Student Reflections

It has finally begun to sink in that only a week ago I was in Benin.   

What a trip it was. From the people to the smells to the food, it was all something that can only be understood through experiencing it for myself. 

I definitely appreciate everything I have at home so much more,  even the little things like drinking out of the faucet.  I almost feel guilty being back and knowing that there are families in Africa struggling just to obtain clean water.

I am telling all of my family and friends that the experience was wonderful and sad at the same time.  I have a lot of hope that our water project will continue without us there. 

More than anything else, I’ve been shocked by how many people seem to brush off the issue of unhealthy water in developing countries.  When they hear that we were there to work on a water filter project, they usually ask what I drank while I was there and if I got sick.  Then at least half of the people I’ve talked to mention something about how I would get sick since I’m from the U.S. but that the people living in Benin don’t get sick because they’ve built up enough antibodies.  They’re surprised every time when I explain that even though they do have some antibodies, they definitely get sick and children live with diarrhea daily.  Where do so many Americans get this idea that people in other countries just adapt to living in less sanitary conditions?

How am I changing as a result of this experience?  I have learned that I can survive 2 weeks worth of cold showers.  I can say this is the first time that I have been interested in having as much of a self-sustaining living environment as possible.  I am realizing what it is like to truly be a minority.  I am realizing what it is like to truly stick out like a sore thumb.  I am realizing the value of a double soy latté with toasted marshmallow syrup.  I am realizing the value of cheese.  I never knew I was such a cheese addict!  I am realizing how much Americans rely on modern conveniences; i.e. the store providing food, the faucet providing clean drinking water, the stove providing our means to cook, the microwave providing quick meals, etc.  I think we sometimes get so wrapped up in the destination, i.e. quick result, that we do not take the time to enjoy the journey-or even to allow a journey for that matter!

I even wrote about my own petty little issues in my personal journal while we were there.  “Here I am crying over spilled milk essentially while I am in a place where people walk everywhere, work for low wages, eat non-nourishing filler foods, and drink dirty water.”  It has given me a different outlook on my own priorities.  

My pre-trip metaphor held up:  I do feel like I was the gullible and naïve child entering school for the first time.  I do feel as though the ‘picture books’ did not do our experience justice.  How could they?  In all actuality, I may feel more like the naïve child now than I did prior to leaving.  I heard one of the students say, “You don’t know what you don’t know.”  I am now more aware of what I do not know.  Now I have the choice on how I want to deal with that knowledge of ignorance.  Awareness is half the battle though and the lessons I have learned from this trip are still very fresh.  

Though I am so far away, I have had an experience that has taught me things and shown me things I will never forget. And now, I have a choice – what to do with that experience. I am not sure what direction it will take me, but one thing is for sure, I will not let my lessons learned there slip away from me.

It has finally begun to sink in that only a week ago I was in Benin.   

What a trip it was. From the people to the smells to the food, it was all something that can only be understood through experiencing it for myself. 

I definitely appreciate everything I have at home so much more,  even the little things like drinking out of the faucet.  I almost feel guilty being back and knowing that there are families in Africa struggling just to obtain clean water.

I am telling all of my family and friends that the experience was wonderful and sad at the same time.  I have a lot of hope that our water project will continue without us there. 

More than anything else, I’ve been shocked by how many people seem to brush off the issue of unhealthy water in developing countries.  When they hear that we were there to work on a water filter project, they usually ask what I drank while I was there and if I got sick.  Then at least half of the people I’ve talked to mention something about how I would get sick since I’m from the U.S. but that the people living in Benin don’t get sick because they’ve built up enough antibodies.  They’re surprised every time when I explain that even though they do have some antibodies, they definitely get sick and children live with diarrhea daily.  Where do so many Americans get this idea that people in other countries just adapt to living in less sanitary conditions?

Giving a Peace of our minds

“Having you here, shows that the world has not forgotten us.” Those words challenged me and have changed my life.  I heard them on my first trip to Benin, in West Africa. They were spoken to me by the chief of a rural village in Benin - since then, a large portion of my time and energy has been devoted to trying to answer the challenge implicit in his statement. 

First, it shows that many in the world feel they have been forgotten. Fifty percent of the worlds people live on less than $2.50 a day. They feel left behind and forgotten.

I’m also an introvert by nature. I enjoy working alone, but I have learned over time, that the big issues can’t be handled by working in isolation. It will take a village, a global village, to build a more peaceful future for our children. The village chief also let me know, by his statement, that I had not been forgotten.

Recently, I’ve heard people talk about peace, and a new term, peace-building. Peace-building is a phrase with many implications:

We must pursue peace actively, and work to build the foundation for peace.

My formal training began in Civil Engineering. The training has taught me how to design and build the physical infrastructure that supports much of our society. In addition, I am preparing class notes to introduce freshmen engineering students to the fundamental principles of sustainable design. I think non-engineers might be surprised to find this passage in the textbook we’re using in class:

Vallero and Brasier in their book, Sustainable design: the science of sustainability and green engineering, write the following about sustainability:

Thus, any person and any culture that is unable to satisfy these most basic needs cannot be expected to “advance” toward higher-order values such as free markets and peaceful societies. In fact, the ability to provide basic needs militates against peace. This means that when basic needs go unmet, societies are frustrated even if they strive toward freedom and peace; and even those that begin may enter into viscous cycles wherein any progress is undone by episodes of scarcity. We generally think of peace and justice as the province of religion and theology, but green engineers and architects will increasingly be called upon to “build a better world.” 

I think it may be instructive to reflect on how those same principles can be applied to build peace.

Peace,

Brad