Friday, June 26, 2009

Public Enemy Number 1: The hill

I ran to Bakang yesterday. That's right, in case you missed the verb in that sentence, I ran. Ok, so I almost died, but it was the hill that almost killed me. The Bakang hill, me and the mile elevation do not get along at all. I swear, by the end of my stay here, I will be able to run up the Bakang hill. I might need a little more than 10 days though. Being here without a car has deepened my respect for the people from Bakang and Balatsit. They climb this hill when they want something from town, usually with 30 lbs of stuff on their head, and I have difficulty walking up it, carrying just myself. Who needs an institution like the gym when it takes so much energy just to survive?

While the drillers are still (STILL) searching for the right part in Baffoussam, I went with Nura to Baham to meet with her students about their service projects. We took a moto taxi there, which is by far my favorite mode of transportation here. I love most modes of transportation that involve the wind in face, but there is nothing like a moto ride through Cameroon. Except perhaps if I was driving it. But for all of its lax or non-existent road rules, I don't think Cameroon is ready for do not worry. However, this moto ride, I was wondering what would happen if my left flip flop got caught in the drive chain but I couldn't move my leg because the moto driver was half sitting on my lap. After the meeting, we walked to the next town, two hours away, to get a moto back. I got some donuts for the road, which are fried dough balls sprinkled with sugar, much like American donuts except better since they don't have additives or preservatives. Donuts and motos. It was a good day.

Today I'm going to camp out at the drill site in Bakang and supervise the repair of the drill rig. I will update you all on the status soon!


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ashia for well drilling and the very rainy season

The well drillers brought yet another piece from Douala to fix the rig. It didn't to work and they are sending someone back to Douala to find a new piece, but the earliest they will be able to begin again is Wednesday, which is code for Thursday. We are still at meter 35. So you have another blog devoid of engineering fun as there has been none, but believe me, I am just as disappointed as you. I learned a new word that sums up our entire Cameroonian well drilling experience and that is "Ashia." Nura says that, loosely translated, this word means "I'm sorry that your life sucks" or "I feel your pain." It can be said in conjunction with a number of things such as "ashia for stomach" if you hear someone has a stomach ache. So, "ashia for well drilling."

Nura returned and brought her wealth of knowledge of french and cooking foods that aren't rice. Did you know that you can make cheese cake without cheese? We made cheese cake the other night (and by we, I mean Nura...I'm pretty sure all I did was watch the small miracle) from a recipe found in the PVC survival cookbook "Chop Fayner" (pigeon for "Good Eating"). It was good eating. Amazing, actually.

We went to market in Baffoussam so that I could buy warm clothes. Riding four wide in the back of a bush taxi is less fun than it looks, but I am happily much warmer now and hopefully, a little less smelly. I learned that you can do pretty much all your food shopping by sitting outside at a restaurant and calling to the street vendors who walk past carrying their wares. Lemons, limes, carrots, onions all walked by and joined their place in Nura's shopping bag for dinner later.

I was caught in a downpour yesterday in Bakang with Nura and another visiting Peace Corps Volunteer. It occurs to me now that EWB has never been to Cameroon during the actual rainy season. For those of you who have been to Bakang, you know that there are two very steep slopes on the way to village. You know that they are roads simply because they lack vegetation, but their general incline, and rocky/rutted nature resists even a four-wheel drive vehicle's attempts to climb them. You know that once the rain starts the clay turns slick as ice and nearly as deadly. Well, now imagine these two slopes in a downpour, when they turn into venerable waterfalls. Imagine walking up and down them in flipflops. I can tell you, it just might be possible to get hypothermia in Cameroon.

The rain knocked down the power line to Nura's house. Perhaps it is less of a powerline and more of an extension cord running through the garden and propped up on a stick, out of the reach of the massive brussel sprout plants that are taking over. When this happens, of course you would ask your neighbor, Bernard the Metallurgist to fix it, because, as a welder, surely he would also know how to fix powerlines. Of course, he did. But as he twisted the connections together, sparks flying everywhere, and wrapped it with my spare roll of electrical tape (which apparently I carry everywhere for emergencies such as these), it struck me as perhaps not the best thing to do in the rain. Bernard is a hero.

