September 15, 2013: Venturing to Town on a Sunday

We emerged from our rooms at various times between 5 and 9am, all still groggy from the long journey to Africa and jet lag.  I personally was out and about at about 6am.  The early morning light shining on the patio area in front of my room was delightful.  I ventured out to explore the gated grounds of the lodge, looking for the perfect light and angles for some photos.  I then set up my own little yoga and exercise studio on a patio overlooking the Blantyre – using my bathroom mat as a mat.  Not exactly the padding of an exercise mat back home, especially given the hard concrete floor of the patio, and no fancy cardio machines to get my heart up, but I had no complaints.  Who gets to exercise in those surroundings?  I was totally energized by the stunning scenery and the sounds of the City waking up that emerged from below.

My workout was followed by breakfast which consisted of a juice, an omelet, toasts and tea.  The omelet became more exciting when the Nita sauce showed up on the table and the tea definitely measured up to Malawi’s reputation.  The juice and toasts were however a different story.  The powdered juice probably could have glowed in the dark it looked so artificial and the white bread for the toasts must have been laying around for weeks.  But then again, no complaints because that is so much more than what 99% of the Malawian population will start their day with in the morning.

From there we decided to venture out to town for the first time.  From our lodge, the center of Blantyre can be reached by foot in about 20 minutes.  It is actually a pretty pleasant walk but Alice (owner of the Kabula Lodge) recommended we do not undertake on our own for security reasons.  The trek down starts with a quiet dirt road (see attached photo) lined with some of these beautiful trees with purple foliage and then becomes paved, busier and much more hazardous as drivers definitely do not yield to pedestrians even though there are a lot more pedestrians than vehicles on the roads  – no majority rules here.  It also took some adjusting to watch for traffic coming from the opposite direction – a legacy of the English colonial days. 

As it was Sunday, a majority of the stores in town were closed.  However, the few that were open provided for very good entertainment.  I always like exploring grocery stores and other shops when I travel as it gives you a glimpse of local life.  At one grocery store, a woman showed up holding a half-alive chicken in her hands (see photo).  I guess she was still missing a few ingredients for dinner that night after finding “la piece de resistance.”  We picked up a papaya from a street vendor along our walk back to the lodge and settled on the covered patio of the lodge to go over a few maps for our assignment while sharing the papaya.  My intention was to go for a run late afternoon but the heat was just too much.  Starting on Monday, I’ll go first thing in the morning before breakfast.  While using the internet in the common area of the lodge later afternoon, I heard a woman speak Quebec French.  We talked for a while.  She just graduated from Universite Laval in Quebec City and works for a Canadian NGO that focuses on improving the overall conditions of schools in developing countries.  This is her first trip abroad so you could tell that she still was trying to adjust to the culture shock and figure out how to take it all in.  It reminded me of how I felt when Kathy and I first landed in Katmandu (Nepal) – my first exposure to true poverty.

We ended the day with a second trip to town to have dinner at an Indian restaurant.  I can’t tell you how nice it’s been to dine with a bunch of vegetarians.  We ordered a bunch of dishes that we all shared and although it wasn’t the best Indian food, I would give it a very reasonable “B-.” As instructed by Alice, we hired a taxi to come back because it was dark … and with no street lights, dark here is really dark.

My attempt to jerry rig a new set up for my mosquito net wasn’t too successful as I wrestle with the darn thing all night long and woke up with even more bites all over my body and when I say all over … I mean all over … I guess you have to give those flying creature credit for being able to reach some parts of my body that rarely see the light of day – pretty impressive.  So I definitely can’t afford to forget my daily dose of antimalarial tablets, which hopefully will prove to be effective against the disease.  I guess the one alternative would be to lube up with my Ultrathon insect replellent before I go to bed but I can’t imagine trying to sleep with that 30% DEET nasty stuff all over me. 

