My first blog post is being written on a comfortable double-decker bus traveling from Montreal to Toronto, as I make my way towards a week of pre-departure training for a 4-month placement with Engineers Without Borders Canada (EWB) in Burkina Faso. On my brand new 14-hour-battery-life laptop, bought especially for the time I will spend in Africa, it has taken me roughly four hours to obtain a website, create my blog, implement a few features, and write my post, all online. In those four hours, my biggest concern has been the quality of the wireless connection on the bus: it has failed every now and again, prevented seamless working conditions and made me insult my browser’s intelligence through silent expletives several times.
Let me write that again: the most significant limitation I have faced in accomplishing my work today has been the quality of a wireless connection on a bus. For all intents and purposes, that is the single variable out of my control.
I wonder what a producer practicing subsistence agriculture in Burkina would have to say about my predicament. Is the lack of a reliable wireless connection comparable to when the rains arrive late, his harvest is cut in half and he spends the latter part of the year going hungry?
In Canada, we have our own set of expectations (like universal internet access), pressures (like delivering on our commitments) and limitations (like reduced connectivity when on the move) based on our own context. Even at home, most will agree that my limited connectivity on the bus is a pretty trivial issue, but things are not always easy: working part-time to afford school, looking for a meaningful job, paying off the mortgage, saving for a retirement, raising a child in an increasingly complex world – we all still face harrowing challenges every day.
Still, for the most part, in spite of the difficulties, that context we live in provides us with an endless number of opportunities that many can only dream of. Is that right?
The work that Engineers Without Borders does in Burkina Faso is about giving farmers and their dependents – who make up the great majority of the population – that same world of opportunity. It is not giving hand outs; it is not building bridges. It is developing the knowledge, skills and attitudes of Burkinabes in order for them to reduce their vulnerability and bring themselves out of poverty through their own means. It is recognizing and promoting Burkinabe entrepreneurship and leadership, and valuing it in the office and in the classroom. It is empowering Burkinabes to take control of their own fate.
It is addressing the root causes of poverty by investing in volunteers who dream big and Burkinabes who work hard. It is courageously committing to bold ideas for creating change in Africa while striving for the humility to accept failure and realize we do not possess all the answers. Throughout it all, it is asking tough questions about the value of our work and the reasons that we do what we do.
Wish me luck!