Monday, March 30, 2015

Designing a World of Hope in Equatorial Guinea

As we drove along a desolate highway-- three immaculately paved lanes in each direction with well-manicured flower beds down the center-- I couldn’t help but be struck by the major gap in wealth that divides the country of Equatorial Guinea. Off to the right we caught glimpses of Sipopo, a community of 52 luxury villas that were built for a one-week conference of African presidents. The mansions sit empty now, reminding me of the Victor’s Village in The Hunger Games: a cluster of opulence within a country that has 60-70% of its population living at or below poverty. We passed hundreds of apartments that were probably built for the 2012 African Cup, but are vacant without a pricetag that locals can afford. Oil money has allowed the government and outside investors to profit, yet our project site didn’t even have running water or city electric. 

For a country with so many foreigners coming to profit off of the oil, I was shocked at the  carelessness of the airport. Upon arrival from Gabon our temperatures were taken and hand sanitizer applied before we could enter the country. That was good. They were doing their part to prevent the spread of Ebola. But before our first in-country flight we walked through a security checkpoint with a non-functioning metal detector and no airport employees to be seen. When our flight was called we were herded down several winding corridors to the tarmac where we boarded the plane and grabbed whatever seat we wanted. On our second in-country flight we stood in chaotic line to have our tickets handwritten for us. Afterwards, our three missionary hosts were allowed to bypass security and accompany us to our gate. In fact...some African travelers didn’t even have to go through security. Of course they stopped us suspicious foreigners. 

Although most of our cultural experiences happened en route, our time on site did allow for a few moments unique to Equatorial Guinea. My favorite was when our cook strolled up carrying a live crocodile in her purse. Upon seeing our bewildered faces she plopped down her bag and pulled it out for us to see. After we pet it and took a few photos...she just put it right back in and walked off to the kitchen like it was no big deal. Later we all tried the croc...and then passed it to the Africans who thoroughly enjoyed the delicacy.

Another special moment was the nightly worship of the seminary students. For a half hour every evening they would take a break to sing and play instruments before returning to class. It was great to hear a Spanish version of How Great Thou Art, right after we had heard a French version in Gabon!


Overall, we only had 2 1/2 days on site to survey and master plan the seminary’s less-than 2 acre site. Our process had a unique dynamic, as three of their four directors are local nationals. Meetings had to be translated between Spanish and English, and thus took twice as long. As we worked through designs with the ministry we began to notice a few things that were truly unique to the Equatorial Guinean context. First, we discussed a building at the back of the site that was literally cut in half by a CMU wall. It was explained to us that a Senator owned the property to the rear and built the wall where he wanted it...reducing the length of the seminary’s property by several meters. Nonetheless, a new road was constructed at the front of the property several meters forward of the previous road and actually allotted them more land. In addition to the strange property conventions, the ministry insisted on a multi-level structure at the front of the property. We assumed this was meant as a status symbol, a common wish amongst our African clients, but that isn’t what we were told. According to the directors, the government will seize property without a significant presence on the main street because they are considered to be making poor use of the land. 

Existing Education Center
Existing Education Center
It was truly astounding to see so many visible impacts of a corrupt government. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the disparity between rich and poor as clearly as I did in Equatorial Guinea. At the same time, however, the ministry was one of the most joyous that I’ve worked with. The directors were constantly joking around and truly committed to improving the lives of their students and the communities they reach. I am hopeful that our buildings will allow the ministry to “make good use of their land” and allow them to keep what is rightfully theirs. I am proud that EMI could go to design a world of hope. 

Our team with the two missionaries that gave us a tour of Malabo on a 6 hour layover

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Gabonese Village Church

After the service we greeted every person in the congregation in a processional. They sang for us, hugged us, and tried to speak in either French or their tribal language so we just laughed that nobody knew what anyone was saying.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Cross-Cultural Design

"To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some."
1 Corinthians 9:20-22

Our time in Gabon was kicked off with a devotional on this part of Corinthians. We discussed how we, American architects and engineers, could possibly become like the Gabonese in order to succeed at the job God called us to do. Sometimes, we realized, relating to the Gabonese wasn't as complex as understanding their deepest cultural values. Sometimes, it simply meant not assuming that their perceptions are, or should be, the same as ours. 