Before I go, it just occurred to me that I never introduced my four World Water Corps colleagues so here is a brief into.  Our team lead is Rob Page who is the CAD Manager with Aquarion Water in Connecticut.  He’s led many WFP volunteer assignments before, including two here in Malawi.  The other male in the group is Steve Fogg who I will be travelling with during my last week here.  Steve is the City Engineer for Weston, a small town near Boston.  This is his third volunteer assignment in Malawi.  Alyssa Boyer is a project manager Geosyntec in Huntington Beach, CA with CH2M Hill and she just returned from a multi-year work assignment for the upcoming Olympics in Rio (Brazil).  This is her first WFP assignment but she’s travelled internationally for work and pleasure extensively.  The youngest volunteer on the team is Andrea Berlinghoff, who recently landed her first job as an environmental engineer for Geosyntec in Huntington Beach, CA.  This is Andrea’s first trip to Africa.

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September 14, 2013: Two Discoveries – Nita and Malawian Mosquitoes

The journey door-to-door from my apartment in San Francisco to the Kabula Lodge in Blantyre took about 32 hrs.  I was able to connect with the four other World Water Corps volunteers on our team at JFK where we were … Continue reading

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September 13, 2013: On my Way to Malawi – An Interesting Start

My intention was to complete my first blog post before I left the US but the last few weeks were just too crazy. Averaging probably around 4 hours of sleep per night the last few weeks, I got done packing for my 3-week trip to Africa with just a few hours to spare. That probably explains why I forgot a pretty critical item – my ATM card. Good thing I have a pretty good supply of crisp, new $100 bills ready to be exchanged in Malawi kwatcha, and enough dry food for my entire trip. I’m sure I’ll manage just fine without Mr. Schwab’s plastic.

The good news is that I met my self-imposed deadline for figuring out my professional future before leaving for this trip. For those of you who haven’t heard the news, I have accepted a VP position with the global engineering firm Montgomery Watson Harza (MWH). I’ll leave the SFPUC to start with MWH in January 2014. As the Director of Program – Americas, I’ll get to help grow the firm’s program management practice and be involved in large programs around the world. I’ve been extremely impressed by MWH’s team, and am totally excited about the professional challenges and opportunities that this new role will bring.

So back to my trip to Malawi. The 2nd leg of the long journey to Africa (15+ hour flight between NYC and Johannesburg) offered the trip’s first life lesson – don’t fall for stereotypes. The stereotype in this case is a convicted felon being deported back to Kenya. When I first saw a federal agent escorting this big guy with an ankle monitoring device to the seat just next to me, giving him instructions about the pilot holding on to all of his papers and what to do upon our arrival in South Africa, my imagination started making up stories. As it turns out, Magoya has been a perfect plane mate. Yes he was convicted for a robbery (didn’t get all the details so not sure how serious it was), has been in the US illegally for 33 years, was transported to JFK directly from a New Jersey jail following a 2:30am hearing that didn’t go his way, but he is a gentleman, incredibly polite and sensitive, and a pleasure to talk to. He had no idea how to work the video screen on the seat in front of him and what to do with the audio headset so I helped him get set up and select a movie lineup to distract him … the poor guy confessed how he’s totally in shock and scared about going back to Kenya after leaving the country over three decades ago.

OK back to Malawi, which has you probably know is not exactly a popular tourist destination. So it may be helpful to start with a brief introduction of the country. It is a densely populated, land-locked country no larger than the size of Pennsylvania. Located in south-eastern Africa and wedged between Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique, Malawi was under British colonial rule until 1963. As one of the least developed countries in the world, it has a predominately agro-based economy. Malawi’s population, which is made up of a patchwork of different tribes, currently stands at 13 million, with approximately 85% of Malawians living in rural areas. As with many other African countries, the life expectancy is much lower than that of western countries – 49 years old in Malawi to be exact. According to recent reports by UNICEF and the World Health Organization, more than 52% of Malawians live below the national poverty line, with the annual income per capita in parts of the country averaging about $23!!!

Despite the fact that women constitute more than half of the country’s population, serious gender disparities still exist in Malawi. Until 1994, women were indeed banned from wearing short skirts and trousers. Good thing I didn’t visit the country back then, just can’t go without those short skirts. 🙂 However, Malawi’s new and first woman president, Joyce Banda (who by the way I saw at TED’s first women conference in DC a few year ago), comes from a background of female civil rights empowerment; so there is great hope that the status of women will continue to improve in coming years.

