Debriefing on a plane

A looming feeling of guilt invades me as I stick my nose to the minuscule plane’s window, staring thoughtfully as we fly away from Manila.  Soon, I will have a comfortable mattress, a shower with running water or a toilet with a button to flush. Soon, I will be talking about big dreams, university ventures or desirous travelling. Soon, I will be back to my lucky life. As I admire at the shambolic skyline of Metro Manila, progressively disappearing from my sight, the fresh memories of the community we left in the Philippines jiggle in my head… and I can’t stop the guilt from growing inside me.

After three frenzied weeks, we managed to design, build and test and model for a household rainwater harvesting system that would collect 200L of water every 2-3 days. We now aim to work on improving the design, and consequently replicating the model in every household. Thinking that the village’s source of water for domestic consumption is a squirt of filthy water from the spring (a single pipe rotates on schedule around the village allowing the families with 20min – 200L – of water filling every other day), we feel gratified with the relevance of our work, for having posed a solution that will ameliorate the daily struggle of the families.

In addition, we succeeded on the request for ceramic filters, a system which will provide the families with a source of potable water readily available from their homes. The request was approved by the Mayor and accepted by the University, who is now committed to install, test and maintain ceramic filtration systems in every household of GK Ari-tau. Thinking on how the community now has to walk daily, carry voluminous water containers, to gather drinking water; on the stomach diseases they contract due to consuming this water, as they often described to us during the surveys; or on the economic effort it means for them to afford potable water… we feel content with the impact ceramic filters will have on the lives of the families.

In summary, evaluating the before & after of the water situation, we can say we managed to create a more reliable access to clean water for the families. However, having been immersed in the community revealed to us a broader range of social problems that are very hard to ignore. Not only concerning the access to clean water – which, by itself, will take more time, money and energy to get fully, sustainably solved. But many other distressing issues, like the fact that some families cannot afford medicine for their babies or relatives. Or the appalling truth that many youngsters won’t have the chance to receive a higher education.

The fulfilment of the work we have done here to improve their lives is shattered by the opaque reality of a vast unequal world. Grasping the magnitude of world’s vertiginous inequality gap at a more personal level, our work with Engineers Without Borders feels like a drop of oil in a crankcase. Even if we gave our best trying to help the community, our work seems like a drop in the ocean. A mad, enormous and daunting ocean stunned with thunderstorms of disparity.

Dazing at the minuscule plane window, I feel overwhelmed by the high fever of the world’s afflictions. The problem seems too complicated to dissect, too big to embrace, too high to reach…  but the more optimistic side of me exclaims we shall not let the magnitude of the problem discourage us from attempting again! Attempting at a bigger scale, with a more innovative approach, raising more funds, bringing more people together and working hand in hand with the community once again.

I remain optimistic, because if there is something – even more crucial than the Engineering skills set – that me and my teammates have gained from this project, that is a profound understanding of poverty. The powerful empathy that doesn’t come from books or conferences. We have cultivated the compassion that bursts into life after living with the community, dealing with the same struggles they deal with, and listening to their sincerest worries. As well as the confidence that we can – and must – do something about it. I believe if we let this understanding, empathy and compassion influence our inner wiring, feeding our inspiration and lightening our personal fire, we could create compelling engines of change that keep striving for a better world.

I had never travelled like this before. Everything was new for me… but I feel you are my family now.” – admitted Sameen with her frank, genuine and bold words in the middle of a meeting with the community.

I’m sure something from this community will change the way I think and my future.” – said Wei Han in watery eyes. He reflected a crystalline expression we had never seen before, like if this community had trembled his rational objectivity and touched him deep inside.

We will soon be back “home”, where medicines are accessible (to some extent!) and opportunities are there for you to grab them (though no one will hand them in to you!). On the meanwhile, there a ceaseless number of communities world-wide who don’t have a lucky home to wake up, who can’t afford medical treatments or education, who lack running water, electricity or the certainty of having three meals a day. The head-aching effect of the wicked world problems breeds the guilt and uneasiness in my gut as the Philippines fade away under the mushy clouds.

The world runs dreadfully in many aspects. However, back home these problems seem distant and complex, creating a sense of detachment that makes it tempting for people to look away and get locked up in the superfluity of the daily routine, where hair dye, shoe brands or star gossiping represent common concerns or conversation topics. I want to encourage more people to get involved in projects like this, with a social purpose. We don’t even need to go to the Philippines for an eye-opening experience on the world’s imbalance, taking the underground or walking down the street is enough for inequality to excel no matter where you live. You can explore your interests and find the way to create social change through your talents or passions… gaining the confidence and energy you need to pop into another mighty engine of change for a better world!

Nonetheless, if the big Earth’s health argument is not strong enough, think about it from a personal perspective. I don’t even know what happiness means (nor I want to play the philosopher here!) but I can tell how it boosts from the feeling of connection to something bigger than yourself. I can’t express it better than these two quotes I read in “Half The Sky”, by Nicholas D. Kristof, while I was venturing on the trip:  “Self-improvement comes mainly from trying to help others” and “The happiest people aren’t the ones who have the most, but the ones who share the most”.

Yes, the problem is huge and complicated. But we can logically break it up in pieces like an engineer, and creatively explore it like an artist. We can dig in, instead of looking away. We can grow empathy and compassion towards people who are different from us. We can connect more people together through experiences like the one we have just lived, to let the inspiration sink in and unlock the energy and optimism for a better world.


Quote by Steve Jobs. Source:



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