The sun is out so I'm going to work in the garden, while avoiding the the powerline and the lurking brussel sprout plants which might eat me.



Sunday, June 21, 2009

J'aime les arachides

HAPPY FATHER'S DAY!! It is father's day, right? I thought perhaps I missed it back in January when my sister Katie told me it was Father's Day and I believed her.

This is Sarah here. Alas, all the ewb kids have left for the States but me. And my team, of course, which consists of Nura the Peace Corps Volunteer and Guy, although neither of them are around at the moment. I stayed behind to oversee the well drilling here, and install the pumps in the off-chance that FORAX finishes drilling in the next two weeks. As I have surprisingly little to do and no anlgophones to bother, I suspect there will be many blog posts from me in Bamendjou. I am staying at Nura's house which has running water, electricity most of the time, and internet when I can figure out how to get it to work (apparently Africa is too techy for me).

For subsaharan Africa, it is surprisingly cold and rainy. Since we are still at an impasse with well drilling, the first thing on my agenda is to buy warm clothes. That is, once I can figure how to say "where can I find a winter parka?" in French. No one left me with a French-English dictionary, and after many failed conversations in which I may have convinced the people of Bamendjou that I am the village idiot, I have developed a prodigious phobia of Francophones. At any rate, I haven't made any progress on developing the community relationship. Hopefully, Nura will come back soon and explain to Bamendjou that I'm not stupid or mute and that if I look lost, one should just give me peanuts and try not to say anything to me involving any French verbs or nouns. Apparently, the only words I know, which incidentally are "peanuts" (les arachides) and "well" (forage), will not get me terribly far in life, especially when all I want is long pants, a winter coat and maybe some gloves. Although a cheeseburger might be nice too.

Once the rain stops, I am going to walk to the Bakang drill site to see if driller's have fixed the rig and I will let you know if they have (the status, as of my walk yesterday, was unchanged). In the meantime, I am going to make some instant coffee, watch the rain and try not to hold my breath.

much love from the 'roon,


Friday, June 19, 2009

A few pix . . .

Just a few pictures as we pack up from our hotel in Yaoundé....

This is in Balatsit. We're putting together the rack for solar panels. You can see our water tanks in the background, and the local folks mixing concrete for the tanks' support base. In the way background is the road co,ing down the hill fro, the Bakang school, where the big storage tank is to be. Kids are coming down because school just let out - it was the last say so they all had their report cars ("bulletins") saying if they passed!

Here's the rack with panels on! This was a hot day with only an occasional breeze.

And here is the well drilling operation, progressing very slowly, on the other side of the hill in Bakang. When they finally finish this, they'll drill near the setup shown in the above pictures in Balatsit.

The uploading is pretty slow, so this is all for now. I'm sure Sarah will be blogging while she waits for the well drilling to get done. Don't worry, she has a great support team with her. But I told people that she is the "Directrice!"

-Dr. Steve, Yaoundé June 16th

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Wanted: two borehole wells !

I know we’ve been derelict on posting stuff for all you folks. Things get awful busy here, and we’ve had more problems with stomach upsets and other illnesses than on any previous trip. But nonetheless we’ve succeeded in installing two complete solar panel arrays and 6,000 liters of storage tanks. We’ve also had meetings and discussions with lots of people about possible future projects as the current work is getting a lot of attention.

Our current project will get water into portions of the neighboring chiefdom of Balatsit, which is very comparable to Bakang in many respects: very high plateau with many households having no potable water. Yesterday we were shown a spring (see above) that runs year round from a cleft high on the hillside between Balatsit and Bakang. This would be a nice source of water into a distribution system if adequately protected. We took a sample and we’re running a fecal coliform analysis to see if there’s bacterial contamination, which is quite probable with the presence surroundings. Someday maybe we can put in a protected storage facility, and perhaps a solar-powered pump to feed this general area with potable water.