Our Water for People (WFP) volunteer assignment in Malawi will focus on the low-income peri-urban areas surrounding Blantyre, which is Malawi’s second largest City and its commercial center. Typical of high-growth urban areas in the developing world, the majority of the City’s residents live in per-urban areas. These unplanned, informal settlements are characterized by high poverty rates, overcrowding, poor road access and significant challenges related to access to social services, water supplies and sanitation facilities. Previous surveys completed by WFP in the 21 low-income areas of peri-urban Blantyre indicate that only 41% of the population in those areas have access to water that meet government standards (i.e., access to a communal water point within 0.5 km). More striking is that only 23% of the people in those 21 areas reported access to improved sanitation facilities, many having the relieved themselves in open fields. This is when you don’t want to be sick while doing volunteer work in the field. Water-related disease, including cholera and typhoid fever, are common throughout Malawi. These conditions have worsened through the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS, which has apparently affected as much as 15% of the rural population and 30% of the urban population.

Now that I’ve had some time to carefully review the scope of our assignment, I’m happy to report that I won’t be spending the next two weeks inspecting pit latrines. The assignment actually focuses on the GIS mapping of 490 improved communal water points in various low-income communities around Blantyre. This work is part of a larger project funded by the European Investment Bank that involves the construction of 360 new water kiosks and 40,000 ventilated improved pit latrines. The main objectives of the project are to increase the 21 low-income peri-urban areas’ access to safe water from 41% to 90%; provide 408,000 people around Blantyre who currently have access to kiosks serving water for only a few hours per day, with 24-hour water supply service; and decrease the population’s overall exposure to various diseases by promoting good hygiene practices and providing households and public institutions with basic sanitation solutions.

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Out of Africa

I’m writing this last blog from Johannesburg, South Africa.  I have 9 hours to kill at the airport on my flight back from hell … I guess that’s what you get when you fly to Kigali for free using United miles.  If all goes well and there are no delays, I should walk into my apartment 45 hours after I left my hotel at 4:00am this morning.

I haven’t had a chance to post any updates for several days because we’ve just been too busy putting in as many hours as possible to overcome a few challenges that came up in recent days.  We actually worked two weeks straight and didn’t even take a day off.  We were set back significantly when we were finally provided with some plans we had requested months ago.  Since we were told that the plans in question were not available, we had to base our system design on a number of assumptions.  When our hydraulic model showed that the existing system may not be able to handle the extensions needed under our project, we asked that actual field surveys be performed to verify the assumptions made.  That’s when all of a sudden, with only 48 hours before our departure, the plans of the existing system showed up miraculously.  The good news is that the plans will allow us to come up with a much more accurate design.  The bad news is that it required a total redo of a lot of the work performed in our first 10 days, including major revisions to our system demand analysis, hydraulic model and financial projections.  Trying to tie the elevations on the plans and the GPS data provided for our project also turned out to be a big challenge but I think we found a way to make it work.

We also encountered a number of challenges with our quality testing efforts.  The good news on that front is that Diana was incredibly resourceful at finding ways to address these challenges.  It all started when one of the shipments from Hach (company that sells water quality equipment) was sent to a wrong location and never made it to Africa.  Some of the supply left behind included what was required to perform bacteriological tests.  Diana got in touch with the National Lab in Rwanda and was able to get a different media for coliform growth.  The only problem is that the media required a different analytical method and it took us a while to figure that out.  Kigali’s daily power outages also impacted our microbiological testing efforts since samples need to be incubated for an extended period of time.  Our inability to ensure a constant incubation temperature made it difficult to rely on our microbiological results to make a final recommendation on the need for water disinfection.

