In the words of the WATER Alumni:

The Benin airport was absolutely ridiculous! My goodness. There were so many people and no order. Everyone wanted the same thing: to find their bags and get out of the airport. I’m glad that we got out of there with only one lost bag! The Benin traffic was also very shocking. I am considered an “aggressive” driver by many, but I do not compare to the drivers in Benin. People on mopeds zoom past other cars without a worry. Talk about intense!

When we drive around and walk through the neighborhoods, I see many images that break my heart.  There is sewage and trash in the streets.  People wear filthy, torn clothes.  The children’s swollen bellies show proof of malnutrition.  I know that even if I don’t take a single picture, these are the images that will stick with me; these are the things that I will tell people about back at home.  However, when I describe these sites, people will inevitably be moved and pity Beninese people.  I expect my friends and family to ask something along the lines of, “What should we do to help?”  This is where I struggle to find an answer.

Engineering and science students will travel to Benin to see how sustainable development strategies with WATER partners have empowered and lifted people out of poverty in West Africa. Students and faculty will travel to Benin for two to three weeks from mid-May through early June, 2016 .

Students will study sustainable development practices at the Songhai Centre, a United Nations Center of Excellence. Students will visit and analyze development practice at the three Centers in Benin and will have the opportunity to see most of the entire country of Benin. 

The Songhai Center is absolutely amazing. They are able to produce so much and waste so little. This makes me think of how wasteful America is. If we implemented the technologies used at the Songhai Center, production would increase while costs and the amount of resources used would decrease.

Before I first arrived I had these preconceived notions of what the water was really going to be like. I had heard how bad it was and had envisioned brown stagnant water that was pulled from a pond and had little floaters of who knows what in it. I had envisioned it being the same water that was used to water the horses and livestock along with being the communal bathtub and restroom.  Although this seems scary the truly scary thing is that the water that they are drinking looks very similar to the water that comes out of my tap back at home. The only difference that can be noticed is when you fill up the sink. It has a brown tinge to it. But other than that it looks clean, it doesn’t smell bad, and to the common eye you really can’t tell anything is wrong with it. Unfortunately it is a haven for parasites and coli forms. Personally I thought that water that kills would look a lot different than water that is safe.  Unfortunately, I was wrong.  

Students will also participate in a service learning project with NGO partners in Benin, working directly with the NGOs and community organizations. Students will also work with NGO partners to define and develop a proposal to analyze the positive progress in economic, environmental, and societal impacts of sustainable development programs in Benin. Students will perform this analysis upon return to the states, using modern engineering tools and analytical techniques.

I’m so glad that I am not leaving Benin with the same impressions I had last week.  I was so struck by the sad images I saw – the filthy streets, the malnutritioned children, the houses that were falling apart – that I was focused too much on the differences between Benin and the United States.  Now that I’ve been able to connect with some people, I can see the country for the people.  I can think of the health and clean water issues in terms of what individuals would want for themselves and their families.

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.

Over the past week I talked to many more people about my trip than I did before I left.  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?

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.

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