We’ve also worked with the local chiefs and water committees to plan out the water distribution system and tapstands. We’ll work with them next trip to get everything installed. The water storage tank needs to be planned out in more detail, and we went over some plans that the Mayor had for a different site to see the general layout that they’re used to.

ok, so you’re wondering about the WELLS that we have been waiting on. That’s our current bottleneck and there’s no good news. The company hasn’t even finished the first of the two wells – now due to a mechanical breakdown – so they’re two weeks late. Our flight leaves tomorrow, so we cannot stay to connect everything. We’ve asked for some cost reductions in view of this, and we are paying for Sarah’s flight to be rescheduled to stay an extra 10 days. She’ll work with Nura, Guy, and the local folks as our “skeleton team” to get both systems up and working before she comes back on the 30th. This is not the best situation, but it does insure that we don’t leave an unfinished project behind us. It occurs to me that it also shows what local support we’ve built up around this effort over that past years.

We'll post again from Yaounde. Gotta go.
Dr. Steve

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Belated Update

Hello friends and family! Life here in Bamenjou and Bakang has been remarkably busy, but exciting, these past couple weeks. Since arriving here from Yaounde we've faced some challenges, but nonetheless spirits are high and we've managed to accomplish a lot of our planned tasks ahead of schedule. We've also been very pleased to witness an even higher level of community involvement than ever before. In this blog I hope to run through some of the setbacks we have faced and the increasing number of accompishments which will hopefully allow us to finish everything we planned before leaving the Cameroon.

The first night we arrived in Bamenjou we had dinner with Nura, our friendly neighborhood Peace Corps volunteer. She has been an invaluable resource; acting as our eyes and ears in Bamenjou and Bakang when we're not in the country. One of the first bits of news she gave us was that the community in Bakang had installed a door on the enclosure around the crossroads water tanks. The door is locked at night and has posted hours of operation. This means that well/tank use is monitored by responsible people, and at night the tank spigots can not be left open or broken. While technically this is a small step, it is very significant with regards to demonstrating greater community responsibility.

Nura also informed us that the community has recently purchased gravel, sand and concrete to contruct more slow sand filters. The next day we drove to Bakang and were very pleased to see some of villagers mixing conrete and filling the steel molds we gave them. Meanwhile, children were streaming to and from the well water tanks to fill buckets.

After witnessing this new level of community involvement, our spirits were further bolstered by a very touching ceremony where Dr. Steve was crowned a prince in Bakang. While having a prince as our faculty advisor is certainly novel, ultimately it was the message conveyed by the chief and the water committee that really encouraged us. We were told of of decreasing levels of water borne illnesses amongst the villagers. We also witnessed monetary pledges from villagers that had emigrated to the big cities around Cameroon. These pledges will help support the water committee and its efforts to maintain the sand filters and wells in the community. All in all the community is taking an increasing level of ownership over this project, and we couldn't be more excited to see this.

However, as I alluded to, there have been setbacks. By far the most frustrating one has been the progress on drilling the two new wells. As I write this entry, the well drilling company is over 5 days late to begin drilling on the first new well. We have been assured that each well takes at most 3 days to drill. Hopefully this will give us enough time to complete both new sites before we must leave the country. Omenously, we were also assured that the well drilling team would be here last Monday. Needless to say we are a little bit nervous.

