May 31, 2010

I'm baaaaaack!

I’m back from New York! I had the best time ever and saw so many of my friends and family. It was absolutely perfect. A lot of people asked if it was scary or overwhelming to be back in ‘civilization’ and especially in NYC— no, it wasn’t. Well, actually it was a bit overwhelming to be in one car with my entire family and it was strange that everyone—even the shabbiest looking guy on the subway, begging for change—has a blackberry, iphone, etc. But I can tell you with complete certainty and honesty that it was NOT AT ALL overwhelming to choose a beer in a bar with 20 different beers on tap. I also thoroughly enjoyed riding the subway, paying for cabs with credit card, never carrying around change, wearing a jacket, and eating hamburgers, sushi or pizza everyday.

But now that I’m back I actually have a lot going on here. My main project now is a bike-powered grinding machine. I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned it here, but I’ve been working on it for several months now. The women here spend several hours a day pounding rice, millet and peanuts in a huge mortar and pestal. It's extremely labor intensive and time cosuming. This machine, a bike pedal-powered grinder, would make pounding obsolete, revolutionizing the day-to-day life of women here. Also, because men and boys are the one who ride bikes in this country, it could possibly transform the job of pounding/grinding grains from strictly women's resposibility to both men and women's work.

The machine was originally designed and built by the engineering department at Rowan University in New Jersey. Travis, a previous volunteer that has since finished his service here, was originally in charge of the project. Through his contacts with that university's chapter of Engineers Without Borders, he heard about the machine and somehow arranged to have the machine brought here so we could attempt to build and distribute it locally. The grinding mechanism built at the university, however, was very complicated, and local welders were unable to replicate it. So, Travis took the machine to the Gambian Technical Institute (GTTI), which has the most advanced welding technology in the country, to see if they could produce a second one with their equipment. The problem I had with that plan, however, was that even IF the people at GTTI were able to reproduce the grinding mechanism, how can a machine be sustainable and usable throughout the country if its most vital element can only be manufactured in one place?

It can't. Here's why: Let’s first imagine that somehow, everyone in the country finds out about this milling machine and wants to buy it. The only place to purchase one is GTTI. The people living in the capital can go and place an order, but the people ‘upcountry,’ living a 2 to 12 hour car ride from the capital, have to somehow get in contact with GTTI. But I can say with almost complete certainty that there are no Gambians outside of the capital with the ability to reach GTTI (ie. Don’t have the phone number and have no way to get it and there's no real postal service in this country). So they’d have to go through their nearest Peace Corps volunteer to place the order. Then, somehow, these upcountry Gambians would have to get their money to GTTI and then GTTI would have to find a way to get the machine back to them. THEN if the machine has a problem, the only people who can fix it are at GTTI, anywhere from 2 hours to 12 hours away. Now these local villagers have to find a way to get the machine back to GTTI, pay for repairs and get it back. Let me add that most upcountry Gambians have never been to the capital.

You see how impossible this would be, right? Moreover, several months had passed and the GTTI people still couldn't build it. So, a few days before Travis finshished his service, he and I decided to forget about trying to reproduce Rowan U's original grinding device and chose instead, to see if we could make the machine work using the less strong, but widely available, local peanut grinders. After I purchased one at the market, Kris (another volunteer--my current partner on the project) and I took the grinder and the machine to a local welder to see if he could somehow attach it to the bike machine so it would be powered by the pedaling motion... ANDDDD he did! We picked up the finished product this morning-- it’s awesome and grinds so quickly. And, best of all, it's built entirely from local materials so that any welder ANYWHERE in the country can build and fix it, aka totally sustainable!

The plan now is to show it to a few NGOs and see if they would pay to have them mass produced or give us funding to do a trek around the country in which we teach the local welders how to build it for their own communities! Wish me luck, pictures to come soon!!!

***I updated, Don!

Below is a picture of the original machine. The one we picked up today is WAAYYY DIFFERENT. It has handle bars, cross bars to keep it steady, and a different grinding device.


Lauren said...

so proud!

T Warrington said...

Nicely, done gorgeous!I could have not left this project to anyone else to see these results. Too proud to see our machine 'done' and ready to train local welders and get this thing (inshallah) mass produced by those welders. Trav

Jan said...

Hi Marnie -- Ron Ferris' daughter, Jan, here. What a fabulous idea, and I am so excited to read how you guys were able to come up with a more accessible and sustainable grinder. Good luck getting funding. Sounds like a total no brainer to me.

Glad you were able to get away, and came back with your own batteries re-charged.

Take care and post again soon. XOXO!