Thursday, June 11, 2009

Day (negative) 28

Here begins the first entry of the web-based chronicling of my Peace Corps experience. I will be on a plane in exactly 28 days, meaning that from this point I have 27 days left before Barack Obama technically becomes my boss.

This entry will serve as background information for whomever is reading my future ramblings. I’ve been reading a lot of Peace Corps Volunteer blogs and one thing I’ve noticed is that most of them don’t do a good job of describing their “starting point”. Here’s mine. I’ve arranged it in my typical outline format so as not to drift off into nonsensical banter... and if I do, you (the reader) can just skip ahead to the next topic. This entry is also probably much longer than future posts will be.

This entry contains the following sections:
  • How I Got Where I’m Going
  • Where I’m Going
  • What I’ll Be Doing
  • What I’ve Done / Am Doing To Prepare
  • Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
  • Glossary Of Terms and Abbreviations
How I Got Where I’m Going

In high school I thought I wanted to be a chemical engineer. Then I took AP Chemistry and decided I wanted to be a civil engineer focusing in structural engineering. I also didn’t think much about things like social justice, the poor, the oppressed, etc. I can remember on several occasions saying something like, “ Why should I care about someone on the other side of the world that I will never meet and who will never be affected by my actions, nor will they affect me by theirs?” Can you blame me? I was in high school. I knew everything.

Then I went to college and decided I didn’t know everything. I relearned everything all over again. I discovered for a second time that chemistry is not my thing. I also found out that civil engineering was indeed my calling in life, but not so much structural engineering. Rather, I picked up a knack for all things “environmental”.

After my freshman year of college I went on a 5-week mission trip to Bangladesh with the InterVarsity chapter on campus. I spent 4 of those weeks in the Dhaka, the capital, teaching English and shadowing different people working for various NGOs involved with everything from medical clinics to teaching small engine repair. I also spent a week in some villages near the Indian border shadowing a civil engineer who was working on developing water resources in rural areas. Simply put, the trip reversed all aspects of my “who cares about people on the other side of the world” opinion.

I continued on for several more years and finally got a degree in civil engineering with an environmental emphasis. It only took five years. I could have also gotten a second degree in environmental engineering, but I didn’t think about that until it was too late. Out of all the different topics covered in civil and environmental engineering, my favorite ended up being those centering on wastewater treatment and anaerobic digestion.

For those of you who don’t know anything about civil and environmental engineering, here’s a brief summary. Civil engineering deals with roads, highways, railways, airports, bridges, buildings, sewers, wastewater, drinking water, dams, etc. Basically anything that is directly or indirectly related to physical infrastructure. Environmental engineering deals with drinking water and wastewater treatment, surface and groundwater hydrology, contaminant remediation, soil and water and air pollution control, etc. Basically anything that physical infrastructure does to or needs from nature. The line between the two engineering disciplines is somewhat blurry, and therefore elements from each overlap easily.

Towards the end of my undergraduate experience I decided that I wanted to end up working as a design engineer doing cool, technical things. Of course, this meant going to graduate school. I looked at several different schools around the country – almost all of which were not near areas that get snow. I’d had enough of Wisconsin winters for a while. My search for grad schools eventually took me to Michigan Tech (MTU) and the Master’s International (MI) Program they have. This is a graduate program that allows you to get your Master’s degree through a combination of one year of course work and two years of Peace Corps service. At the time I was doing my search, MTU was the only school in the country that had an MI program in environmental engineering. (There is now one as the University of Southern Florida)

Ironically, MTU is located about as far north as possible and is basically in Lake Superior. The school is located on a peninsula out in the lake and gets and average of over 200 inches of snow every winter. For you non-math wizards, that’s over 17 feet of snow a year... Not exactly the snowless environmental I was hoping for. Yet, in a wonderful twist of fate, I learned to embrace my snowy confines and even took up cross-country skiing.

I promptly applied both to MTU and Peace Corps and was accepted by both. I moved to Houghton, MI in the August of 2008, and began my Master’s International experience. It’s now early June, 2009. I’m 24.7 years old, I’ve just finished my coursework and am now ready to get on a plane headed for Mali on July 8th.

Where I’m Going

I wanted to be placed in a Spanish speaking country for my service. Therefore, I started taking Spanish classes last summer to improve my chances of placement. Apparently Peace Corps thought that since I was taking the time to learn Spanish I would be really good at learning French... so they decided to place me in Mali, in West Africa.

Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa. It’s about twice the size of Texas and is home to Timbuktu, a major center of civilization during the 15th and 16th centuries. It was colonized by the French in the late 1800’s, but became independent in 1960. However, because of colonial influence, the official language is still French, even though many native languages are still prevalent throughout most of the country.

The country was ruled by dictators basically from independence until 1991. Since then the country has enjoyed a democratic government and is considered to be one of the most stable democracies in Africa.

