This Engineering for Developing Communities Program is a very unique program and has already been quite enlightening for most all of the students and staff. Over 50 people from across the world have come together to learn about the opportunities and challenges when working with developing communities from experts in this area of work. The purpose of this blog is to tell you about what we’re up to from the student’s perspective and hopefully we’ll be able to have different students post throughout the next few weeks while we’re at Kathmandu University and in the villages we’ll be working in. I’m very excited to tell you about our first five days as a group and although this first post is quite long, I hope you enjoy reading about our journey!
The First Day
Our program officially began on Sunday at 8:00 a.m. at the Kathmandu Guesthouse when the students, staff, and volunteers all came together for the first time. I was surprised by the amount of people and diversity in this program with over 50 people involved from different areas across the world. In total, there are 13 students from America, all from different universities, 1 student from France, 1 from Australia, 1 from Venezuela, 10 from Technion University in Israel, and 10 from Kathmandu University (KU) in Nepal. While most of these students are engineers, there are also a fair amount of non-engineering majors such as community development, geomatics, and more. There are also 9 staff members from either America, Israel, or Nepal and 7 volunteers from Kathmandu University.
I was inspired, excited, nervous and curious when the staff officially introduced the plan and goals of the program. Three of the professors that presented were especially inspiring because you could see and feel the passion they felt for the topics in this course. Mark, a professor at Technion, presented how we will be learning how to work in teams with people from unfamiliar backgrounds, how to be sensitive of the culture when working with a developing community, how to plan a project when given a short timeframe, and how we can do future work similar to this once we leave this program. Dr. Barry, a medical doctor and faculty member at Colorado University at Boulder, spoke how we will be learning about how to define the sources of the problem in a community and how to promote health in the community. Bernard, also from Colorado University at Boulder as a civil engineering faculty member and also the founder of Engineers Without Borders, spoke very passionately about how we will be learning the importance of sustainability and how we can develop sustainable systems that will be useful and last in the community for a long time. The staff also described how we will also be learning about Nepali culture as well as their language by Kathmandu staff so we can implement this project in an effective way.
After we had lunch at a restaurant in Kathmandu and I learned how to properly eat rice using only my right hand without making (much) of a mess, we went to Swayambhunath. This is one of the most important places to visit as a Buddhist and also has a huge amount of monkeys roaming freely. The site was placed along a hill where the temple and other religious monuments were placed at the top and also had thousands of prayer flags garnishing the site as they blew in the wind. They also had singing Buddhist monks and prayer wheels that one could spin as they were walking by. Oh, and how could I forget the incredible view of the Kathmandu Valley seen from the top? That was one of the most special parts of the trip in my opinion because there were so many colorful buildings surrounded by the hills.
The night ended with momos, steamed dumplings, for dinner at the same restaurant in Kathmandu we were at for lunch and were quite tasty.
For me, Monday was the best day of my summer thus far. Prior to this program I was in India for six weeks for a research internship and only visited Indian cities that all had bad air quality but once we moved to Dhulikhel and out of the Kathmandu Valley I felt refreshed immediately with the crisp air, the smell of the grass, the sounds of birds chirping, and the beautiful views. I also thought we would be staying in the dorm rooms of the university but our lodging arrangements very much exceeded my expectations because we discovered we’d be staying at the Dhulikhel Lodge Resort, the best resort in Dhulikhel. We all share a room with either one or two people that has hot water from the shower, a Western toilet (and toilet paper), and wardrobe which has and will make our stay here very pleasant.
Our first time at Kathmandu University began with a welcome ceremony in the auditorium of the university which consisted of the Nepali and Israeli national anthem, many speeches and a Nepali dance performance. I found it interesting how much respect was given to the “important people” that were there because every time someone made a speech they wouldn’t start their message until they had thanked the Nepali-Israeli ambassador, the UNESCO representative, the vice president of the school, the various department faculty heads of the university, as well as Mark, Dr. Barry, and Bernard (and I’m probably missing someone else because there seemed to be a lot). Although there seemed to be a lot of speeches, the ceremony set a good precedence for the upcoming weeks because it showed the amount of importance and respect the program has at KU.
