Monthly Archives: June 2010

I’m Only an Engineer

I really planned on writing an extensive post about the amazing safari we took over the weekend (I think we are allowed to visit some of the most incredible natural places left on earth in between classes and work), but really, the only way to describe it is to look back over my pictures. Unfortunately, I can’t share them with you just yet. That’ll wait until August.

On Friday, we did do our second hospital visit. I wasfinally able to get into a tour of the facilities and saw some pretty dismal conditions. For example, the difference between the dirty outside and the ‘sterile’ surgery rooms was a solid white line. In order to cross it, I had to change my shoes. Seriously, it was a great deterrent for any potential dangerous activities I may have pursued (though if anyone reading this really knows me, they know I’m pretty risk averse). We decided as a group that none of us want to have any type of medical procedure done here if we had the opportunity.

In more positive news, Roshan and I were able to sit down with a centrifuge. The lab technician told us it was turning on, but the motor wasn’t turning. Turns out, there are small carbon ‘brushes’ that rub up against the sides of the motor to drive current so it rotates. They weren’t making good connection to the actual motor. Normally, we would have outright replaced them, but because we were only there for one day, we didn’t have time to go to a hardware store to get two more outfitted, so we simply switched the two existing one as a temporary solution and left a note on the side of the object for the next people. This way, they could quickly repair the known problem, as opposed to troubleshooting it all over again.

I also got the opportunity to look at the bedside monitor I was working on last time. After deciding it wasn’t a mechanical problem with the cuff, and once we got the power going, Michelle and I took it apart thoroughly. After poking around for a half hour, Larry helped us figure out that the pneumatics (the air/electronics interface) were broken. These parts were crucial to help the machine measure things like pulse and blood pressure. They are very specific parts, and even if we were able to miraculously find them, it would have been nearly impossible to replace them on the machine with the tools we had. My first triage case where we decided that this piece of equipment had to be marked as unrepairable. Sad.

As for the weekend, I went to Lake Manyara and Ngorongoro Crater. We saw elephants, zebras, wildebeasts, giraffes, hippos, lions, flamingos, monkeys, antelopes, hyenas, scenery, mountains, lakes, and some of the most incredible natural views in the world. Really, come find me and look at my pictures. Even without a fancy DSLR, I was able to capture some incredible sights. I can’t say enough how beautiful the place was, and I wish I had the words to describe it, but alas, I’m only an engineer, not a poet.

Ended the weekend with a chance to give my dad a call for Father’s Day (I hope you remembered!) and watched some more World Cup Soccer. I’m geared up for my last week at TCDC, with the beginning of my actual hospital work starting next week in the city of Marangu.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Mimi ni Mzungu

I just got back from a Safari yesterday. Way too tired right now to write about it, that’ll come in a day or so. It was as epic as it gets. You’ll have to wait for pictures in August, when I don’t have what feels like dial-up.

Below is an entry I wrote last Thursday; but being gone Friday [Another successful day at the hospital. I fixed a centrifuge!] and the weekend at the Safari, I didn’t have a chance to upload it. Enjoy.


There’s a cricket in my room

Seriously. Every night, around 3 or 4am, it starts going off. Real loud. Its been driving me absolutely wild. I can deal with the roosters outside, the dogs barking, or even the chorus of crickets that are far away, But there’s a cricket in my room. And I can’t find it. And as a result, haven’t been sleeping awfully well. It has mad me really grumpy and angry and hating crickets in general. A ton. [EDIT – Nabil found it underneath his suitcase. Win.]

In other news, we had a mini Kiswahili test today at the soko (market). Basically, we were each given 1000 shillings (about 70 cents) to go buy fruits and vegetables from the native folk, who have no idea we are bunch of students trying to learn swahili, they only know that we want their produce. I was able to do some simple bargaining, although many of the prices were very standard, and with some of the fruits being so cheap, there wasn’t really too much bargaining to be done. But, I did have an interesting experience with the tomato lady.

To preface, there is a popular epithet for all those foreigners who come to Tanzania: Mzungu. To the Hindi-speaking folk out there, it is the literal equivalent to Ghorra (spelling? Not the horse), ie white person, foreigner, idiot.