Mali is home to roughly 12 million people and is considered to be one of the poorest countries in the world. About half the population is under the age of fifteen. Just over half the population has access to safe drinking water and less than half have adequate sanitation. AIDS is a concern, but not to the extent as in neighboring countries. The big health problems are respiratory infections, diarrhea, and malaria.

Geographically, Mali is spread across several climate regions. The northern part is in the Sahara Desert. The middle is in the Sahel, a semi-arid region. The southern part is a sub-tropical savanna. Basically sand in the north, grassy plains in the south, and a few trees along the way. Temperatures in the capital, Bamako, average about 86o F, but can be as high as 110o F or as low as 65o F. There are three main seasons: rainy, cool, and very hot.

What I’ll Be Doing

My job description at this point is very vague. I’m going to be a water sanitation engineer/extension agent. Generally that encompasses things like well construction and repair, well pump repair, pit latrine construction, promoting safe water handling practices, etc. However, I am encouraged to find secondary projects to work on that can be dealing with anything I want. I won’t know exactly what my main job will be until I get in country, talk with the community I will be working with, and figure out what they want me to help them with.

I will also be doing research on something while in country for my Master’s degree. I don’t know what that will be yet since I don’t know what I’ll be working on in general. I plan to use my main work in Peace Corps as the topic for my research project. Although, I could do research on something totally unrelated to my main work projects. Right now I’m interested in doing something like a feasibility study or pilot study of a household anaerobic digester for the treatment of waste and generation of methane as a fuel source for cooking.
The realm of what I will be working on and what I will be researching will most likely be changing over time.

In terms of living conditions... That is still up in the air as well. I will most likely be in a small village of several hundred people. I’ll probably be living in a mud-brick house/hut and won’t have electricity or running water. No Internet. No iphone. No strawberry smoothie with wheat grass and a shot of “energy”, or whatever the kids are dinking these days. I’ll be using a pit toilet and taking bucket showers. I will most likely be in biking distance of a market town that will have supplies and Internet access. For that reason I have been told that I will get to a mountain bike. There is a possibility that I could be living in a market town, but that is uncommon for PCVs doing the kind of work that I have been assigned.

What I’ve Done / Am Doing To Prepare

I’ve been preparing for Peace Corps for about nine months now. I started last fall by getting involved with the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) chapter at MTU, working on a school project in Honduras. It helped me better understand the process of working with people in different countries, in different languages, and with different governing agencies/NGOs.

This past spring was when I really started getting into things. Three of my four classes were focused on Peace Corps service and taught by the professors in charge of the MI program at Tech. I took classes in community development, field engineering, and agricultural management. I also had to read “Living Poor” by Moritz Thomsen for one of those classes. It’s a really good book about a PCV in Ecuador. I also spent time talking with some students who had returned from their PC service and were finishing up things for their Master’s degree. One of them had been in Mali, doing the exact kind of stuff I will be doing, so that was a big help. She helped answer a lot of my questions about what to pack, what to prepare for, etc.

Since the spring semester has ended I’ve set up my own version of summer school. PC gave me a free subscription to Rosetta Stone online for French, so I’ve been burning through that, and have found it to be very helpful. I’m also writing some essays in French and having my high school French teacher grade them for me. I’ve also gotten some books from the library to help me with French grammar.

I’ve also been biking a lot because I was told that I’ll be given a bike. I’ve been trying to do at least 20 miles a day. I did 60 miles last Sunday in the Miller Ride for the Arts bike ride.

On top of all that I’ve been reading a lot of PCV blogs, searching for current news on Mali, doing a preliminary literature review on anaerobic digestion, reading more books on Peace Corps and Mali, and trying to get all of my personal affairs in order so that everything in the US can be on “autopilot” while I’m away.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Q: What will you be doing?
A: Water and sanitation work. Getting people clean water. Getting rid of bad stuff.

Q: Where will you be living?
A: Mali. The specific community will be determined when I’m in country.

Q: How long will you be gone?
A: 27 months. 3 months for training. 24 months of actual work. All in Mali.

Q: Can you come back at all?
A: Yes. I get some vacation time, but I’ll probably go travel somewhere else since I’ll already be far, far away.

Q: Have you gotten all your shots?
A: PC takes care of that right before I get on the plane.

Q: What can you bring over there with you?
A: I can bring 80 lbs of whatever I want excluding weapons, drugs, etc. I have no intention of bringing that much stuff. I plan to post my packing list in a future entry.

Q: Do you want to hear some suggestions about living in Africa?
A: No. I’ve had a lot of time to prepare for this and have already heard about every suggestion that can be formulated in the English language. Thank you for thinking of me though.

Glossary of Terms and Abbreviations
  • MI – Master’s International (program)
  • MTU – Michigan Technological University
  • PC – Peace Corps
  • PCMI – Peace Corps Master’s International
  • Volunteer – what they call you when you’re in the Peace Corps
  • PCV – Peace Corps Volunteer
  • NGO – non-government organization
  • placement – the physical location that you will be a Volunteer in
  • service – the duration of time you are a Volunteer
  • in country – time spent in the country designated for Peace Corps Service