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.


Jim said...

I hope that the local plumbers union doesn't appoint Sarah to be the Princess of CPVC. Go team Cameroon!

Anonymous said...

Sounds as if you engineers are having to live up to your word derivation by being "ingenious" and resourceful. So proud of you all!

Liz said...

I guess the term "mechanical engineer" doesn't translate very well into the local dialects.
Go Team! Go EWB!!!!!!!!
(special dance, special dance)

Together we're unlimited
Together we'll be the greatest team there's ever been
Dreams the way we've planned em
If we work in tandem
There's no fight we cannot win...


Defy Gravity.


Melissa said...

Sounds like a great trip so far. I hope Alyssa has an excellent cameroonian bday by the way!

APaulus said...

Great Post! Glad that you found the parts you needed! Haha, I had to Google swage-lock.

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