Despite all this, I’m very pleased that we were able to pull it all together in time for an important presentation to the Mayor of the Rulindo District, Justus Kangwagye, and his entire executive team.  Rwanda has 30 different districts that are the equivalent of states or very large counties in the US.  Having the District’s Mayor, Vice Mayor, Executive Secretary and others come to Kigali for a 2+ hour presentation on our work was a big deal.  We were still working on our slides when it was time to go to the hotel where the presentation was to take place.  In our presentation, we highlighted the major features of the 2 systems we designed for the Burega and Ntarabana sectors (Rulindo District is divided into 17 sectors).  We also provided more general recommendations that we feel must be pursued under the Rulindo Challenge, which calls for everyone in Rulindo to have access to safe drinking water by the end of 2014.  These general recommendations include the need (1) to pursue alternate sources of water (including groundwater exploration) given that existing gravity spring sources are insufficient, (2) to develop a district-wide water master plan that will provide a more integrated and systematic approach to solving the district’s water challenges, and (3) to change the current tariff structure and consider a more sustainable financial model like the one we proposed.  The Mayor and his staff were all incredibly attentive and asked a lot of excellent questions.  We were told that in a short debrief after our presentation, the Mayor told the WFP staff that he was very impressed by what we were able to accomplish in two weeks.  Seeing how appreciative everyone was of our efforts, made me feel proud and more determined than ever to continue contributing to the work of WFP and other NGOs focused on water in the developing world.

For our last night together, we all went to dinner at my favorite Ethiopian restaurant.  Even the Mayor and his entire executive team joined us.  It was a wonderful evening where we took tons of pictures with one another.  Joseph, the District Engineer who I followed up and down the hills of Rulindo in search of water, sat right in front of me.  Since he was one of the only one at the table who did not speak English, we exchanged stories in French.  I also had a chance to interact a lot with the Mayor since he sat right beside me at dinner.  It was really interesting to hear about how the Rwandan government is organized and the management style of President Kagame.  I also learned from him that Rwanda was one of the only African countries not to engage in the trading of slaves; something I didn’t know.  Mayor Kangwagye will actually be our featured guest speaker at the May 7th WFP fundraiser at the California Academy of Science.  So we talked a lot about the event and what he should expect.  He expressed being a little nervous about having to give a speech in English.  It will be his first time in California so I offered to be his tour guide while he’s in San Francisco.  I’m sure however that WFP staff will take good care of him and that he’ll be very busy with press events and meetings.  Perpetue, the WFP Rwanda Director, will also be coming for the event so I’m looking forward to having an opportunity to return the warm hospitality she has offered me during my two visits to Rwanda. 

Now that I finally have a minute to reflect back on my last visit to the country of a thousand hills, some thoughts, smells and images seem to be imprinted in my brain.  Two images in particular are more vivid than others.  The young woman (around 16 years old) walking up a very steep hill without any footwear with a 20-liter jerry can on her head.  I described my encounter with her in my “The Real Rulindo Challenge” blog.  There’s also the image of the home of a kind woman who gave us directions while we searched for a new spring source on a steep hill.  While she was washing clothes in a stream, her 2-3 year old child stood barefoot in the door-less doorway of their house.  Behind him, between the mud walls, the painful images of what it must be like to grow up in total poverty.  I also can’t help but being upset by the inequality around access to clean water.  Why is it that we can enjoy safe drinking water coming out of 5 to 10 different faucets in our home … whereas a woman in Rwanda walk kilometers to reach a communal tap, wait her turn for any hour before she can fill her yellow Jerry can with what is likely unsafe water, walk back with the 45-lb container on her head, and then repeat the trip to the water point probably 3 times a day?

On the bright side, Rwanda has so much to offer.  Venturing further away from Kigali on this trip made me realize how stunningly beautiful this small landlocked country in the middle of the African continent truly is.  The hillsides of the Rulindo District are unlike any others I’ve seen anywhere.  I guess this may be why families are so hesitant to leave these beautiful isolated surroundings to move to the government’s designated re-settlement areas.  The ever present smoky smell from the burning of “charbon” (coal) and the heavy pollution from vehicle exhausts is something I probably won’t miss as much.  What I will miss however are the people.  Rwandans can be best described as kind, respectful and courteous.  They are just wonderful to be around.  I’m sure that again this year it will take me a little time to adjust to how we interact with each other in the US.

Of course not all is perfect in Rwanda.  I’m sure ethnic tension, although not readily apparent, still exist; the government has its critics for some of its rigid policies; many Rwandans, particularly in rural areas, still struggle to escape the grips of poverty.  Whether real or not, some human rights organizations have pointed to abuses in recent years.  It seems like the neediest still do not always benefit enough from the reforms, and there’s too wide a gap between the “haves” and the “have nots,” which of course is not a problem unique to Rwanda.