So I approach the lady with 500 shillings in my pocket, and there are some piles of tomatoes I want to purchase. Note that this entire exchange happens in Kiswahili:

Me: How are you today?
TL: Excellent. How has your morning passed?
Me: Nicely. I would like some tomatoes. How much do they cost?
TL : One pile is 200 shillings.
Me: That’s too expensive. How about 100 shillings?
TL: No, I give you a good price. One pile, 200 shillings (she starts to get frustrated, because she has to repeat herself like 5 times because I can’t understand her dialect).
Me: 2 piles, 300 shillings?
TL: No. 2 piles, 400 shillings.
Me: I have no money. I am a ….(searching for the word for student in my mind)
Roshan (walks up behind me with a big grin):: Mzungu!
[At this point, there is a large crowd behind me, watching this awkwardly tall Indian man try and bargain in Kiswahili. They all explode in laughter at Roshan’s comment]
Me: No no no! I am a student. Not mzungu, not mzungu!!

It goes back and forth for a little while longer, and she eventually gives in to giving me 2 piles of tomatoes for 300 shiillings. Not bad for only studying Kiswahili for 2.5 weeks. Bargaining success!

World Cup fever has also gripped the area, though my host family doesn’t seem largely interested in it. They still prefer their spanish Telenovellas (which I have now weened myself off of). Instead, I find myself reading at night, something I haven’t really enjoyed doing in a long time. Currently working on the Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas. Really well written, engaging from the beginning, and I really enjoy the fast pace, even though it does span over 700 pages. And although D’Artagnan isn’t a Musketeer (yet), why is it called the Three Musketeers? I feel like D’Artagnan is as skilled as Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, and so it really should be called the Fourth Musketeer, or something along those lines. Or maybe I’m not far enough into the book yet to make that judgement. Who knows.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

My First Test

On Friday, we had our first hospital visit; Mt. Meru Hospital in Arusha. Going in, we had no idea what to expect. After a week and a half of language and technical lessons, this was going to be our first test in Tanzania.

Taking a bus in the morning from TCDC, we arrived around 8:30 in the morning, to a small hospital campus. All one story buildings, many of them disconnected, it wasn’t nearly as impoverished as I had expected. One of the head administrators was waiting for us, and greeted us with a pile of broken equipment.

I first started on an Oxygen Concentration Machine, used to increase the oxygen concentration of normal air to nearly 95% volume. We turned it on to hear very little output air, but the intake fan was working. So, good power supply. We opened it up, turned it on, and found that the air was getting plugged behind a closed filter. According to Larry, its an extremely common problem, but we still had to clean it. I was able to pry the filter off the stand, but the soft piece of foam had turned in to black rock of dirt, dust, and bacteria.

After cleaning a couple of those filters, I left Roshan and Nabil to finish the rest as I was reassigned to work on taking two torn up and broken wheelchairs and turning it into one working wheelchair. Our finished project 20 minutes later was a Frankenstein of a machine which sported 3 different types of wheels, two different brakes, and a lawn chair as the main seat. Yet, it worked, and I know it was an important addition to the hospital’s inventory.

After that, I helped out with finishing off some oxygen concentrators (again), and then started off on repairing a bedside blood pressure monitor. First, the machine wouldn’t start working, so the first thing to do was make sure all the plugs and cords into the machine were working (they were), and then open it up and see what I could do. Yea, that was the mindset. With only one electronics course and a week of training under my belt, Larry truthfully described this as good guesstimation and creative McGuyver thinking.

Michelle and I spent the better part of the day trying to figure out which screw we hadn’t taken out and trying to pull the power supply out so we could test it. After a good hour or so, we got it out, tested it, and really couldn’t figure anything out. We put it back together, turned it on one last time, and…IT WORKED! Or rather, it turned on. We have the display turning on, and the machine is able to activate the blood pressure cuff, but testing it on myself, it maintained a 170 mmHg presure on my arm, and kept it there. No reduction in pressure. 1 minute later, my fingers were turning blue from the lack of oxygen, so now our issue is figuring out why the machine is trying to amputate my arm.

All in all, the day was a success for our entire group. We repaired 4 oxygen concentrators, 2 wheelchairs, a bench, a ventilator, an anesthesia machine, suction pump, blood pressure cuffs, and a teapot. Not bad.

Caught dinner that night in Arusha at this nice Indian restaurant, Big Bites. Came back, danced at the party held at TCDC, and called it a night.

Saturday and Sunday were real chill, finally got the chance to take things slow and easy after a really intense first week and a half. Caught up on my e-mails, some of my DUMUNC work, read a bit of the Three Musketeers (really good book!).

