Monday, November 24, 2008

Rewiring Pedro Badejo

It’s Saturday and there are no students in the courtyard of Pedro Badejo’s Vocational Education School. The sun is shining on a series of Greek arches---the final exams of the school’s stone masonry students--giving the school courtyard the odd feel of an ancient mosque. Andrew is standing beside a table saw talking to the wood shop professor.
The wood shop teacher flips the switch and the two excitedly watch as the saw begins to spin: Pedro Badejo’s technical school hasn’t had electricity in about a month, which hasn’t exactly made it easy for Andrew to begin teaching electrical wiring to his students. A strong wind blows through the courtyard and the saw slows, stops, and begins turning in the opposite direction. The two chuckle. No more power.
Andrew is a first year Peace Corps Volunteer, a recent electrical engineering graduate of Drexel University, and the son of Columbian immigrants, who wouldn’t have made it to the United States if it hadn’t been for the Peace Corps, Andrew says. “Like all other volunteers, I guess, [I joined because] I wanted to help out…I really saw the impact first hand of another generation of Peace Corps volunteers.”
His mother and father, Aura Maria Rosa Vernaza and Jorge Enrique Vernaza, immigrated to the United States in 1976, eventually settling in Mount Laurel, New Jersey to raise their two sons. His father learned English from an ESL volunteer at the Universidad de Valle in Bogotá where he studied engineering. His excellent English skills aided him in his embassy interview and subsequent transition to America. His mother, from the rural suburb of Tenza, watched as an irrigation volunteer helped her family greatly improve their farm’s efficiency. “We still go back there for vacation and eat the tomatoes. They’re really good,” says Andrew. “The reason the farm is still in the my family is probably because of that Peace Corps Volunteer…My family really understands the impact Peace Corps has had on their lives.”
Andrew joined the Peace Corps to give back, a decision he is still committed to, though his job isn’t always easy. “I’m not a teacher, I engineer things,” he says. As he glowingly describes “cool circuits” like burglar alarms, it’s easy to imagine he is happiest when working on his own experiments.
Teaching, he explains, “is so frustrating sometimes. Once we were doing this problem with the equation V=IR. Its like the most important equation of electricity.” He writes it, voltage equals resistance times current. “I gave the students simple numbers for resistance and voltage, but they couldn’t come up with the current. They hadn’t learned that you could divide both sides of the equation by the same number. A lot of them didn’t go to high school and don’t have basic math skills.”
Nevertheless, there are definite eureka moments.
A student once confessed to Andrew after class that she still didn’t understand an equation. “I just couldn’t explain it again, so I asked this other student if he could.” The student answered that he thought so.
“And then he just totally nailed it,” Andrew recalls. “He derived the entire equation perfectly, and the girl got it, and I hadn’t said a thing. I was like, ‘oh my god, I think I have just built capacity.’”
We leave the school and head down the road to the stadium where his students have a soccer match. Half-clad children run across the cobbled road, which narrows to a few feet in places where most of the stones are missing. Unpainted rectangular cement homes line the hilly, winding street that descends towards the expansive ocean, which eats up most of the horizon. A few women wash clothes in cement basins. Most people sit on stools and stone walls along the side of the street that still has a sliver of shade.
While Cape Verde is one of the most prosperous countries in West Africa, Pedro Badejo is among the poorest towns on the island of Santiago, with frequent power outages, high unemployment, and poor infrastructure. “It doesn’t make sense that the only school specializing in electricity is in this poor town with bad power.”
But Andrew is working on that. In the evenings he repairs broken street lamps with some of his motivated students. He is writing a proposal to install a wind turbine at the school that would generate power to offset the malfunctioning generator, and allow him to teach his students about renewable energies, an increasingly important field for a country with no petroleum resources and growing electricity demand.
For other challenges, Andrew turns to his parents. “I was complaining to my mom about not having running water. And she was like ‘you should do what we used to do—soak a towel in water and shower with that.”
Many of Andrew’s anecdotes about Columbia are funny or touching. But when he explains that drug-related violence claimed the lives of his father’s two brothers, you are reminded of the real suffering that Columbia’s infamous problems mean for its people.
And yet, knowing what his parents escaped from--and seeing how far they got—gives Andrew a clear sense of what he can achieve in Cape Verde. “The Peace Corps gives hope. If we weren’t here, they wouldn’t know their abilities. When I leave here they will say, ‘Oh I can do that.’”
When other volunteers second-guess the Peace Corps’ potential for making a difference, Andrew unthinkingly replies, “Volunteers have an impact. You probably won’t ever get to see it, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have one. Twenty years from now, someone may do something because of something you said and you will have no idea.”
We reach the stadium, a cement, walled-basketball court on the edge of town. Andrew’s students, the red shirted “biscuits”, file by and greet Andrew before the game starts.
“See that one, number eight?” He points to a player. “That’s the one I was telling you about, who explained the equation. He is super motivated. Sometimes he asks if we can go fix another lamppost and I am like, ‘how about tomorrow, ok?’”
Andrew leans forward as one of his student shoots on goal, and then continues.
“Maybe he won’t get to America. But he will get a good job, give a good life to his kids, and maybe they will be able to go.”


Blogger Helga said...

That story makes ME feel like joining the PC. :)

Hi, met you through


4:53 AM  

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