by Katie Galgano
Imagine a community where hunger endangers nearly one-quarter of all children, and of those who survive, 42% are permanently impaired. This was the reality of Leogane, Haiti before the January 12, 2010 earthquake. Since then, RSOs have rushed into Leogane to help reconstruct the community, which had 90% of its buildings ruined by the quake. Long before the earthquake though, the NGO “The Children’s Nutritional Program of Haiti” (CNP), or “Kore Timoun” in Creole, has been working in Leogane, helping the community lower its acute malnourishment rate from 24% in 1998 to less than 3% today. The organization is now tackling chronic malnutrition. Six months ago, Alyssa Serra, a 2009 Honors Degree with Distinction graduate in anthropology joined the staff of Americans and Haitians as the clean water intern for CNP. Alyssa is helping Leogane residents combat the chronic diarrhea and cholera that threaten their lives.
Alyssa’s involvement in water purification happened almost by accident but has since blossomed into a passion. While studying at UD, she wanted to research the politics of NGOs’ involvement in developing countries. In January 2009, Alyssa traveled to Cameroon, Africa, with UD’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) to collect primary data for her research. The EWB members were working on water purification projects in the remote village of Bakang. Alyssa quickly learned the importance of a hands-on, real life field experience.
While studying the relationships and political dynamics between EWB students and the Cameroonians, Alyssa attended functions with EWB at the Mayor’s and Chief’s houses and attended town hall meetings with the entire community. Alyssa fondly recalls the excitement during one particular meeting when a Cameroonian introduced biosand filters—essentially concrete boxes filled with sand to filter water. Bakang residents cheered and danced exuberantly, relieved that by using simple technology, clean water was at long last on the way.
Alyssa explained with a laugh that in the village two little huts at a crossroad functioned almost like Wawa convenience stores. Each night Alyssa would sit at this crossroad and chat with the Cameroonians, becoming particularly close to a woman named Diane. On Alyssa’s last night in the country, Diane invited Alyssa over to her home, a house far removed from the affluent homes that Alyssa had visited with the rest of EWB. Diane’s invitation to Alyssa communicated the utmost hospitality and gratitude. Being in Bakang taught Alyssa that people are the same with “the same needs, same wants, same issues that we all have.”
As Alyssa weighed her options after graduation, she again turned to Dr. Weil for advice. After constantly guiding her, and at times, Alyssa chuckles, “dragging her through” writing her thesis, Dr. Weil recommended graduate school at the University of Sussex in England as an excellent match for her intellectual interests. The University boasts a renowned anthropology department and employs many of the world’s experts in the field. At Sussex, Alyssa pursued her Masters in Social Research Methods, and hoped to complete her doctorate. When funding was unexpectedly cut, Alyssa had to change paths. Remembering the cheering women of Bakang and Diane’s smiling face, Alyssa decided to return to water purification projects, this time as an active member of an NGO.
In Leogane Haiti, Alyssa encountered a community where cholera outbreaks and chronic diarrhea are responsible for 30% of deaths of children under the age of five. With Leogane’s infrastructure destroyed by the quake, a desperate need for water drives community members to contaminated wells. Alyssa has been able to bring her knowledge of the biosand filters used in Cameroon. These filters are easily constructed with available materials, allowing for quick distribution on-location. She has also tackled a hygienic latrine project known as arborloo. These latrines use basins that once filled can fertilize freshly planted trees. The project not only promotes hygiene but also the reforestation of the ravished countryside.
In many ways, Alyssa’s role in Haiti is not unlike the support she received at the University of Delaware. Alyssa explains, “My department was really small, but I knew everyone really well, so I got a lot of help when I needed it and that helped me get to where I needed to be to do research. It was my first time, and they walked me through it and pushed me until the very end.” In the same way, Alyssa is getting to know Leogane residents. She is walking them through how to use new and unfamiliar technologies and hygienic practices. Alyssa has had “some lively conversations, some of which have gotten rather heated” with hour-long arguments over how to best complete a project. These interactions, though at times leave her “wiped,” allow her to better understand the community and its needs, so she can help them get to where they need to be: well-nourished and healthy.