A School that Heals

Harvard’s Chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) in collaboration with the Boston Professional Chapter of EWB partnered with the community of Mkutani located just outside Dodoma, Tanzania in fall 2015 for the construction of a school house. The Boston Professional chapter had been in the community working on a water distribution project when the community of Mkutani expressed a need for improved classrooms, teachers’ residences and latrines. The abolition of school fees in Tanzania 2002 coupled with the requirement that parents enroll their children in schools has resulted in the mushrooming of classrooms sizes however the infrastructure to house learning had yet to expand to meet the increased demand. The Tanzania project team travelled to the Mkutani in May 2016 for an assessment trip to better understand how we may responsibly serve the community.

Photo Credit: Lindiwe Makgalemele

We were welcomed to Mkutani by the school’s principle and members of the school committee, the community leader, women, men and school children, enormous Baobab trees, women and girls carrying cartons of water against fields of sunflowers, and uninterrupted skies. The team spent three weeks in meetings with the community and its leadership, meeting with district officials, conducting tests, mapping the location and collecting climate data to begin preliminary designs for the school. The most meaningful communication did not come from our load test nor even from our site mapping but from speaking with students and community members about their goals for their school and subsequently for their community.

 

At the village wide meeting we were humbled at the opportunity to be included in the discussion about how to move the school and community forward. The meeting began with introductions during which all the members of our team were introduced to the community and during which the community collectively gave each of us a Kigogo name explaining that we would then be welcome in community. An elder man stood up and asserted, “Tunataka shule ya kupendeza zaidi Tanzania”, we want the most beautiful school in Tanzania.

Photo Credit: Lindiwe Makgalemele

The project team was also able to organize a meeting with the women of the community to better understand what they desired the schoolhouse improvements to look like and what they believed were challenges affecting their daughters and their access to education. As we sought to improve latrine designs we identified that the girls would often miss school while they were menstruating and we hoped to identify infrastructural improvements to meet this challenge. We settled on striving to   design, private, sanitary wash and change facilities to be coupled with the latrines that the women agreed would improve the girl’s uninterrupted access to their education.

Photo Credit: Lindiwe Makgalemele

Encountering the challenges the girls faced and seeing how they may be overcome with the benefit of consciously human centric design shaped the philosophy of our project. Michael Murphy, CEO and cofounder of MASS Design Group, argues that buildings and spaces can never be neutral; they can either hurt or heal. The provocative statement seems to establish to radical poles to architectural design. It communicates that doing the minimum, neutral, in its neglect for healing inevitably hurts communities. It establishes that all design must occupy itself with considerations of the human interactions and environmental implications with the space.

 

What can be done to make a design helpful and healing to the occupants of a space? We apply this question to every aspect of our design. What are the ideal conditions of a classroom and how can we create those conditions with our design? What orientation of the buildings facilitates a healthy social and learning environment? How can we organize the school to not only accommodate but privilege the needs of the girl child? How can we create multifunctional spaces for learning, play time and, for some of the students, for prayer? The project team and community have managed to craft innovative approaches to our design and our design process to answer these questions, some of these have included ensuring that the main water tank be placed at the school and designating space for girls to leave their water containers so that they would be able to come to school and get their water instead of an additional trip made to another location during or after school, with the hope that this would allow students to dedicate more time to learning.

Photo Credit: Lindiwe Makgalemele

Engineers Without Borders is committed to sustainable development. The organization prides itself on the checks and balances it puts in place to ensure that the projects its volunteers work on will not only stand the test of time but will provide a platform for the communities’ continued development.  Working on this sanitation and architectural design project has demonstrated to us how these values might be enacted. We are working on spaces of learning and striving to make these spaces sites of healing. 

Photo Credit: Lindiwe Makgalemele

 

 

Lindiwe Makgalemele is a project lead with Harvard's Engineers Without Borders for the construction of a schoolhouse, latrines and teachers residences in the community of Mkutani, Tanzania and a member of the Harvard Global Health Institute's Student Advisory Council. Lindiwe is majoring in History and Science with a focus in Medicine and Society and will graduate in May 2018 afterwhich point she plans to attend law school.