But, this is Africa!  Considering the size and resources of Rwanda, considering what happened here in 1994 and considering the inherent problems faced by almost all countries is sub-Saharan Africa, even without the aftermath of a genocide, the achievements of the past 18 years have been amazing.  The progress made is a result of a huge amount of energy, resilience, goodwill and sheer hard work.  I find Rwanda to be a vibrant, inspirational and forward-looking country.  The government policies stress Rwandan unity, and the courageous efforts at reconciliation and peaceful coexistence seem to be working.

So what’s next for me?  Well I have to somehow pull together our system design report, which should be pretty extensive and is due in a month.  In less than a week I’ll be giving a talk in Washington DC and then I’ll go back to the East Coast the following week to see Kathryn in NYC.  Given what I’ve learned while in Rwanda, I plan to modify my talk at the CMAA FutureFocus 2012 Roundtable in DC to stimulate a discussion on what could be done to help introduce construction management principles in the developing world.  I also anticipate that there will be a lot to be done in anticipation of our big May 7th WFP fundraising event in San Francisco.  I’ll be sending you all an invitation and hope many of you will be able to attend the event and/or contribute to the “Rulindo Challenge.” 

Spending time in Rulindo the past few weeks made me realize how difficult it will be to realize the objectives of the Rulindo Challenge.  But what are the options?  Being paralyzed by the magnitude of what is to be accomplished is just not an option.  Having access to safe drinking water, one of humans’ most basic need, should not depend on whether you are born in Rwanda, Canada, Bolivia, Cambodia, the US or elsewhere.  Access to safe drinking water is a fundamental human right.

Photos: Various images of the last few weeks include a photo at dinner with the Mayor of Rulindo and one of the entire World Water Corps team of volunteers with the WFP Rwanda staff.

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In Search for Water

My second week in Rwanda began with our most adventurous field trip yet.  Jonathan and I were joined by Peterson (WFP’s Program Manager for the Rulindo Challenge) and Joseph (Rulindo District Water Engineer) on a search for more water.  Joseph is probably around 60 and only speaks French and Kinyarwanda so I served as interpreter between him and Jonathan, although Jonathan’s ability to use his rusted high school French is impressive.  The objective of our trip was to locate and assess alternative sources of water.  Our demand projections clearly show that the current sources used to supply the Burega and Ntarabana sectors will be insufficient to accommodate overall population growth, as well as Rwanda’s plan to re-locate people in remote areas into new settlement areas with services.  Ideally we would like to double the supply available for the two systems serving these sectors, going from 3 Liters/Second to 6 (L/sec) for the Kararama system, and going from 5 to 10 L/sec for the Rwamugaza system.

As usual we had a slow start.  Although we had agreed to leave at 8am from our hotel, Peterson’s late arrival, plus a stop to buy food and to pick up Joseph at a gas station in town, pushed us back nearly 2 hours.  We, by the way, have yet to meet my goal of leaving within an hour of our planned departure time.  Good thing I took my “chill out” pill before I arrive to Africa!

We stopped along the road on our way to the Rulindo District to look at the valley where many wells were dug in recent years to supplement the capital’s ever growing need for more clean water.  Groundwater may turn out to be the answer for the Rulindo District as well, although it does present some challenges, including higher costs.  We travel to a different area of the District on this trip with the goal of identifying existing sources that could be tied to our two systems by gravity.  We made another stop on a small dirt road to look at a swampy valley covered with various crops.  Peterson wanted Jonathan to tell him if groundwater in the valley would likely produce high yields.  So we now like to tease Jonathan that his hydro-geology degree should allow him to determine the yield and depth of a groundwater source in an area just by looking at it; forget about the need for costly exploration wells or borings.

