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Graduate of the Year's sabbatical in Africa

As the 2015 edition of the NCE Graduate of the Year Awards launches, last year’s winner Sophie McPhillips talks about the work she has done for Engineers Without Borders

What were you working on in The Gambia?

I was volunteering for Africa Water Enterprises which is the NGO working in the region. I was placed there by Engineers Without Borders. The main focus was working in three villages on the north river bank of the Gambia where Africa Water Enterprises had put in one new hand pump in each of the villages and then in a couple of those villages we were also working to fix some broken hand pumps.

Did you give the locals the tools to keep the pumps working when you left?

The current set up for many of these hand pumps across sub Saharan Africa is: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  Usually the hand pumps just break and they’ll call the hand pump mechanic to fix it. What we were trying to focus on was regularly maintaining them so we trained the pump mechanic to grease the parts, tighten the bolts on a regular basis and we told him to perform tests every three months. And every year we’ll come back together take out the whole hand pump, pull up all the pipes from below ground and inspect it.

Sophie McPhillips

NCE Graduate of the Year Sophie McPhillips, second from left

What were the local contractors like?

It took a while to find a local mason. We went through a couple at first who we didn’t really think were up to scratch but then we managed to find a team that were really proactive. They admitted to not having done a project like that before but they took away the guidance documents and came back with all the materials and costings. I supervised them on site and I was really impressed.

How were your received?

Very well. I was slightly concerned as a young female engineer that there could be some issues, particularly because it is a Muslim country and women don’t work there in general. But actually the team I was working with were really supportive and really glad of the expertise so I had no problems with the team there. And the same for in the villages we were working in – they were very welcoming and accommodating.

What do you think you gained from it?

I think I learnt a lot about how I work myself and how I work with other people. You really have to adapt to different situations and adapt very quickly. It really was rewarding to be in these communities and villages that had benefited from the work of Africa Water Enterprises, just seeing that they didn’t have to walk as far to get their water.

Was that the most eye-opening thing that you saw there?

I saw a goat sacrifice at a baby-naming ceremony we went to. That was bit of a different culture but I coped with that alright. The most negative thing – and this might be a bit intense for your readership – but we went to the baby-naming ceremony which was a really nice two-day celebration, lots of dancing and food and feasting, and then a week later we found out that the baby had died. That was pretty harrowing and it really hits home, you don’t think about mortality rates in undeveloped countries.

To enter the NCE Graduate of the Year Awards 2015, click here

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