Thursday, October 7, 2010

Engineers Without Borders: Outside Looking In

In my last blog I mentioned that EWB "galvanizes young people to engage in work that has the potential to bring about significant change, particularly in Africa". That only describes part of the organization's focus. Their mission does involve "creating opportunities for rural Africans to create positive change in their lives" and much of this is accomplished through linking volunteers with agencies in certain African countries, and motivating those volunteers to become deeply engaged with the people of rural Africa. But there is another side to EWB's work, which is to raise awareness and understanding of African issues in Canada.

I'm wading in here from a position of relative ignorance. I haven't attended any EWB workshops or seminars. I've explored their website and read some of the volunteer blogs. I've listened to my son and other members of EWB talking about their experiences and their goals. I'm not sure exactly what they are accomplishing in Africa, but from my vantage point, they are doing an unusually effective job of raising awareness in Canada, without even really trying.

Perhaps that is part of the key to EWB's power. They don't pontificate. They don't directly attempt to institute change. They don't rush in with solutions to problems or try to supply resources to African communities that they think will help. The volunteers immerse themselves in the culture of their host country. They do their best to live like those around them in order to experience their struggles and joys in an immediate way. Volunteers seek to understand the root causes of problems affecting the people with whom they live and work, so they can attempt to address those causes, rather than the symptoms. They also try to discover ways to help Africans help themselves - so they can take ownership of the change they're involved in initiating. As least that is how I understand it, on the outside looking in.

The experience is profound and individual - and dramatically changes the way the volunteers think about Africa. There's a remarkable commonality in the blogs: the volunteers have deep respect for the people with whom they engage - for their courage, their optimism and the simplicity of their lives. Of course the volunteers also develop an intense awareness of the struggles, the limited opportunities, poverty, disease, and lack of education, but they feel immense hope - and repeatedly reiterate that there is much more to Africa than poverty. They love being there, they want to return, they believe the people of Africa will find their feet, in their own way.

When my son went to Zambia for 4 months, I worried. It seemed so far away, so potentially dangerous, so foreign. How would he, at age 22, manage?

Now, as he prepares to head off to Ghana for two years, I feel differently. I will miss him, of course - it's a long time. But his first experience in Africa was so life-changing and enriching that I embrace this second opportunity for him to grow.

In the same way that the experience of being immersed in African culture changes the volunteers, so my experience of their transformation has changed the way I think about Africa. Like them, I want to learn more and I feel hopeful. If that is one of EWB's goals, they're achieving it.

I am fascinated by the way EWB inspires these young people and prepares them to be so open to and reflective about their experiences in Africa. There is some magic at work here and I want to learn more about that, too.

I welcome your input!


  1. Your worry was understandable, Meg. You've since seen the impact and have changed your attitude accordingly. I can relate. Meanwhile, what a wonderful job you've done with your son. He learned something valuable from you and you must be so proud. Kudos for instilling such admirable qualities.

  2. "The experience is profound and individual - and dramatically changes the way the volunteers think about Africa."

    Dear Meg,

    As a fellow EWBer, I can easily relate to that sentence. I did dramatically change during my time with EWB, even if I did not to Africa. The changes I felt were mainly with regards to my friends, family and colleages, and to realize how difficult yet possible it is to empower them to understand the impacts of engineering in development, and to embody the values of global engineering in their future professional life. EWB has changes not only how I think about Africa, but also how I think about Canada.

    I'm curious to know, how did Mike approach the topic with you, or how did discussions about development arise in your household? Where you interested about Africa before his involvement in EWB, or did he spark your interest through conversations and stories?

    I ask because I don't think my parents never "got" EWB, nor why I was so passionate about it. I wonder if this is because I didn't communicate our work effectively, or simply because development in Africa was not there cup of tea.


    Past president
    McGill University

  3. Hi Daniel,

    Thanks for commenting. I was not particularly interested in - or at least focused on - Africa before Mike joined EWB. The impact of EWB on Mike - even before he went to Zambia - was huge. When he suddenly become so passionate about change and Africa and EWB, I was intrigued - I'd never seen him so enthusiastic about anything before.

    But certainly he was keen to share his passion and his learning with us - and when he went away, following his blog and experiences helped us keep in touch.

    Recently I've met several of his friends and have realized it's not just Mike, but an awful lot of EWBers who seem to be inspired by the organization's approach/goals - and this made me even more interested. I suppose there must be some people who've been involved with EWB who have had negative experiences/lost interest - I just haven't met any.

    Sorry to hear your parents didn't get the bug. From where I sit, I can't see what is NOT appealing about EWB!

    What are you up to now?

  4. Dear Meg,

    My name is Sarah Anne Didora and I am a former member of EWB-UT. For approximately 5 years I too struggled bringing my mom into the fold with regards to the work we were doing! I probably failed with articulating the differing projects etc but just like Daniel, I was forbidden from traveling abroad and being more active in the change I believed I could assist in.

    The team is absolutely inspirational and integral. I have personally put into practice the life skills I learned with the organization and parlayed that into being very active in the political sphere of Ontario, Canada.

    I've also read your books and I applaud you and all your positive efforts to make sure that this country is better than ever for the sake of our children! :-)

    You are a true leader!
    Also, congrats on having such a wonderful son in Michael.

    Now if only we could cure my MS lol.


    SarahD <3