In the U.S. I have been to two monkey-themed baby showers. They were full of cute monkey decorations, cakes, and registries full of monkey clothes and baby accessories. Along with elephants and giraffes, monkeys are often adorning children's clothing in America. But what about in Africa where monkeys, elephants, and giraffes are actually walking around?

Many of the pediatric doctors at Bongolo keep toys to give out to their patients, including beanie babies. When we asked about the few animals remaining on the shelf, one doctor gave an explanation of why she couldn't hand those out. The lamb, because she uses it for Sunday School demonstrations; the dragon, because it's too terrifying for the kids; the monkey, because when asked "what is this animal?" the kids responded "meat!!".

It was a shockingly different perspective. Could you imagine any kid in America wanting to eat a cuddly monkey? I further recognized their extremely different view of monkeys when I saw this warning poster for Ebola:

However, in relation to the architecture and engineering we had to dig a little deeper into understanding the Gabonese (although I think understanding their view of monkeys was a good start).

Like Paul, we had to find a way to become like the locals in order to ultimately bring them something greater. We had to play by their rules and take cues from their designs and methods of construction without compromising on the aspects that we know are important.

We took a lot of cues from the existing trusses on site. We realized that the EMI-designed truss (bottom-right photo) was correct overall…but the wrong metal shapes were used. With the information that we have from this trip, we now know that this is the metal that they will use, and we should design accordingly on the next structure.

We also learned that the construction men will only dig a certain depth for septic tanks and then stop. Therefore, we need to calculate the size of future septic tanks with this number, even if that means making it really wide. 

In addition, the construction teams will only use 6" CMU. We have been designing everything with 8", and didn't discover that it isn't being constructed that way until we were on site. Knowing this information might change the structural designs and is critical for our future buildings.

All of this information really validated, to me, the importance of traveling to the sites for which we are designing. Although it took about three days to get to the hospital…visiting the campus is not something we could have compromised on. In addition to the information that we gathered from physical structures on site, we also learned a lot from talking to the staff and reading their body language. One of the most important things I've learned from working in a cross-cultural setting is the difference in the directness of Americans, and the indirect communication of most Africans. Although many of the Bongolo staff that we worked with are American, we did face the difficulty in understanding indirect communication with the local staff members that we met. As if architecture wasn't hard enough without miscommunication…

EMI + Bongolo

The first leg of this project trip was spent in LeBamba, Gabon at Bongolo Hospital. It was a huge privilege to go to Bongolo, as EMI has done two previous trips and other in-house projects for this hospital. We love partnering with Bongolo, because as part of the Pan African Academy of Christian Surgeons (PAACS) they are having a huge impact on the nation of Gabon. Not only do they provide healthcare for 1/3 of the country, but they are striving to train local African surgeons, nurses, and midwives so that it is no longer necessary for westerners to provide so much of the healthcare. Currently, the hospital staff includes American general surgeons, physicians, and opthamologists, surgical residents of many nationalities, Congolese general practice physicians, and Gabonese CRNAs. An average of 900 patients are seen each week.

Overall, the travel time to Bongolo was about 3 days
On the way to Lebamba we stopped at a pastor's house in Lambaréné for lunch. They fed us omelets, tomatoes, baguettes, and mysterious local fruits that were far too sour to eat! 
Our transportation for the 11 hour ride from Libreville to Lebamba was this van. It only took the American doctor about 7-8 hours to drive it, but Africans are known for their unique view of time. Nothing is too important to hurry.
This is the whole design team plus Keir, the head surgeon (red shirt), Ally, a visiting nurse that cooked dinner for all of us every night (front and center), and Paul the ground's keeper (the head popping up in the way back)
Our goal at Bongolo was to provide several things. First, we came up with a new master plan so that the hospital's future growth is strategic and functional. Second, we were tasked with the design of a surgical consultation space, a lecture hall and dry lab for the nursing school, and a new lab closer to the center of the campus. We also had a team of 4 electrical engineers that analyzed the entire site and provided suggestions for improved electrical practices. Work on these trips is intense. Most days were from 7am-midnight. Now that we are back in the office, we will continue to develop our drawings into a construction set that can be used to build our designs.

The team discussing master planning with two of the surgeons
Beautiful Bongolo Church