The Sustainable and Resilient Tanzanian Community (SRTC) education abroad program is a joint effort between the School of Environment and Natural Resources and the College of Civil Engineers to create and implement a long-term, drinkable water source for the villagers of Marwa in the Same district of Tanzania. This was the first year of actual implementation for the project in which a rainwater harvesting unit was constructed for the village’s medical dispensary. In addition, data was collected on the water quality, survey points were mapped for future construction, an evaluation of implementing a possible solar pump for an existing well was done, and extensive work was conducted with the community to build relationships, receive feedback, and brainstorm long-term education and independent economic opportunities.
Going into this education abroad experience, I had completed two years of my animal science major, had unofficially declared an environmental science minor specializing in water quality, and had decided that I wanted a public health career. I chose public health because I felt it offered the opportunity to encapsulate all my passions – the wellbeing of humans, animals, the environment, and making a difference. However, these last two years of school I’ve really struggled with being certain about my major and the career path that I want. I wanted to change my major every single semester that I’ve been at OSU because I was worried that I would end up in a career that I wasn’t passionate about. Now, after being a part of the SRTC team, I can confidently smile when people ask me what I want to do because I know that I chose the right career. I was tired every single day when we returned to where we were staying but beyond happy, and if someone had asked me to go back to the village because they forgot to do something, I would have said yes in a heartbeat. There was an experience every day of the trip that made me feel confident about public health, but the one that stands out to me was the day we tested multiple different water sources and talked to some individuals about their water usage.
My undeclared environmental science minor is two-fold in that I’m interested in water’s impact on human health as well as its significance in relation to a sign of how we’re treating the Earth. The water tests we did were testing for things like turbidity, pH, salinity, and coliforms. These tests provide quantitative data which can then be compared to drinking water standards to give more information about what water treatments need to be done. We collected qualitative data as well to accompany the water tests via talking with villagers and asking them questions like “how often do you collect water?” “what do you use your water for?” “do you boil your water?” “why or why not?” “where do you collect your water?” It was these questions that made me have my “aha” moment – when everything about my major, minor, and career choice clicked, and I knew that this is exactly the type of work that I want to be doing.
What was so unique about this transformational experience is how the program was structured and the things it emphasized. The word “sustainable” is in the program title because it refers to the intensive community work that ensures long-term success once the project construction is complete. A lot of our commitment to the community worked on reinforcing “community buy-in” which gives the community value in what is being done for them. For example, there was a public health initiative that gave free, smoke-free stovetops to a community, but it failed to be sustainable because the community ended up selling the copper parts of the stovetops instead of using them. This is because the community didn’t have a value that it could associate with using the stovetops. Instead, it saw more value in making a profit from a free stovetop. The community buy-in aspect of our project were the four ceremonies that we were invited to attend, as well as the conference we had with them about the details of building the water plant. The four ceremonies demonstrated our appreciation and willingness to experience and understand their culture, and they were absolutely incredible to attend. One of them was a coming-of-age ceremony that only occurred every forty years. The conference was based around asking the community for feedback about the water project so topics like where they want and don’t want the pipes, if there’s a good spot for the inlet, and who is going to maintain the water plant.
Anyone can create and execute a project for a community. But true change comes from the community seeing value in the change. I appreciate true change, and that’s why I’ve been interested in joining the Peace Corps – to do my part in making a difference. This project has given me a peak of what the Peace Corps mission is and how they go about instigating change. And with this experience, I’d like to apply the “sustainable” approach to my career so that I’m not just putting bandages over a leaky pipe. Something else about this project too is that I was part of the SRTC team. This is a long-term project that started last year, this year is the first year of actually building, (a rainwater harvesting unit was installed at the medical dispensary), and the actual water system construction is projected to start in two years. That’s at least four years of Capstone engineer and SENR students. This trip we had a total of forty students on the trip, and each one of us brought a unique talent to contribute to the success of this project. I brought my animal science knowledge which I soon learned was very respected among the Marwa village because agriculture is what feeds them.
In short, this trip enforced my career choice and taught me what it meant to be part of a larger community working towards a common goal. Patience, flexibility, creative problem-solving, and initiative are all things that helped me in achieving my job to evaluate water quality. I surprised myself too, in working on my leadership skills because I’ve always viewed myself as a follower, not a leader. I’m too indecisive to be a good leader. But when plans changed and we were looking for work to do, I brainstormed questions that we could ask the community about how they were using their water. What was a three-week trip felt like a ten-day trip, and I would love the opportunity to see the project fully completed and then its resilience in the future as the community takes responsibility for sustaining it.