The flip side of this situation is that since we have not had to supervise the well drilling, we have had time to work on the various other tasks in front of us. As of the 13th, we have built both racking systems and mounted all the solar modules. Most of intra-module electrical wiring is complete. The racks have been set in conrete footings and the concrete slabs/foundations for the water tanks have been poured. The first rack was designed and built at home before we left. This aluminum rack was easy to assemble in country and was set in concrete with the modules mounted in less than half a day. The second rack was a much different story. In effort to use in country materials, we relied on a Cameroonian supplier for the modules and racking system for the second well. While the modules are slightly used and cost about twice as much, they work fine. Unfortunately, the rack itself was more or less a disaster. Not only did the modules not fit into the rack, but it was also made from steel that was "galvanized" with silver paint. It took us two wrecked drill bits, about $200 dollars worth of additional materials and tools, and two days worth of work, but we were able to modify the rack and it is now installed at site two. Yesterday the modules were mounted and the legs were set in concrete. Now both racks sit waiting to be connected to the well pumps.

We have also had time to assemble most of the wiring and many of the fittings for the water pipes. The hope is that this well allow us to just drop in the well pump and screw together a few fittings, bolt the well cap and wire connectors and have a significant portion of the well systems complete in a short period of time.

Today a portion of the team will be at the well sites laying the concrete blocks and placing the water tanks. The goal is to have all wiring and piping connections completed as soon as possible. If the worst case scenario occurs and both wells are not completed before we leave, we aim to leave the systems in such a state that members of the community will have a manageable level of work to do in order for the wells to be completed without our physical help.

Over the next couple days another part of the team will be evaluating elevations, possible piping routes, and spigot locations for the distribution system we hope to implement. Concurrently the assessment team will also be doing site assessments and water quality tests at existing hand-dug wells in the neighboring village of Balatsit. The goal is to evaluate underground water levels and also get an idea of where water is being used in the village. These efforts will help us monitor the water table as our wells are used more and more. This issue will become increasing important when we implement the distribution system.

As we approach the home stretch of the trip, the days ahead appear daunting. However, the team is still positive, and each day we seem to be functioning more efficiently. Moreover, despite various bouts with travel sickness and fatigue the team is now in good health and increasingly eager to work. Last night, Nura, with some help from Alyssa, prepared a wonderful trio of of red, cream, and pesto sauces along with some spaghetti for dinner. It was welcome change from the usual rice, beans, and chewy Cameroonian chicken. The heavy dose of carbohydrates should give us all the energy we need to push forward and make this implementation trip a success.

I'll end this entry with some assorted pictures of the people we're working with.

- Ramsey

Nura: a source of comfort, comic relief, delicious food, and valuable community relations.

Local children playing a game while we are working on installing the solar modules in Balatsit.

Janvier working on the concrete slabs for the water tanks.

The ever helpful Guy: our driver, part/tool finder, soccer player, and cowboy.

Little Guy, affectionately known as "El Diablito."

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Quick Update

Hey everyone! I appologize for the lack of blog posts, we've been working non stop. I just wanted to give a quick shout out to Andrew for all the effort he put into organizing when helping the travel team pack all our bags. Its saved us from a lot of headaches! Edwin definitely deserves a shout out too for making sure all our funding was accounted for and in the right place (Andrew helped with that too). And Sam, we really apprecieate that lovely binder you put together for us about well drilling. We'll get to use it as soon as FORAX shows up... And I have to give a big shout out to the whole design team for all of their imput and hard work behind the scenes. We are here because of all the hard work you put forth.

I'm not sure if anyone has mentioned it yet, but the people of Bakang have managed to impress again. When we had dinner with Nura the first night in the village, she told us that the water committee installed a door and a lock on the fence that they built in January and only have it open during certain hours. This doesn't really seem like a big deal, but its actually HUGE... The community of Bakang has completely taken ownership of the pilot solar powered water pumping system. That means we are one step closer to a sustainable solution in Bakang. We didn't ask the community to put up a fence around the panels and storage tank. We didn't ask them to make a drainage system for in front tanks. We didn't ask them to mount a door and only have the tanks open during certain hours of the day. They did all of this on their own accord. AND ANOTHER THING, they're making water filters!! Isn't that awesome?!? Thanks everyone who sponsored filters!!! Okay, well there's a lot more to get done tonight before the well drillers get started tomorrow! Keep your fingers crossed!


