2018: Days 7-8

What a productive couple of days we have had in the community. The first thing we want to do is send out the hugest thanks and kudos to the students and faculty from the Food and Agricultural Institute (FAI). They joined us in Nyange for both days 6 and 7. As we have mentioned in past communications, our community needed to widen their footpath to accommodate the electric cart.

When we arrived on day 4 to reconnect with the cooperative, we walked the new trail. The community had done loads of work but the trail was not widened all the way to the clay source and many steep sections of the trail were also off camber (had a slope toward the trail edge). This camber makes the cart want to consistently pull toward the exposed trail edge.

When the FAI team arrived Monday night (Day 5) in Muhanga, they asked what they might do in the community. When we suggested trail work, they were amazingly all super motivated to jump in. They worked from 9 am to 1 pm for two solid days while making it a party atmosphere. They smiled through blisters, sore backs and sweaty brows and had a great time playing with the children that seemed to follow the group up and down the trail. Without FAI’s help, our project would not have been successful. Our test runs on Day 5 highlighted the challenge of steering the cart on wet clay soil in the off camber sections. Dr. T spent the two days working with FAI and all difficult sections have been leveled, rock culverts were dug and built in multiple locations to stop erosion and the trail was extended all the way to the valley floor - about .17 km of trail widening. At the valley, they even cut brand new trail to create a more direct route to the clay source. The obvious difference in cart maneuverability thanks to their work, makes the challenge of steering the cart up and down the trail significantly easier.

The FAI group didn’t get to spend nearly as much time with the community as our team, so we finished their last day with a meeting among everyone. The FAI students were able to ask a few questions to the community and the co-op president presented all of us a large box of freshly picked pineapple as a thank you for all we have done. Everyone left happy.

Our team began training co-op members on driving the cart on day 7 but did the training on their flat clearing next to their co-op building. Watching them learn to both steer and control a throttle and then teach each other was really rewarding. If you have never driven a motorcycle, you might not realize how unintuitive a throttle is. You pull back to go faster and let go to stop. However, most of us pull back to stop something, which just opens the throttle more. This lead to a few funny moments with folks running behind the cart. As Mediatrice said when she was learning, “This is great but can you make it slower?” We all laughed with her and said, “No, but you can!”

The cart team finished their training by having a couple of co-op members use the cart to take rocks down to the trail builders and bring up the first load of clay! Success! The co-op members then hooked up the solar panel to recharge the batteries and later independently put the entire system, cart and all, away in their building.

Meanwhile, the rest of the team and remaining members of the co-op practiced using the tile press, which was last year’s project. We had heard in the spring that the community wasn’t using the press because it was too slow. So, we had them demonstrate to us how they make a tile using the tile press. The first tile they made took 10 minutes with two presses at the ends of the tile. Next, it was our turn to make some corrections to their operation of the press, make suggestions for improving the efficiency of their process, and introduce the tile press modification. The modification was a quarter inch thick rectangular steel plate with a bolt at each corner, like a table, to help distribute the load from the hydraulic jack, so that only one press is required to create a high quality tile. The co-op members tried it out and made suggestions for improving the modification. Then they got really creative and made a multitude of tiles using their current process and new suggestions and methods. Overall, the modification wasn’t a perfect solution, but it was a great chance for the team and the co-op to collaborate and problem solve.

Whether it was teaching the community how to operate the cart, working with the tile press or having lots of fun with the FAI group and seeing all the progress, there seemed to be a prevailing theme for the week. As individuals we were ineffectual but as a group we were unstoppable. What an amazing thing to experience.

Thursday (day 8) was full of lessons for both the co-op and our team. We continued to teach the members how to use the cart, this time fully loaded with clay and on the trail. Through our interviews we learned more about the members and their Iives, and how our past projects have both helped and hindered their efforts. Hearing from the members that they liked the tiles that the press made, but they felt it was simply too slow and confusing for some to use was hard. It was a humbling and vital lesson for us, as we remind ourselves of the importance of keeping the engineering and designs human-centered.

Half the team monitored the co-op’s runs with the cart up and down the trail, while the other half started research for a potential water project, that would bring fresh spring water up the steep hillsides to the community. Calixte brought Dr. T, Sydney, Shiyin and Amani to the base of a hill with a 73.4 degree slope (that’s super steep) where the natural spring started. Then without any hesitation, Calixte and Dr. T proceeded to walk up and traverse the hill effortlessly. Meanwhile, Shiyin, Sydney and Amani took a little more time to find footholds and were grabbing at grass and tree roots to clamber up the hill.

The afternoon brought the long awaited reunion of Shiyin and Jon with the mechanic at Kabgayi Garage where, the year before, the molds for the tile press had been cut to size. This year we stopped by and reconnected with the mechanic in the hopes of finding a motorcycle intertube to create a gasket to protect the caster wheel bearings. With luck and a bit of asking around, we managed to find just the thing we were looking for. Afterwards, we headed to a market to find a cheese wheel for our upcoming visit to Akagera National Park. With road snacks abound, we headed back to Don Bosco for dinner and planning for the next day.

Everyone is happy but tired. The days are long, the wifi is limited but the work is joyful and rewarding.