Other than spending all day Saturday watching the World Cup, the other highlight was grabbing lunch with Roshan, Christine, and Larry. We went off to this sketchy roadside restaurant, ordered in Kiswahili, and ate a really (cheap) good lunch. Aside from getting a fried fish (literally, nothing had been removed. I swear they just took the fish, dumped it in oil, then put it on my plate), we heard a ton of stories from Larry’s youth, about his adventures as a TV Repairman, as well as his numerous times hitchhiking across the US. If I were to ever describe the quintessential American to someone overseas, I would give them Larry.

But now its time to start week 3 here in TZ. Hope everyone at home is having an enjoyable summer/winter (depending on which side of the equator you are on!)


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Real Engineering

So obviously my trip here hasn’t been to be just a tourist, and there has been some transfer of engineering skills to me through my technical lessons in the afternoons.

Generally our technical lessons are structured as a one hour lecture followed by a 2-3 hour lab everyday. The lectures are mostly just a way of discussing as a class the different machines and problems we will discover in the developing world. Generally, because we can’t get into fixing manufacturing specific parts or reprogramming microprocessors, most of the refurbishing we do is done through training/retraining the staff and fixing power supplies.

It turns out that because the operating staff doesn’t necessarily need to be fluent in English, German, or whatever language the piece of equipment came in on, oftentimes the staff may be operating a piece of machinery incorrectly. Yikes. Imagine having someone place you on a respirator works, without being able to read any of the dials or manuals correctly. Actually, Larry (our instructor) says we will be extremely lucky if we can find a manual. “User Error” turns out to be the most frequent type of problem that prevents the utilization of a particular piece of equipment. I’ve heard stories of previous participants finding stockrooms, full of perfectly good equipment, collecting dust because no one knew how to work it.

But assuming someone does now how to operate it, the second most prevalent problem is with the power supply. The power supply is what turns the AC electricity (110V 60Hz in the US, 220 50Hz in Tanzania) into a smaller DC supply (anywhere from 1-12 V). The smart reader may have already predicted a problem; different power supplies in either country means different plugs, and things don’t always fit. So one of the first practical labs we had was to build a simple extension chord/plug converter. Turns out to be really simple; you just need the two different types of sockets, take a power chord, do some wiring, and it could be done in under 20 minutes. But we are still learning, so it took us like 5x as long. The biggest part was making it look pretty, Larry always wants all of the work we do to look good enough so that someone else would come along and think it was done by a professional.

Anywho, the most common technical problem we will probably have to deal with is the actual power supply within the machine. The function of the internal power regulator is to convert the AC to DC, and reduce/regulate the voltage. Theoretically a relatively simple circuit, but practically a place where a lot of components can easily break.

We built one today that converted a 29 V_rms input into a 39.9 V DC signal. Basically its just a diode bridge with a capacitor in parallel with the load resistor. If people recall their electronics classes, the diode bridge is shaped like a resistive wheatstone bridge, and you put the resistor or load in between the two parallel lines. What the diodes do is basically take the negative voltage parts of the input signal and make them positive. The capacitor then discharges in between positive peaks; in English, it smooths it out so that the the oscillating sine curve you see with the AC source ends up being a constant DC source that the medical equipment can actually use. Below is a diagram I whipped up in LTSpice last night, I tried uploading an actual picture of the finished product, but it was gonna take about 18 hours to upload. Deceptively simple looking.

Circuit we built in class

In other news, we had an invasion of grasshoppers into our home a few nights ago. Everywhere I looked, there would be like 3 grasshoppers on each wall. I woke up this morning and there were three hanging on my mosquito net. Haven’t found any good reason why they decided to do that….Also, our family watches this Spanish telenovella every other night called Maruchui, dubbed in English, and its hilarious/addicting. I think it may replace my 30 Rock addiction for the summer.

Finally, thanks to everyone for the birthday wishes. It made my day (despite the grasshopper invasion).



Filed under Uncategorized

Habari za Arusha (News from Arusha)

Yes, it was a very eventful weekend for me, so here is part 2. Yea, I broke it down so it wouldn’t overwhelm you. You’re welcome.

Getting people together to meet in Arusha was a mess in itself. Everyone basically lives in three different neighborhoods, TCDC (The nicest, the compound), Usa River, and Makumira (where I am staying this first month). They are all along the same highway, with Makumira and Usa River on opposite ends of TCDC (or as the locals call it, Danish). In a daladala (mini-bus), its probably about 5-10 minutes, depending on how many stops it makes.