Monday, June 8, 2009

How do you say Swage-Lock in French?

For the first time in 4 days I finally have enough time and energy to sit down and write an entry for our blog. Since arriving in Yaounde, and then Bamenjou, we have been working non-stop to assemble and organize parts for our project in Bakang. Thankfully our team has done an amazing job of planning all our daily tasks and has assembled the parts and tools we need to accomplish them. After months of discussion and debate, packing lists and designs have been put together. Never the less, no matter how much foresight (or hindsight from previous trips) we have, little things still get overlooked.

When I was working in R&D at a solar cell manufacturer we undertook numerous projects that required months of planning. Even in such a professional setting, surrounded by engineers with 20+ years of experience, details would be overlooked. The main difference from EWB was that when we were missing a part or tool, we'd just go on a web site, look up a part number and forward it to our purchasing manager. The next day after our morning cup of coffee, we'd walk to our desks, and receiving would have dropped off our missing part. Usually by the end of the day we'd have the part installed and tested. If we had the wrong part, we'd leave it on the desk of our purchasing manager with a new part number and he'd handle the exchange. That was real life in the working world.

Now I'm in Cameroon. Things are a little different here. We're lucky to have internet access every few days. Every purchase we want to make requires a translator. If we're lucky parts may be available in Baffousam which is about a 30 minute drive from where we are. In some cases parts will only be available in Yaounde (about 4 hours away). And in many cases they aren't available anywhere in the country. All this makes for some interesting adventures at local metal shops and plumbing supply stores.

On our last day in Yaounde we were fortunate enough to discover a plumbing supply store where the fittings we required for our well pumps and piping were available. Dr. Steve, Sarah, and I wandered into the “Maison Du Plombier.” Dr. Steve served as our translator, and I was the money man. Sarah was the most knowledgeable and we let her pick out all of the parts, much to the bemusement of everyone working at the store. They were very surprised to see a little white woman happily fitting together various parts to make sure they worked. They wondered if she was a plumber. We tried to explain to them that she was a mechanical engineer, but they decided she was a mechanic, and ended up even more confused. In the end though, they were very happy to help us, and we left with all the parts we needed.

After that experience, I suspect that many parts and materials are available somewhere in Cameroon (at prices that could be wildly higher or lower than in the US). However, finding the suppliers can be quite tricky if you don't speak French, or don't know who to talk to. Moreover, with only a limited amount of time, driving all over town looking for stores is not an option. It adds a new dimension to engineering, that a typical US education, or even a professional job, does not prepare you for. Ultimately, this lesson is only one of the benefits that EWB provides to its members. While parts supply issues are always frustrating, I am sure the patience and persistence that we are all acquiring will be invaluable in our future careers.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Dr. Steve: I've been named a "Prince" of Bakang

ok, I've been an Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and Full Professor . . .
Did you know that the next rank is Prince? Here you see me being promoted by the chief of Bakang II in front of a gathering of Bakang villagers. The wardrobe is genuine, handmade and donated by the Water Committee President. The crowd even sang a song in patois that (I'm told) was all about the wonderful things I've done.

Thing is, I don't really deserve this. Firstly, it's the students who make this possible, and there are lots of them who have been to Bamendjou and Bakang to help, and others who provide the behind the scenes support, including tireless fundraising work. And of course there are LOTS of folks who provide the finances that underwrite our efforts. You *all* deserve this recognition.

And secondly, we are not finished. The people of Bakang are grateful already, but there's no time to rest on laurels. As I write this, Matt, Sarah, and Ramsey are stuffing cables through conduit to get ready for pump installation. We'll be rushed because the well drillers are starting a day and a half later than we thought. Taylor and Alyssa are putting together a detailed work schedule to deal with this.

So I'll try to keep my ego in check. But I did call my wife to tell her that her husband is now a prince and a village Notable. She said these titles will not apply in Delaware.

But they do send a *message* to Delaware. They really love what we do!