We then had lunch at the university canteen and were introduced to the typical food we’d be having at KU for lunch. This consisted of rice (of course) and soupy thing with beans and such to be poured on the rice called dal, along with spinach, and some cooked spiced vegetables to be mixed in with the rice as well. I didn’t mind the food because I was use to this sort of meal but I’m not sure how the other non-Nepali students thought of it as their first impression.
Our first class of the day followed lunch with Bernard teaching us about sustainability as a whole and difficulties that can be associated with creating sustainable plans. This was a cool intro to the course because it gave us some context for our overall goals and it never hurts to hear from Bernard and his passion for helping developing communities.
Lastly, we got a tour of the campus where they showed us the library and a few engineering lab experiments including a hydro-turbine design lab, a waste water purification by reed plants experiment, as well as a few others. We then walked as a group back to the hotel which took about 30 minutes, had some dinner, some people learned new playing card games, others tried to learn a bit of either Nepali or Hebrew, and then we eventually went to bed.
I think the first day at KU was a really cool experience because all of us became familiar with our new temporary home and also the people we would be surrounded by throughout the next four weeks. For example, it was our chance as students to start asking each other the basic intro questions such as, “Where are you from?” “Where is it geographically in the country you’re from?” “What are you studying?” “Why’d you choose to do this program?” and much more. I found that I really appreciate the diversity in this program because it’s a really cool feeling to know how all of us have similar motivations despite our different backgrounds and upbringings.
This was the view we were greeted with in the morning before our 6:00 a.m. yoga class with the Himalayas seen in the distance. And this is the last photo of the post because it takes too long to upload photos and we’d like to get this posted as soon as possible
The yoga class is optional but I would say the majority of the students actually woke up that early to participate. This was the first yoga class for many people I think and was an awesome experience being outside on the patio grass-ish area of the lodge and with a Nepali instructor. For those who had done yoga before, this was a slightly different style than what most would expect because it started with a bit of in-place aerobic exercise to wake us up and also some breathing exercises.
We then had time to get ready, eat breakfast and either walk or take the bus to the campus to start our first class at 9:00 A.M. I decided to walk there because I was energized from the yoga and experienced a beautiful walk with blue skies surrounded by greenery all the way there.
I won’t go into as much detail about everything else on Tuesday but our classes included Neplai history and culture by a KU professor, Nepali language by a different KU professor, and a class about community health and the burden of disease by Dr. Barry. I and most other people found the Nepali language course to be the most difficult by far because it is very different from English with 36 consonants and 13 vowels. We did our best to learn the language, how to write using their script, and also a few common phrases. I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to pronounce the alphabet in the correct way but in the meantime it’s fun to learn an unfamiliar language.
Once we got back to the lodge some of us saw a long presentation about a certain kind of Nepali artwork called lost wax metal casting. Although this presentation was a bit much after a day-full of learning, it was still appreciated by most. We then had time to wait for dinner because it wasn’t until 8:00 so most of us ended up playing either card games, learning a new Nepali board game, or just conversing with new friends.
Before dinner the staff introduced a new interesting opportunity they found out about and decided to let the group decide on whether we should take up the new opportunity. They told us that we had the option to either go to two villages for a shorter amount of time or go to one village where our work and experience would be more valuable. The second option was the new opportunity but the downside was that we’d be away for longer at one time, the location was five hours away rather than one, and also that it would involve a hike from the road with our stuff to get to the village. Those who couldn’t or really didn’t want to hike could take the Jeep or something all the way to the village though. I think the staff was impressed by our response because we didn’t make a quick decision but rather asked all sorts of questions such as, “Would we be disappointing the other communities we said we’d be going to by not showing up?” “Where is the greater need between the two communities?” and such. We ended up voting for the second option and going to the village farther away which I think we’re all, students and staff, now excited about.