Anyways, getting everyone to Arusha (the main city of the area) happened by everyone trying to travel by neighborhood. We all met up at 10am (which was really late compared to the 8:30 meeting times we had every other day), and rode the overcrowded daladala bus about 30 minutes into town. Trevor (the tallest man in our group measuring in at 6′ 4″) and myself ended up doing this standing/squatting thing for the majority of the ride over, because there were no seats. Tiring, but definitely a ton of fun.

Once we got to the city, we found a map, walked around, people exchanged money, and then we split into smaller groups; its incredible how much inertia a group of 18-20 people can have, its nearly impossible to get everyone moving! So in my smaller group, we went around the local markets, getting huslted by nearly every other man we met. They would always ask us where we were from, how we were, and then walk with us for about 10-15 minutes, making conversation, until they had secretly guided us to their store and try selling us.

Once we had about 3-5 guys following us, we decided it was enough and tried our best to implement a ‘no talking to locals’ policy, if only to ease our traveling. I had an okay time, talking to two teenage guys about music. Apparently they love Kanye West, Eminem, and Lil Wayne. When I told them I was rafiki (friend) with Kanye West (yes, I lied, shame on me), they got so excited. On the other hand, some other people were getting talked to on one side, and someone else would sneak up on them from the other side, looking at their pockets, searching for easy prey. While we had all travelled smart and kept things in hard to creep bags and front pockets, it definitely showed us a more sinister side of the tourist heavy Arusha. Luckily, Roshan and I had dealt with similar people in India and knew how to deal with them. Some other unnamed members in our group, not so much.

On a recommendation from Larry, our technical instructor, we walked to the outskirts of town to find a restaurant/bar called Mahai Camp. When he described it, it was very near the city, right next to the Impala hotel. Unfortunately, when he said the Impala hotel was near the city, he meant it was a 10 minute walk from the city limits. And when the Mahai camp was right next to the hotel, it was actually another mile down the road. So while we had a group of 8 walking down this dirt path in the middle of what felt like no where, we got stared at by basically everyone. Nothing new.

When we finally got there, the food was decent, probably enhanced by our hunger after walking for at least 1 hour in a foreign country side. I met this one really interesting guy there. He had traveled from London to South Africa by plane, but then had bought a bike, and had been biking north across Africa by himself, and he was at Arusha trying to tag along a group of other tourists to go on a safari to one of the national parks. Talk about beast! I had a hard time convincing myself that living in a foreign city with one other person for a month would be difficult (that’s next month), but biking from the southern tip up north by yourself, thats incredible! Probably the most common theme of this trip has been meeting amazing people. So far, I could easily start a blog “The interesting person of the day is…” and actually sustain it for a few weeks.

Finally, our ride back was really intense, we were trying to catch a cheap daladala back to our neighborhood bar (its like 500 shilling to take a 30 minute ride, imagine paying about 40 cents for a ride from Chicago to the suburbs!!), but they were all super crowded, and so we were basically smushed inside like tuna for the majority of the trip. A small price to pay. We finished the day off with a nice cold beer with the entire group (drinking age is 18, I’m totally within the scope of the law, not that they enforce it..). Good times.

1 Comment

Filed under Travels

Habari za Lima Meru (News/Greetings from Mt. Meru)

The first four days here have been absolutely exhilarating. Our first two school days, we took language lessons in the morning, and then had a technical lecture/lesson in the afternoon pertaining to developing world hospitals and equipment. Needless to stay, with only about 4 weeks to prepare, we have to cram enormous amounts of material in this short period of time.

Ninajifunza kiswahili kwa Mama Lois
That means I am learning Kiswahili with Mama Lois (my mwalimu or teacher). Unlike English, Kiswahili language is fairly simple structurally. Each verb has three essential parts, the who, the when, and the what. So when I say Ninajifunza, Ni = I, Na = now, -jifunza = to learn. So, by learning the prefixes for different people and times, you can ‘easily’ learn the language by just knowing all the verbs. Of course, theory is easier than practice, but Nabil and I have been practicing with each other, and our homestay family.

