In July Jimi started a volunteer placement with Engineers Without Borders (EWB) working as a WASH Technical Mentor with Rainwater Cambodia. He has had some interesting experiences in that short time and, by his own admission, has learnt a lot – adjusting to 'going with the flow' certainly seems to be an integral part of that! Read his blog below for the full picture.
The office that I work in is like a classroom with tables all facing towards the front of the room (but no teacher). Being the cool kid I am I’ve got a seat right up in the back corner. There are a few staff who sleep overnight at the office including the security guard, which means there are plenty of places for people to take naps in the post lunch slumber period. Whilst Australians would normally be embarrassed to be caught napping during the day, that’s not the case here, and it’s a great way to keep the afternoon productivity up! I haven’t yet given in to the temptation of an after lunch nap but it’s early days!
Not always according to plan
It didn’t take long for there to be an offer for me to go out into the province with RWC (RainWater Cambodia) on a field trip. My first trip was planned to head out to Kampong Cham (2hrs north-east of PP) to present at an orientation training for a new type of toilet to Cambodia, the SaTo Pan. It was at this time that some staff members from EWB Australia were coming over to visit, touch base and to make sure we were settling in. Meetings clashed and I tried to organise around our EWB Australia visitors, but it turns out I needn’t have worried. The trip to Kampong Cham was postponed only a couple of days before it was set to happen. For my Cambodian colleagues this last minute change of plans was no big deal, but I was definitely surprised and getting my first lesson on going with the flow as an orientation session with 40+ people from all across the country wouldn’t get postponed that late notice in Aus!
Ratanakiri project launch
When I eventually went on my first field trip it ended up being much further, to Ratanakiri which is approximately 8-9 hours by car. With 5 of us squeezed into a dual cab ute it was always going to be a bit of an uncomfortable journey, however we made the most of it by having plenty of snacks, naps and jokes in Khmer that go way over my head!
The following day we got ready for what we’d come all this way for, the meeting. We all shuffled in and after some brief introductions the meeting began… in Khmer. 100% fast speaking foreign language of which I’d only learnt a few words. I sat for the hour meeting and was asked towards the end if I had any input, I said ‘no, nothing to add’. I had no idea what they had spoken about…!
As a result of this meeting we had a quick follow up meeting with a local NGO to clarify some things, then hit the road back to Phnom Penh, another 8-9 hour drive. That was it! I was quite surprised by the effort and money spent to send me (and the RWC team) to the other side of the country for a one hour meeting. The RWC ute does not have any cover for the tray meaning we got to play the fun game of predict if this rain is going to be heavy! At times we would need to pull over, get all the bags in the car and keep going until the rain stopped. On our way home some of my RWC colleagues decided to head to another province in Kampong Chnaang for a job. This left myself and one other to get into Phnom Penh from the turnoff (still an hour away). As we were debating where to get a taxi, one colleague hailed a passing bus which pulled up about 30m down the road. They then threw $5 in my hand and said ‘This will take you to Phnom Penh! Quick, go get on it!’ and so in the middle of nowhere, I got on a random bus. Once on the bus (on which I think I got the last seat) a young boy came down from the back of the bus and started demanding money. I was quite sceptical at first, but when nobody around me seemed to bat an eyelid, I decided to hand over the money. He tucked it away and I hoped I’d made the right decision. As it turns out he worked with the driver (no uniform or badge to identify him though) and I made it back to Phnom Penh.
Presentation in Kampong Cham
This trip promised to be different, I was actually giving a presentation. The purpose of this trip was to inform the local governments and business owners about the benefits and installation techniques for the SaTo pan I mentioned before. This trip was much more relaxed with a bit more free time (although I was stressing over avoiding Game of Thrones spoilers!) and we were able to go out at night. We went to pick up a few friends and soon we had more people than seats in the car, but that’s alright. People can ride in the tray of the ute, no problems! Except when it begins to rain, then we had seven people squeezed into the cab of the ute. As long as the people in the front seats have their seatbelts on, this is also fine
Trip to Prey Veng
This trip was by far the most technically challenging. As part of my EWB role (as opposed to RWC) I went to assist the installation of a new type of septic tank at a rural household. What we hadn’t considered was the rate the high water table level would fill the hole and prevent the cement from setting. This made it extra difficult for the local supplier to install whilst my colleague Piseth and I tried to come up with a way to continue the installation in these conditions. This type of tank also provided extra challenges than the standard installation due to it having more components that had to be arranged in a specific manner to achieve the desired outcome. Future installations will be easier, but a system will need to be figured out to make it so that any business who takes on the new design can install the system without issues.
This is definitely where most of my office time has been, especially of late. This is an assessment of where RWC is at as an organisation and what skill level the staff is at. I conducted a survey during their quarterly meeting and had some good responses and was able to share some immediate insights from their results. The hard part has been poring over the data and trying to decide what I would like to present in a final report. In the past when writing this type of report or when manipulating this type of data I have had a clear direction or desired outcome, however in this instance those decisions have been left up to me to make.
Due to the number of staff hanging around for lunch in the office on the day of the capacity assessment, we couldn’t all fit up around the table where we normally eat so instead we sat in a circle on the floor. Imagine suggesting this to your colleagues in Australia!
This is a very new experience for me as I’ve never had this same level of freedom in my work before. In my past jobs I’ve always reported to someone, who in turn reports up the chain. This management style means that missing deadlines, doing work incorrectly etc. can not only impact yourself but make your superiors look poor. Here I have a level of respect that I have not yet earned and work alongside others without really a direct report. This means that nobody is willing to call me out on anything I’m not doing correctly yet (I hope this will come with time once they know me well). The EWB staff in Australia oversee my placement, but are not involved in the day to day tasks that I complete and as such I tend to be my own boss.
Overall, I am loving working here, I get to see things that would never occur in Australia and work in completely different conditions. I can see the direct benefits that the organisation is having and hope that by the end of my placement here I will see benefits that come from the result of my work within the team.
You can read Jimi's blog on WordPress