The structure of our day on Wednesday was very similar to Tuesday in that we began with a yoga class, started class at 9:00 a.m. and left at about 5:30 or so. Topics differed though and included a discussion on foreign aid for developing communities and how it can both help and hurt, Nepali language, and also techniques for community appraisal when working in a new community for a project. The one about foreign aid was interesting because it talked about the general pros and cons of aid from outside sources that I never really thought about. It mostly came down to whether the community in need would be sustainable on their own in the near future as a result of a careful plan to go along with the aid by the organization(s). I probably enjoyed the Nepali language class the most because it was challenging but also kind of fun, mostly because I happened to sit next to a Nepali student who could help me a lot. And lastly, the lecture about community appraisal was helpful because it presented a lot of unique ways to evaluate the state or condition a community is in at the start of a project but at the same time I thought it kind of lasted a little too long.
Our time before dinner consisted again of a group meeting to discuss a few announcements and plans. One of which is that we’ll be doing an event at the end of the program inspired by TED talks where any of us can share a cool idea that we’d like to share for about 5-10 minutes just to share the idea. I’m really excited for this and look forward to preparing an idea I have.
For dinner, I was a bit excited to see spaghetti noodles and red sauce thinking it was spaghetti sauce but I was then a bit bummed the sauce was basically ketchup. Nonetheless, the food at the lodge has been quite nice because it gives us some familiarity of food from home for the most of us. I don’t think the Nepalis really like the food that’s given here though which is a bummer.
The night ended with a few girls getting henna done by some of the Nepali girls, some playing cards, others grabbing a drink, and a few just hanging out. An Israeli student, Izzy, and I were actually asked to teach the morning yoga class Thursday morning because our usual yoga teacher said he couldn’t be there. The two of us were known to have a bit of experience doing yoga at home but at the same time, neither of us felt super comfortable at first with this idea. As we planned later though we got excited to teach our first yoga class in the morning.
Fewer people showed up to the yoga class than normal but we still had a room-full of people. I was actually happy about this though because I was a tiny bit nervous about co-teaching my first class. Overall, I think the class went well and Izzy and I also worked well together because most everyone in the class told us later how they really enjoyed it so this made me feel good.
Once we got to class we had a session on Nepali literature which also turned into a useful Nepali history class, a session about WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) and the issues relating within Nepal, followed by lunch and a movie called Water of Ayok. The movie was about a community in Africa that had many pumps installed by an organization at one time but then had a problem where nearly all of the pumps no longer worked after just one or two years. They then presented how the community was able to establish a plan with the help from an outside organization so that one person was taught to be the pump repairer and also they set up a pump committee with representatives of the community helping with the monitoring and fixing of the pipes. This ended up helping the community tremendously and allowed women to no longer spend their whole day walking to get water which then allowed the women to become more powerful within the community. It also improved the economy of the community with more people being able to contribute and overall created a strong sense of connection among the people. Overall the theme was participatory action within a community in order to establish a long-lasting solution.
We then got to go home earlier at about 2:30 so we could rest a bit after having a very long week. This didn’t turn into too much of a rest for much of us though because some were either working on stuff they wanted to send or do on the internet with it finally working or others had to meet with their new project groups to start our first assignment. Following this we had a one-hour presentation by a group called Save the Children who are actually at our lodge for this whole week leading a development seminar and then we later had a very long presentation by the Secretary of Science in the bureaucracy of Nepal. This is a pretty high position within the government and I think it could be related to being a cabinet member in the US. Although the second presentation was quite long, I enjoyed it the most because it gave some perspective that the government is aware of the problems they have when it comes to community development and that most of the issues seem to be commitment and responsibilities within various the organizations involved in community development.
Dinner followed these presentations and it was kind of a different night because there was music playing and people dancing out on the patio area but I didn’t know why. Soon enough our group started to dance together and it was a TON of fun. The Nepalese showed the way that they dance to their music and the rest of us did our best to imitate in a similar way but also danced in a way we’re familiar with. The amount of smiles, laughter, and energy that night was very memorable and an incredible experience especially under the stars with a new big group of new friends and a Nepali girl singer accompanying the music.
I am very glad I chose to participate in this program and I am very privileged that I had the opportunity. It’s only been five days or so but the amount I’ve learned about community development, Nepali language and culture, as well as Israeli culture (hopefully I’ll learn some Hebrew soon) has been awesome. I look forward to these upcoming weeks and also to have our experiences shared through this blog!
Talk to you later!
Michigan State University