Most fun has been doing some of the homework at home. Nabil and I sit at the couch (Tunakaa couch? – note, they don’t use as many prepositions and helping words as we do) with our books, and my homestay brother Shardock will climb onto my lap and read everything. He has been an absolute sponge, trying to read and learn everything we are. Of course, he is already fluent in Kiswahili and pretty decent at English, but with me asking Unasemaje (how do you say) for nearly everything, he has been a ton of help, despite being only 9 years old.

[Insert picture of Shardack here] <-Maybe later, internet here blows

Nimekwenda Lima Meru [I went to Mt. Meru]
Saturday, our group had the opportunity to take a tour around the Ng’iriri village on Mt. Meru (the 5th largest peak in Tanzania). Walking up and down the hills of the muddy roads (which were incredibly slippery and wet, some people had multiple messy falls!), we witnessed the lifestyle of some truly impoverished people. However, unlike those commercials with the children who look so unhappy about their condition, these children were very happy and full of life, greeting us all (Mambo! Habari!), walking with us, holding our hands, and just being bright. There were little children who we would pass yelling, “BYYYYEEEE!!!” at the top of their lungs. The cutest things ever.

Trekking for about 1.5 miles up and down hills took us about 2 hrs going towards the epic waterfall. It took us about half that time on the way back, partially because we were so tired and we just wanted to get to food, and partially because we didn’t stop to take pictures of every flower and cow we saw on the way. Once we got near the waterfall, we had a nearly vertical climb down the side of a hill. It would have been okay with dry soil and spiked boots, but the combination of the mud and my basketball shoes ended up in me slipping halfway down, and getting my jeans all muddied up on my backside. The way up was the same, except it was the front side of my jeans that got messed up. Nevertheless, the waterfall was a beautiful way to end the safari (trip) and we somehow made it back to the meeting spot.

The reason the village allows tourists to simply visit is because they charge for the tours, and use that money to fund building schools. At first, the children had basically no schools to go to. But since starting the program in 1996, the combination of 5 villages in the area have been able to coordinate efforts, and have built enough primary and secondary schools to support the nearly 3000 children in the area. This has helped the village slowly grow out of the poverty, as the graduates can now go to town and properly start the businesses used to support the agricultural lifestyle they live (they grow bananas, coffee, yams, and many other fruits and vegetables).

We ended our visit with a trip to the Masai village, one of the more primitive areas. There we saw the small mud huts and dirt floors they lived in. But once again, they greeted us warmly (a common theme here in Tanzania), and we even got the chance to jump rope with them, a very universal activity.

It was a long, but thrilling day that really opened my eyes to the condition of people that is common to most of the world. In the United States, we are trully blessed.


Filed under Uncategorized

Karibu Tanzania!

Karibu Tanzania (Welcome to Tanzania!)

After nearly 25 hours of travel from Chicago O’Hare to NY JFK Airport to Amsterdam Schipol, I finally landed at¬†Kilimanjaro¬†Airport last night. After getting our bags and walking through immigration (I don’t think they actually looked at anything), we boarded the buses and got to MS-TCDC, our training center where we met our Homestay families.

My homestay father, Antony, and his daughter, Stella, took us to Makumira, the neighborhood where we are staying for the next month. Along the way, I took the time to admire the nightsky. Because there are no huge cities with major skylines, there is little to no air pollution, and I was gifted with an unimpeded sight of the heavens. I saw literally hundreds of bright stars in the night, even the Milky Way! I hadn’t seen a sight like that in a long time, and it was an amazing way to start my adventure in Tanzania.

When we got home, Nabil and I put our bags away in the tiny room we were offered, with a small indent for clothes and a bunkbed for us to share. After setting up the mosquito nets and blankets, we had a small meal. While the meal itself was just rice and meat, I noticed that my HS-father (shorthand for homestay father) was very picky about our hands being clean. At one point, there was a grain of rice that was stuck to the side of my wrist that I hadn’t noticed. Upon noticing, he immediately whisked it away with a napkin. Interesting cultural (and good healthy) thing to keep in mind.

While I didn’t expect a 5-star accommodation, I was a bit disappointed by the fact that my bed was a little short. Normally I’m okay with letting my feet stick out the other side, but because of the mosquito netting, I had to stay contained within the bed. I finally found that sleeping diagonally helped me stretch out my body. Small inconveniences.

If you want to send me messages, e-mail seems to be fairly reliable for the next couple weeks or so. Hope to hear from everyone!

Kwaheri! (Farewell!)


Filed under Homestay