We finally reached our first destination – the cell office in Umurenge Wa Mbogo.  I actually was relieved to see the office given that I had been sick earlier that morning and the Pepto-Bismol I reluctantly ended up taking had yet to kick in.  After being a nice lady took me to the office’s “toilet,” I almost regretted not going in the woods instead.  The office was located beside a school, which happened to be in recess when we arrived so it didn’t take long before we found ourselves surrounded by the students from 3 or 4 classrooms.  As usual many were anxious to have a conversation in their broken English.  One boy in particular was very talkative.  He proudly showed me his belt buckle with a photo of President Obama on it.  This is not the first time that school children bring up Obama.  It is obvious that they are very proud of the fact that the most powerful person in the world is “one of them.”

We walked through the small compound where the office and school are located to reach a dirt path that would take us up to 2 sources.  Joseph pointed to their locations high on the hill ahead of us.  What we couldn’t tell from there was the nature of the hike we were about to undertake.  Not knowing exactly how to get to the sources, he chose the most direct route, which involved a climb that reminded me of some of my rock scrambling up Cradle Mountain in Tasmania.  Only this time, it wasn’t rock we were crawling over but overgrown terraces that were pretty slippery.  Forget about the dirt paths, we were going to somehow reach these sources if that meant having to crawl on our knees to keep our balance.  Peterson gave up quickly and chose to wait for us at the bottom.  Since I have not had a chance to exercise much since I’ve been here, I was determined to follow and get my heart rate up.  As we were going up and up and up, I could hear the echo of children’s calling out “muzungu, muzungu,” announcing the presence of a white person.  It was incredible that on what felt like one of the most remote parts of Africa, in the middle of a hillside away from dirt paths, children still came running from what seemed like nowhere to join us on our climb.  Along the way we had to cross steep cultivated areas, and tried hard to not walk on people’s precious food supply.  We finally made it to our first spring, which was improved a few years back by Germans.  The spring catchment was poorly build as evidenced by the water leaking on each side of the water tap.  There we met children and adults who travel to the spring several times a day.  They had to come from relatively far away because from where we stood, we could not see any houses.

From there we traverse the hillside on a dirt path at about the same elevation, which was several hundred feet above the valley.  While maneuvering around the hillside, I was surprised by how many cows we heard and saw.  Joseph did confirm that many homes in the area benefited from the government program to provide each family in rural areas with a cow.  We eventually had to go down mid-way the hillside to reach the next source, which meant that we would have to climb that much more later.  On our way down I slipped on a steep path of compacted red clay and didn’t have a chance to catch myself before going down.  Fortunately I got back up without any significant pain after sliding a little ways with one of my knees twisted behind me.  On our way back up to the second source, once again Joseph was unsure of the best way to get there so he asked a woman who lived on the hillside.  She kept screaming the directions as we were going up to make sure we would stay away from the unprotected bee hives perched in what looked like a pretty precarious location.  On our way up, Joseph commented that I was “souple comme un garcon,” which I guess was a compliment, since it translates as “you are supple as a boy.”  I believe he meant I was in good shape, which I’m far from being these days given my lack of working out in recent months.

On our final decent we ran into the kind woman who had directed us going up the hill earlier in the afternoon.  She was washing clothes in a small stream.  We had to cross through her yard on our way down and saw her little boy (probably 2 years old) who was left behind while she was at the stream.  He was standing in the “door-less” doorway of the small mud house, his bare feet on the dirt floor.  Behind him inside the home can only be described as some of the poorest conditions I ever encountered.  Nothing to sleep on, nothing to sit on, just dirt … and yet the woman was engaging and eager to help us.  If this woman’s daily life doesn’t justify the mission of WFP and other NGOs fighting poverty in the developing world, I don’t know what does.

Unfortunately the flow measurements taken at both springs were not very promising.  We came back to the cell office about 3 hours later concluding that these sources were not the solution to our water shortage.  We assessed a few other sources located closer roads and they had even lower yields.  Rwanda does have adequate rainfalls and a decent overall water supply.  The challenge however is to find sources that are high enough to minimize pumping in this extremely mountainous country and close enough to avoid long and costly transmission systems that serve only a limited number of users.  The good news is that this is a challenge that I believe is not insurmountable.  With ingenuity, sound engineering and plain old hard work, everyone in the Rulindo District will have access to clean water in the near future.


In search of water – Valley and hillsides we explored, cell office and school; Guy with white hat is Joseph; and woman who help us with direction (she’s washing clothes in stream).

