us to stay focused. What killed me though is that the meeting ran very late and several of our members had made prior engagements so almost all of our team left this meeting even before it finished.

Because of these annoyances, not to mention the uncomfortable chairs or ticks falling from the trees onto us, I did not get the impression that any of our other travelers enjoyed the meeting. In fact, the blog post that Caroline wrote did not even mention it! However, it was the highlight of my trip for so many reasons.

So... then what was so great about it?

The first reason was that the meeting truly gave the farmers of Orongo a forum to speak their mind and discuss the decisions made by the chiefs, ministries, and Springs of Life. Although the meeting was in Luo, I could still very obviously see lots of upset farmers at the beginning of the meeting sharing their opinions but then a lot of productive discussion following their comments. By the end of the meeting, everyone was happy and on the same page. The chief was smiling as she talked to the farmers, and the farmers were smiling and laughing when they added their final thoughts.

The second reason I enjoyed this meeting was because I did not have to say a single word. This is not because I dislike public speaking - in fact, I am kind of fond of it now. Not having to say anything meant that this project is finally standing on its own two feet. As much progress as we made in our previous January 2010 trip, the progress still revolved around Nate being a great leader and motivational talker. Neither Nate or myself contributed at this meeting. Drew said a few words about us, but the meeting was led almost entirely by Chief Kosume.

Since the very start of this project, Nate and I have been huge advocates of the phrase "this should be their project, not ours". I'm sure our mentor Dick Otis had a big hand in teaching us the fundamentals for sustainable development, so I think a lot of the credit should go to him. Despite knowing these fundamentals from the onset, we have faced incredible difficulties getting the community to take ownership of the project. Orongo is right outside of Kisumu which is filled to the brim with NGOs so they are not new to development work. The problems stem from the residents being very used to NGOs coming in, quickly doing a project (such as drilling a borehole or building latrines) and then leaving without any follow up. These projects that don't have any community involvement tend to be the ones that fail in the long run because no one in the community feels a sense of ownership in the project and thus no one is willing to maintain it and see that its benefits extend for many years. But the residents of Orongo like these types of projects. The residents are used to them, expect them, and prefer the small wages they get for constructing these projects over the benefits that a well thought out successful project might bring. Because of our difference in philosophies, getting everyone to buy into ours has taken 2 years, but it appears we have finally done it.

When we met separately with the Springs of Life, the chiefs, and the ministries, we all decided it was best for these groups to work together to select the people who would be in charge of the irrigation project. This meant that Engineers Without Borders would not be in charge of deciding whether the committee should be created by selection or by election. These groups chose to select the committee and went about doing so entirely on their own, showing a significant amount of ownership in this project. They were merely guided by Engineers Without Borders to make sure they included equal representation between the different clans as well as equal gender representation. I am very proud that our group of students have developed enough credibility within the community so that these local leaders listened to what we had to say and eventually agreed with us.

Lastly, the fact that this meeting happened at all was a huge accomplishment. Creating a committee for our project has been on our long term road map for a while, and it has been a challenge getting there. On a couple of occasions we were forced to weigh our options and figure out whether or not a project in Orongo was even possible for us, given the difficulties in politics and community mobilization we've been facing. In the end I am very proud of how we were able to grind it out during the hard times and remind ourselves that our goal is to make the biggest positive impact we can in this village. This meeting solidified our long term involvement in this Orongo irrigation project.

I heard a tree metaphor while I was in Kenya and feel like it applies nicely to this event. If the start of our project, i.e. our first trip to Kenya, can be described as planting a seed, then this meeting was taking that seedling that has been growing and planting it in our yard where it will stay permanently. The project's roots are now taking hold.

I am really proud of everyone who has been involved with this project to get it to this point.