Boy Collecting Water at Tap Stand
I’ve been in Ethiopia for a little more than a month now, with the aim of testing water quality in a refugee camp. The plan is to test the water at tap stands, jerrycans, and other household storage units for fecal contamination—the leading cause of diarrhea in children as well as other water-borne diseases, namely cholera and typhoid. The intention is to determine what within the supply chain is causing high rates of diarrhea at the camp. It’s sobering at times to know that a good portion of children in this part of the world do not make it past their fifth birthday due to an extreme case of watery-stools. Meanwhile, for those who do make it, many suffer from extreme cases of malnutrition that can lead to developmental disorders. This is the result from having just a cold glass of water, which here is more likely than not unsafe water.
I am interning with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), an agency I have long sought to work for since I read the biography of Sergio Vieira de Mello—a UN diplomat from Brazil who spent his entire professional life working for the United Nations; he traveled from one UN posting to the next, living and working in places as far afield as Cambodia, Bosnia, East Timor, Iraq, Lebanon, and Mozambique, while wearing various hats and overseeing the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands. My plan upon entering the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning as a graduate student was to learn more about and eventually work in refugee camps, thinking that planning was the right track to pursue. And as I spend time in this office looking through documents and overhearing conversations of co-workers’ day-to-day, I can not help but think that the work coming out of this office is a planner’s dream.
The fact that a settlement of thousands—a virtual city—can form in the middle of nowhere, and a small office of individuals is made responsible for all aspects of the refugees’ lives is challenging to say the least. Water, food, health, education, environmental well-being, economic livelihoods, not to mention the infrastructure within the camp itself, is either fully controlled or directly influenced by this small office. To some extent, the responsibility can seem overwhelming, like a real-life simulation of SimCity to the extreme. But, the collective work of the office is stimulating regardless.
Before being deployed to a refugee camp, I was in Addis Ababa, and still in the process of digesting my surroundings. Assumptions were quickly turned over. For example, immediately upon stepping foot into the arrival terminal at the airport, I found myself digging to the bottom of my backpacker’s bag for that light sweater I packed as a safeguard measure for the chance, freakishly cold night. The sweater has proven insufficient over the past month, and I’ve come to sadly accept that Boston is warmer than this corner of Africa. No tan will be had here.
But more importantly, I’ve come to learn that Addis, and Ethiopia as a whole, is an anomaly in itself—and not just for its strangely familiar summer climate. (My hometown is San Francisco.) Ethiopia is an island of stability surrounded by war-torn countries with the likes of Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia. The disconnect is all too apparent during business lunches—during which I’ve heard of gang rape, of AK-47 sporting boys, of famine, of brutal and forcible displacement from hushed voices while I nimbly handle injera with my hands, delicately applying just the right amount of pressure on a chickpea puree. I’ve yet to master this exact science as noted from the many pairs of pants stained with brown splotches.
I’ll finish with a story: when flying to Ethiopia, I had a brief layover in Amsterdam Schipol—braving a red-eye which I always regret afterwards. As those from around the world consolidated themselves at the gate, I noticed very specific demographics represented amongst us. The immigrants traveling back to the homeland with their children born in the English-speaking West, an elderly Roman Catholic priest, and two or three strangely clean-cut men with resemblances to those I’d imagine to be defense contractors with wives and families and prayer groups in Middle America. Then there were the international workers, always easily identifiable by their wardrobes that are one step up from that of wandering backpackers.
Through the crowds, I noticed a woman from the West. She looked similar in age to me. Something, though, drew me to her and it was her specific gaze—slightly glassly, inward-looking, and almost absent as her mind was focused on her thoughts. Maybe it was the jetlag from braving a red-eye like me, but as I stared at her through the men who spoke over her, gesturing and throwing hand movements to each other, I could not help but wonder if she was asking herself “What am I getting myself into?” I wondered if she was asking herself if she was making the right decision, if she will eventually make meaningful impact on people’s lives while abroad. It wasn’t until I saw her and most of the plane disembark in Khartoum, Sudan—a layover I wasn’t informed of—that made me realize the added feel of doubt she must have been experiencing. But in retrospect, I realize I may have attached these thoughts onto her, as most likely, I too was thinking the same while waiting to board for Ethiopia.
Christophe Chung is a Master in City Planning candidate at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, where his studies are centered around water procurement in the developing world. Equipped with 150 in-field water quality tests, Christophe will test water quality in an Ethiopian refugee camp administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).