Why are you running?

Water is a necessity, and it was the life-giving resource of water that first sparked my interest in international development. This past week I shadowed Samaritan’s Purse’s household water project in western Uganda, a region where the main water source is surface water drawn from pools, ponds, and dams. An open water source opens doors for the water to be shared with cattle, and humans bathing and washing clothes. SP employs the brilliant but simple technology of bio-sand filters (BSF). Essentially, water is filtered through layers of sand, course sand, and gravel to filter out impurities. It is effective for areas where the primary water source is surface water and the impurities are mainly biological, not chemical. Water that is dirty and yellow comes out clear!

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One of the most challenging aspects of engineering projects in the developing world is ensuring that the beneficiaries develop a sense of ownership of the project and technology. My past Engineers without Borders projects fell a bit short of this task I believe, while SP succeeded. Although community members are given the filters, they are required to be involved in the filter process from start to finish. They attend public health training, mix concrete and fill the filter molds, wash sand, transport the filter to their homes (no easy task!), assist in installation, and finally must maintain the filter. Unlike some of the other humanitarian projects I’ve worked on, the community seemed extremely positive and accepting of the technology, and threw themselves wholeheartedly into the filter assembly process. It was exciting to be part of a project that is providing people with their most basic and essential need.

Beyond the technical aspects of this project, this past week has brought me back to the roots of my “Africa experience”: living in rural Africa. One of my biggest concerns about living in a developing country for an extended period was simply the adjustment of moving from the extremely urban setting of Korea to a rural one. This adjustment has been on my mind as I consider where in Uganda I want to do my final placement. Using pit latrines, taking bucket showers and having limited power were relatively easy adjustments for me this week, but the lack of access to a semblance of a social life, a creative outlet, and the simple fact of being the ONLY foreigner in a small town could make for a potentially difficult transition. Living in Korea, made standing out and feeling out of place a commonality, but constantly being scrutinized still gets old. Running in rural Uganda brought yells of “muzungu, muzungu!”, children running after me, and people staring wide-eyed in wonder at the white girl running. I feel like I’ve become a wimp since my two weeks in Kenya where nothing fazed me and I could easily imagine myself living in my grass hut in the desert staring up at the clear, starry sky every night.

Regardless of my final decision, I did enjoy getting to know the national staff on the project while learning more about Uganda and its politics and history. But I am still attempting to adjust to the constant carbo loading at every meal here (my I’ll eat anything attitude is being challenged) and I am still figuring out a good answer to “Muzungu, muzungu! Why are you running?”

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