2017 Grant Award: Tessa Sontheimer

A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.

- Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Humanitarian Engineering and Social Entrepreneurship (HESE) is a program that seeks to immerse students from diverse academic backgrounds into developing contexts and allow them an opportunity to create ventures that seek to great solutions to complex and pressing problems. I had the opportunity to travel with HESE May 9-30th to Arusha, Tanzania.

I am part of the Quick Bricks Team, and the issue we were tasked to address was lack of affordable housing. This issue straddles the intersection of affordable housing, population growth, and unsustainable building materials, presenting itself as a wicked problem in need of complex solutions. My team included a PhD architecture student, two international affairs Master’s students, and four undergraduates ranging from civil engineering to community development.

The goals of our fieldwork were two pronged. First, we sought to gain experience with the soil and earth of Arusha through the creation of an earthen oven and stove. These structures allowed us to gain experience working with masons, gain social capital, experience a construction site in the context of our venture, and validate hypothesis about heat transfer. Second, we wanted to gather data on the production of fired earth bricks, which we did by interviewing masons. We set a quota of five interviews and asked questions about each step of the manufacturing process as well as about the costs, marketability of selling, and knowledge of masons. Through our interviews and eventually the publication we will craft from the data we gathered, we will make a contribution to the empirical understanding of the fired brick manufacturing process in Tanzania.

The learning and insights gained during our fieldwork experience stemmed far beyond the expected insights of our project. By having the opportunity as an undergraduate to develop and implement parts of a project in a very different context taught me about the universal challenges of working in a different context, particularly a resource scarce and differing language one. I also experienced a lot of personal growth during my fieldwork experience, likely due to this being one of my longest stays in a culture different from my own. Recognizing the privileges and expectations one carries when entering a new context is essential to doing good work. Checking the expectations of the Tanzanians we were working with, as well as our own, was a nearly constant concern because no one wants to over promise or disappoint stakeholders and collaborators.

Being aware of expectations, as well as tokenism is essential to ensure all those involved are able to meet at the same place in the process. Also ensuring that the groundwork is laid and all collaborators are aware of outcomes and responsibilities before the process stats is incredibly important. One of the most central things I learned is the value of relationships, throughout all of the experiences and challenges on the trip this was a pillar. Ensuring that you have people on your team and behind you that are beyond capable and well connected is essential to getting any work done.