Dr. Steve

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Travel Team made it to Bamendjou

Sarah called and let me know that the travel team has safely made the long car ride to the village.  She mentioned something about a little car trouble (i.e. the car not turning on) that caused a bit of a delay, but they persevered and made it.  They are off to find some dinner and get ready for the work ahead.  Keep checking back for their posts!


de le debutante (Matt)

Bonjour friends/fans/members of EWB! The flight over here went well enough, everyone arrived in Yauonde with just enough energy to get to work on things right away. Besides a few questions on aspects of the project that the team has yet to decide on, the main thing that has been on my mind the past two days is culture shock. Having done a bit of traveling before, I knew to expect it, but let me illustrate the particularly stark contrast in conditions I experienced in 24 hours. One minute I'm in a an immaculately clean airport in Belgium. I buy a coffee and the cashier exchanges money with me on a little plastic mat on the counter, so our hands never touch. I learn from Dr. Steve that the country doesn't let any non-biodegradable plastic bags into the country for environmental reasons. In the restroom, I experience the Dyson Airblade, a device that uses carefully engineered nano-vortices for the simple act of drying your hands.
After another 8 hour flight, I feel kind of dirty and smelly after traveling for so long, but I'm strangly relieved when I arrive in Yaounde and there isn't an inch of the airport that doesn't smell like human body odor. I'm walking out of the airport in Yauonde with people reaching for my bags, and just saying "dollar, dollar" to me. We get in the car, our driver stops and looks both ways at a circular red sign on the way out of the airport, and I haven't seen a traffic sign since. Merging into another lane in Yaounde is just a game of chicken between the two drivers, and people pass one another pretty much whenever they feel like it. But it isn't complete disorder, there is communication between drivers by use of hand gestures, (some of which I could tell were for those not-so-friendly sentiments highways are known for). Despite all this our driver, Guy, handled everything with complete confidence, and our car was calmer than you would expect.
If the traffic situation isn't telling enough of the area's need for improved infrastructure, the train track outside of my hotel room seems to be used more by cyclists and pedestrians than trains. Things may sound chaotic here, but all the Cameroonians I've encountered have made things run smoothly. The are generally laid-back, and have been very helpful in finding my way around (and without laughing at my french!). Even the people who make a living selling things to tourists are much less annoying than other places I have been; they quickly get the picture when you are not interested, and never become aggressive. I'm thankful that everything has gone relatively well so far, and that the team is in good health and good spirits, and I am generally optimistic about the trip.


Luggage off!

Here we are (Ramsey, Saeah, Alyssa, Taylor, and our driver Guy in the background) after loading all the solar panels and mounting equipment into the SUV. Obviously we can't fit all this plus ourselves, so we ship the equipment by bus. In fact, there will be another load with our luggage then a load of plastic pipe! Then we head off to the High Plateau. The practice is to never drive at night, so we'll leave here by 1 .

In the background you can see the power lines. Yaounde has the best infrastructure in Cameroon and we'll miss it. But the rural areas have a beauty of their own.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Dr. Steve checks in

Hi everybody! EWB-UD has landed in Cameroon for the fifth time! All of our tools, equipment, and personal belongings also got here just fine. Mr. Mukam had arranged for us to be picked up, so we're now at out hotel. We were pleased to find that the bathrooms have been redone in Hotel Mansel and so the hot water appears to be functioning very nicely. Mr. Mukam stopped by to say hello, and he will also meet us in Bamendjou later this week.We have a lot to do tomorrow, and also during this entire visit. A big question is siting the new wells, which we need to decide on pretty soon. Tomorrow we also visit the College of Public Works to continue our collaboration with them; we also need to purchase equipment for the solar panel system, and a host of other tasks. I pulled an all-nighter writing a research proposal before leaving the U.S. - this is a standard practice I employ to avoid jet lag, but for some reason I'm pretty tired and it's only 9:30 here. So I'll just post this entry and we'll be getting more updates to you soon. Thanks for all the messages already - stay tuned!