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Dayton Engineer

Male and female community member walking down sandy path passing a white llama

A walk with sustainability ... and the Bolivian llamas

By Megan Oleksik

Flashback to the morning of May 22, 2023, as I sat alone at my boarding gate, twiddling my thumbs and fidgeting my legs, thinking, “Whoa … I am about to get on a plane and live in Bolivia for 10 weeks. Am I really ready for this?” 

This summer, I had the opportunity to intern as a water engineer with Engineers in Action (EIA) in La Paz, Bolivia. The summer’s goal was to design a water distribution system for Jancko Marka, a rural Bolivian community about a seven-hour drive from La Paz. The initial three weeks unfolded with Spanish classes and several meetings regarding the project schedule, premise and cultural norms. The next few weeks consisted of three separate three-to-four day trips to Jancko Marka in which we stayed in an old school. In between the trips, we worked in the EIA office analyzing the data we obtained. 

On our first trip to Jancko Marka, we were greeted with open arms and bowls full of soup. As we were guided through Jancko Marka over several days, we gathered population data and conducted a questionnaire at each household. Community meetings and household visits allowed us to understand the community’s needs and desires for a water system. The emphasis was on collaboration rather than imposing our own agenda.

The second trip consisted of topographic surveying, and the third trip oversaw water quality testing on a pre-existing 40-meter deep well. On the day of the water quality testing, all of the community members gathered by the well as soon as it was daylight, sitting with anticipation and radiating with gratitude even before the tests began. Their gestures, including sharing soup with the water quality workers mid-task, epitomized the warmth and joy that defined their lives. The moment the first water flowed, cheers echoed, hands reached toward the sky in thanks and cups were raised in celebration. It was a true showing of unbridled happiness. They played music and marched around, dancing and beating drums. They videoed the flowing water, amazed that the prospect of a water system was on the horizon in Jancko Marka. They sat by the well all day, continuously getting up to fill their cups and admire the water. Something so simple as flowing water, but the community was joyous.

Group of men and women standing around well as water pouring out and being tested

Then, in the final phase of our project, we designed the water distribution system. Throughout the summer, we had meetings with the Engineers Without Border (EWB) student chapter at Southern Illinois University, who will oversee the project’s implementation. 

In a community without running water, sporadic phone service, and repurposed plastic bottles for gutters, the residents bestowed upon me not just soups and warm welcomes but a profound lesson in kindness, harmony with the land and unbridled joy. Their way of life resonates with my vision of sustainability and happiness – a life lived in gratitude and simplicity, not shackled by the next trendy piece of clothing or showing off my travels to my friends but by our connection with people and nature around us.

Megan's impactful experience was thanks to an Ethos summer immersion opportunity.

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