Engineers without Borders

About a month ago I had the opportunity to work on a project with an Engineers Without Borders (EWB) group from Columbia University.  It was, by far, the most fulfilling experience I’ve had so far working with the Peace Corps.  Columbia has a very successful chapter of EWB and their recent projects in Morocco have made the national EWB website front page, earned them a world record, and, most importantly, set them up for potential future success in a community that now knows and trusts their organization.

Peace Corps volunteers in Morocco have been involved in these projects since the beginning when a local volunteer suggested the project to her alma mater’s EWB program.  The initial idea turned into the world’s longest synthetic suspension bridge – all designed and built by undergraduate engineering students and facilitated in-country by PCVs.  This bridge connects two sides of a village over a large ravine that is entirely impassible after a large rain.  It allows students to attend school throughout the year and it has the potential to save lives by allowing continuous access to the clinic that only exists on one side of the river.

The bridge! While the hard work was already finished here, we did do a lot of maintenance work throughout the week.

The bridge! While the hard work was already finished here, we did do a lot of maintenance work throughout the week.

When I joined the project this winter, the bridge had already been completed.  My job, along with two other PCVs and the engineers, was to lay the groundwork for the next EWB Columbia and Peace Corps project in the area.  Our goal was to provide a nearby source of water for two villages near the bridge site.  These two villages have a water problem that is almost unimaginable for the average American (and also the average Moroccan).  Both villages get their water from a spring that surfaces next to the only river in the area.  One village is a 1.5 hour round trip walk from the source and the other is a full three hours!  To get enough water for their day (drinking, cooking, cleaning, animal care), some villagers have to make this trip up to 5 times per day.  For the furthest village, this means that they begin their trips to the spring in the early morning and don’t finish the work until after dark! This process is then repeated every single day throughout the summer.

The spring used by many surrounding villages.  This is a very important supply of water for many people in the area.

The spring used by many surrounding villages. This is a very important supply of water for many people in the area.

The week and a half of work involved many miles of hiking, dozens of conversations with local residents and village leaders (all in Moroccan Arabic of course), and countless tea breaks provided by the thankful locals.  Working with this group of Americans showed me how much I have learned since coming to Morocco – something that is often difficult to see in our day-to-day life.  It also gave me the confidence and energy to attempt new projects in Azilal.  While we didn’t yet dig a well or start laying pipe, the work we did was very important for the future success of the project – a project that I feel will truly change the lives of the local people for the better.  The engineers from Columbia plan to return this summer and again next winter and I hope to be able to join them again when they do.

-Matt

Working with a local who offered to help us take some important data for the project.

Working with a local who offered to help us take some important data for the project.

Translating the issues with the water supply was a huge part of the job for the PCVs.

Translating the issues with the water supply was a huge part of the job for the PCVs.

PCVs, engineers, and locals

PCVs, engineers, and locals

 

The One-Year Slump

Today is our one-year-and-one-month anniversary in Morocco. Our one year anniversary went unmarked on the blog because it felt pretty unremarkable overall. Worse than unremarkable, actually – it may have been one of the most discouraging anniversaries I’ve ever celebrated. Sure, knowing that we’d completed a year living and working in a different country was exciting, but it was heavily overshadowed by the realization that we still had the same amount of time left plus three months. I try to keep the blog pretty positive in general, because my service overall has been a positive experience for me, but on a day-to-day basis both Matt and I often swing between very positive and very negative emotions, and I wanted to finally take the opportunity to share that. Don’t worry, nothing bad happened at the one-year point. It’s just that the past month felt like a slump… a more extended period of negativity than usual, I guess. Luckily, thanks to some new things we’ve been doing, my attitude is starting to look up again – hopefully the one-year slump is officially behind me!

I’ve already mentioned it was tough to get back to work after my family left in early January, since their visit was one of the most fun periods of my service so far. Our one-year anniversary happened right after they left, so in addition to missing them, I also got to contemplate my additional year and three months of service while dealing with a winter drop in my class attendance and a general malaise when faced with continuing my same class schedule for 4 more months. Not to mention the temperature in our house was often somewhere around 48˚F. It doesn’t really sound like much now that I’ve written it down, but I’ve learned that in Peace Corps sometimes the little things make all the difference, and for whatever reason, these things combined to make the past month less than enjoyable.

To combat the one-year slump, Matt and I have been adding some new activities to our week to spice things up a bit:

  1. We’ve started planning a seminar series to take place once or twice a month, where we bring in a community member to talk to youth about topics such as employability, health, and the environment. We held our first session yesterday; it was an employability workshop led by a local employment agency, and it went really well.
  2.  I’ve been incorporating art projects into my classes – it’s a nice hands-on thing for the kids to do, and I actually look forward to it since I get to participate too. During my beginner’s class this week, we made Valentine’s Day cards in English, and the activity went so well that I repeated it the next day and made it open to everyone at the Dar Chebab who wanted to participate. Despite making a total mess with glitter (or maybe because of that, for the kids), we all had a great time.
  3. We’ve been taking some small weekend trips – last weekend out to the valley of Ait Bougamez (which is absolutely beautiful as you can see by the pictures below), and this weekend I went to Ouzoud with some ladies from the Women’s Center while Matt went on a hike to check out the nearby work of some French researchers who we just met.

Activities like these have made things a lot more interesting, and maybe also because it’s been a lot warmer and sunnier recently, I’ve been feeling much more positive. Also, now that we’ve booked our flights we can start counting down to our summer trips to the States and to Spain – which is one of my favorite ways to counteract negative thoughts!

– Cori