Traveling to Rwanda: Top 10 Lessons I Learned
by Uche Agwu (MECH '18)
Traveling to Nyange, Rwanda, with EWB was one of the greatest experiences I have had as a Santa Clara engineering student. The opportunity to use the engineering skills I have gained throughout the years at SCU to empower the tile-making cooperative we work with was truly humbling and rewarding. I also learned a lot and here are my top 10 lessons for any future EWB Rwandan travelers and/or other service-based travelers:
- Be as adventurous as possible: There were many opportunities for me to step out of my comfort zone such as trying new food, using tools I haven’t used before, working on devices I haven’t used, and trying to speak a new language. Although these were all hard, moving out of my comfort zone allowed me to grow into a more holistic person who had a better understanding of myself and my goals for the trip. As cliché as it sounds, what you put in is truly what you get out.
- Welcome and accept the unexpected: When the EWB travel team arrived in Rwanda, we weren’t expecting to find that the clay mixer was not being used. We learned there was a gear and alignment issue and that there was a miscommunication about their process of mixing clay, so we ended up spending time on that. We had to alter our planned schedule of focusing on interviews, the tile press, and examining the possibilities of a clay transport system. You can never prepare for these situations, but you can always do your best to adapt; and that’s exactly what we did. We are currently working on a new way to enhance the clay mixer and determine the best way to implement it into the Nyange community.
- Understand the history and people you are working for: When we arrived in Rwanda, one of the first things we did was visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial. Understanding the history behind Rwanda and what they’ve gone through to be where they are now gave me more of a conviction to help the community. Just as they are pushing to be as successful as possible, we had to do the same for our community in Nyange.
- Always do what you can: When we first arrived in Nyange and met the community members of the tile-making cooperative, the poverty and difference in our lifestyles were visible. I quickly grew fond of the community members and wanted to do more than just improve a tile press or work on clay mixer. I wanted to help them and their children receive the type of opportunities that my friends and I would receive when we traveled back to SCU. However, I knew that this was impossible to do in the span of two weeks. In these tough situations, you must always do what you can and in my case, that was putting all my focus and dedication into the tile press and clay mixer. You may not be able to solve the big problems of a struggling community, but you can always give your time and effort to brighten the day of at least one person within that community and that can range from developing a device that will empower the community’s economic standing to playing with some children and making them smile.
- Reflection is crucial to success: During my time in Rwanda, I reflected about the importance of the work that I was doing. Although I wanted to do so much more for the country, again I remembered that I can only do what I can. Reflecting allows you to come to a better understanding of your purpose and gives you a quiet time to think about the impact you are making and what you can do better. It also helps with planning and determining what can be done to best impact the community.
- Connect with others: I met so many beautiful, caring, and inspirational people in Rwanda and I definitely learned a lot from them. Whether they were translators or those helping us get to where we needed to be, they all had something important to bring to the table to benefit the project. Understanding their stories and backgrounds made it easier to work with them and I gained insights about life that were new and interesting to me.
- Let your voice be heard: When working on a project with an engineering team that is dedicated to empowering a community, there are many times when you will have to speak up and give your opinion about the project and what should be done next. This is so crucial to the success of the project because it helps ideas flow and effectively formulates them into a solution.
- Always ask questions!: This is so important because it allows you to gain more information about the project and even the background of the people you are working with. We came to have a better understanding of the clay mixer and its ideal purpose by constantly having our translators ask questions about the community’s mixing process and what it needs to do. We would not have been able to come back with a plan for how to fix and move forward with the clay mixer if we had not done so.
- Failure is a version of success: There were many times when I had to get past my fear of being wrong or making a mistake about something. There were times when I was right and there were times when I was wrong about a decision I made. Although I want to be careful with everything I do, I had to be able to make those mistakes and learn from them. It was through this reasoning that I was able to have a better understanding of the tile press that we worked on and the clay mixer as well. What’s more, making mistakes helped me develop ideas on how to enhance these devices or examine how we could better implement them within the community.
- Live in the Moment: Finally, I believed that it was so important to live in the moment and make sure to make the most of the limited time I had with Rwanda and its amazing people. I admit that my phone was a distraction, so I encourage those who are travelling abroad to do some variety of service work to limit their phone usage as much as possible. There are too many things to do, people to meet, and beautiful sights to see. Travelling abroad, especially service-based travelling, gives you a new perspective on life and relationships between others. I personally believe that it’s the most authentic way to learn about and experience a new country or area, its tastes, sights, culture, and people. You may never get the same opportunity twice, so you’ll definitely want to make the most of it.