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Dimanche a Kigali

We started our Sunday with our usual walk to the office.  Although we had planned on taking the day off, this was one of the few days Pacifique, the project surveyor, could get together with us.  He promised not to be on African time, which meant that he showed up 45 minutes late.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with African time, it typically translates to anywhere between 1 to 2 hours later than the agreed upon time.  Once at the office, Diana, the volunteer in charge of water quality, informed us that we could not leave without drinking 2 bottles of non-alcoholic champagne.  She needed dark glass bottles with a good seal to conduct chlorine-decay tests and the champagne bottles with their cork, which were leftover from the launch of the Rulindo Challenge, were ideal.  So we all complied and drank 2 bottles at 9:30am in the morning while meeting with Pacifique.  I’m not sure if all non-alcoholic champagnes taste that awful, but it sure didn’t give me any incentive to give up on the real stuff.

Frustrated by the lack of decent internet access at the office, Jonathan and I decided early afternoon to return to the hotel where the wireless connection is barely faster.  I worked a little longer and then decided to take advantage of the nice weather and go exploring around the hotel.  Auberge Beausejour is located away from the City Center, which I prefer given that it provides an opportunity to get a better feel for real life in the capital.  I started walking towards the Amahoro Stadium, the only stadium in the country, with the hope I could run around the track like I did many times a year ago.  Unfortunately the gates were locked so I kept going and decided to join the crowd watching a kids’ football game on a nearby field.  Needless to say, it was hard to blend in and not stand out being the only white and woman spectator on the sidelines.  Many kids came to visit with me to try out their newly learned English vocabulary.  With the Kagame government requiring schools to teach English instead of French since 2005, you can no longer communicate with kids in French.  My guess is that in a generation or two from now, French may no longer be spoken in this country.  As usual, the streets were packed with people.  Some on the move; others just standing around to socialize with friends.  Like in all African countries, walking is how most get around.  Although public transportation is available, many can’t afford it.  The other popular way to get somewhere quickly if one has the means is by moto, Kigali’s most popular form of “taxis.”  The problems with that option are negotiating a price in Kinyarwanda, the lack coverage from your travel insurance and having to put on a helmet worn by thousands before you. 

Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, straggles over several hills.  It apparently has grown dramatically since the country’s independence in 1962.  Its population today is approaching 1 million.  The center of Kigali is bustling, colorful and noisy, but it is surprisingly clean and safe for an African city.  The fact that the country banned the use of plastic bags years ago makes such a difference when it comes to litter.  Also, the fact that no Rwandans seem to smoke; there are no cigarette butts on the street.  Being in an almost smoke-free environment is heaven for me (“almost” because the few European expats we run into do smoke).  With so many national guards armed with assault weapons standing on each street corner, it is hard not to feel safe.  It is however a reminder that although pretty stable, the country is still worried that the occasional infiltrations of loyalists from the “Forces Democratiques de Liberation du Rwanda” could reawaken ethnic tensions.  Apparently FDLR insurgents entered the country from the Democratic Republic of the Congo last December and killed many in two separate bombings here in Kigali.

Shortly after I got back to the hotel, we split up into two taxis and went to the center of town to a great Indian restaurant.  I remembered it being our best meal last year and again it didn’t disappoint.  We totally splurged and each ended up with a 12,000 RF (about $20) tab, double what we normally pay but well worth it.  Although we don’t think twice about spending $20 on a meal in the US, I couldn’t help but feel guilty to spend this much knowing that this represents about a tenth of the country’s GDP per capita.

Photos:  Various sites from Kigali, including Amahoro Stadium and the  UN Headquarters where General Dallaire operated from during the Genocide.

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My New Office in Kigali

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Our last few days have been spent at the WFP office in Kigali.  We collected enough data in the field to start building a hydraulic model of the two water systems we’re designing.  We typically meet at about 8:30am and walk over to the office, which is about 1.5 km away.  The walk is along a pretty busy road and gives us a small glimpse of real life in the Rwandan capital.  Once we get to the office, we all jam around a large wood table with barely enough room to walk behind people’s chairs.  Our work environment does present some challenges.  For one, it is extremely noisy because of traffic and nearby construction.  The electricity goes out every day so the work of those with short battery life on their computer gets interrupted.  Accessing the internet is painfully slow.  Even though we all connect using Ethernet cables, I’ve never experienced such slow connections.  This is partially why I haven’t been able to post stories on my blog as much as I’d like to.  In fact it is so slow that I have yet to be able to open Gmail from the office.

