We spent the first several days of our pre-assessment trip visiting different communities that our NGO partner organization identified as potential candidates for an EWB project partnership. Our days were immersion experiences, spent in the communities, since we were seeking to truly understand the character of each community and the scope of their infrastructural difficulties.
Every day began roughly the same way. We would all rise bright and early, use the showers while the water was still on for the day, and get a small plastic cup full of coffee and sugar from our friendly hotel owner. At that point we would sit around in a circle and review what needed to get done throughout the day. This preparation would end with the arrival of our local NGO contact from Save the Children, Julio.
Julio drives a small Ford Ranger that comfortably seats four, and uncomfortably five. We had six people. Needless to say, it was always a tight squeeze to and from the communities, but we made it work. On the bright side, this forced us to get close with each other, and led to plenty of laughs.
In most of the communities there was a large party of community members awaiting our arrival. They would be gathered in their town meeting place, and would be very excited to meet us. The introductions and general ice breaking would last nearly an hour, even before the meeting would begin.
Once everyone was settled and present (late arrival was common, as people generally move at a much slower, laid back pace) we could begin, and would start by running through many of the questions that we had written before we had even left for the trip back in the spring. What problems do you see in your community? Do you have water? These would give us a general idea of the need of the community, and led to deeper probing questions. As all communities expressed their main need for water, we were able to ask deeper questions on this issue. For example, how much time do you spend a day without water, and how much time and money do you have to spend on water in a week? What is your current standing water infrastructure? That last question would almost always transition us into the next phase of our day: the field investigation.
All three communities had existing water supply systems, but none of them met the current need of the community. To gain a better understanding of the problem and how much we could do for the problem, we needed to physically see their infrastructure, as their explanations were far from enough. Unfortunately (or fortunately for some), the reservoirs and wells were never right in the middle of the town. Instead, they were miles away, through dense jungle and forest and involved some intense bushwhacking and hiking to reach.
However, once we did eventually reach them, the notes and photographs we took really cleared up the problem and potential solutions. For example, at one community there were potentially adjustments that could have been made to the reservoir to increase water flow, but in others, work could be better used on the water catchment tanks. This is the part of the day that was the most involved for the engineering mindset.
After our romp through the woods, we would return to our home base town for lunch. Lunch and dinner was generally the same thing every day: rice or fried plantain, and some sort of meat. The portions were huge, although eating the same thing every day did get old quickly. However, lunch served a larger purpose than just eating. It was also our team’s time to recover, recap, and plan for the afternoon. Before Julio returned to take us back into the community, we spent enough time discussing what we still needed to ask the community in order to get a fuller picture of them as a group and of their problem.
This was really important for us, as it allowed us to be as efficient as possible once we actually got into the community in the afternoon. This allowed us to tread a very thin line between not staying long enough and not getting enough information on the community, or overstaying and becoming too attached to the individual communities, which would have made our decision on which community to work with biased and much more difficult.
Generally the afternoon in the communities would only last an hour or two and would just be another meeting with the officials of the community. We really focused on coming in, getting the information we needed, and leaving in a timely fashion. On the whole, the afternoon meeting was great for tying together the picture of each community and filling in all the holes.
In the evenings, we did our best to unwind back in town and relax for an hour or two. Talking to people all day in the hot Dominican sun really wore us all out! This also gave us time to personally reflect on the community we visited that day and some of its strong and weak points.
Each night we had a recap meeting right before dinner. This would be the time to gather all the notes that we took throughout the day, and create pros and cons analysis for the community. At this point we would also discuss what did not go as well as we had hoped, and what improvements we could make to our new community visit the next day. This nightly meeting was probably the most important part of the day for me, as it really gave me a chance to collect a full vision of the community in my own mind, by incorporating all the information and opinions of my teammates.
This was the general routine for the three days that we spent meeting the communities. The days following were spent deciding which community to work with, and then getting to know that community on a much more personal basis.
Written by Alex Byrnes '18