We typically break for lunch and go down to a small store below the office.  The food choice are limited to chips (which are fries), peanuts, samosas, and flat bread.  Just to give you an idea of prices, the samosas are 100 RF, which is about 15 cents.  Sodas are more expensive at 300 RF.  They normally don’t let people leave the store with their drinks because of the value of the glass bottles.  They however make an exception for us knowing that we work in the building and always bring back our bottles.

Our design is progressing nicely.  We now have completed the demand analysis on one system and are almost done on the analysis for the second.  These analyses required an incredible amount of data such as the number of households in each village, the number of children going to each school, the number of in- and out-patients for each health clinic, the average consumption per day which may vary depending on the distance to a communal tap, the rate of leakage or loss, and the expected growth of the population over the life of the system, which we assume will be 25 years.  The surveyor also didn’t take GPS measurements on the existing system, which may not be possible in some areas anyway because of the lack of records on the system.  So what we did instead is bring in one of the District engineers with the most experience in the office, and he drew a map of the system by hand.  We couldn’t believe it when on top of his head he was able to give us all pipe lengths, size and material, as well as the approximate location of all reservoirs and pump station.  Given his sketch we were able to make some decent guesses on the alignment of existing pipes.  The exact location of all existing communal taps was however much more difficult to figure out since there are no roads to many of the villages served by the existing system that is 42 km long.  So in the end, the level of accuracy of our modeling efforts will be much less than what we’re used to in the US but it certainly will be adequate to size and locate new pipelines, reservoirs , pump stations and communal taps.

The demand analysis of the first system did confirm that the system would run out of water relatively quickly if we are to accommodate population growth.  So we’re planning to send Jonathan, the hydro-geologist on our team, in the field next week to try to locate and assess the potential yield of a few new gravity-fed springs.  As expected, our first bacteriological tests showed the presence of E-coli so we’ll definitely be recommending some form of chlorination, which this part of the county is not accustomed to.  So extensive training in the various communities will be required before such a change is made.  If not, many may choose not to drink the water thinking the it’s “bad” because of the chlorine taste.

We had an interesting discussion with Peterson, the WFP Program Director for the Rulindo Challenge, when we started looking at the size of communal taps provided in the various villages the system will serve.  Currently, women and children often wait over an hour to fill their Jerry cans.  There are three reasons for that, not enough taps, low flows (takes longer to fill a can), and the limited number of hours the taps are open.  So since our design assumes that communal taps will only be open during three 2-hour periods per day (6-8am, 12-2pm and 5-7pm), we proposed to Peterson to design kiosks with multiple taps and ensure adequate water pressure to reduce wait time.  His response was that women may not appreciate these improvements since the wait at water taps gives them an opportunity to socialize with their neighbor.  I guess this shows how the fetching of water has become such a way of life for women in the developing world.  Their day is pretty much organized around that activity that takes so much of their time.  Radically reducing the time women need to fetch water (which our project will do) will result in a significant cultural change that will require major adjustment.  Social programs will likely be required to help women make the transition in such a way that they can take full advantage of the opportunities that may emerge with having 4 extra hours each day.

Our work day in the office typically ends at about 6:30pm, so we don’t get back to the office much before 7pm.  For dinner, we’ve been alternating between the two decent restaurants that are walking distance from the hotel and I’m pretty much asleep by 10am.  That probably explains why I have yet been able to sleep in past 5am.  We’ve worked every day since arriving to Rwanda.  Because we’ve had very limited access to the project surveyor in the last 3 days, we agreed to go to the office on both Saturday and Sunday so we could have some time with him.  He was on African time yesterday (2 hours late) but he promised he would do better today (Sunday).  My hope is that we will only need to work half a day so we can do some shopping in the middle of town. 


My new office in Kigali

View from office balcony

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