Fire ants –> empowerment

Today I welcome my first guest blogger, Rebecca Yoo. She is a student at Georgia Tech University, and came to Bolivia as part of a water quality research team.

I brought them to Sica Sica, the county where Konani is located. The municipal technicians and engineers have asked for our help in improving their capacity to monitor water quality in their 82 communities. As a step towards that, the Georgia Tech team measured water quality in 7 communities, comparing high-tech lab techniques with various low cost, simple field techniques. That way, they will find out which field techniques are most reliable and replicable for rural areas.

A municipal technician Maclovio, community water committee president Nasario, and G.Tech researchers.

A municipal technician Maclovio, community water committee president Nasario, and G.Tech researchers. Testing for contamination in Culli Culli Alto, where EIA is starting a new water project.

A (mis)adventure involving fire ants led to some unexpected waiting time at a health clinic with Rebecca, which led to an opportunity for community development. Though all of this, I loved watching and hearing Rebecca process her experiences. Many short term international trips are reported as “life changing”, but the person soon returns to the same life patterns. In Rebecca’s case, I think I actually witnessed a day that impacted her life. I’ll let her tell you more about it: without further ado, here’s Rebecca Yoo!

Day 6: Growing Up, Sica Sica

Repost from

I woke up to my alarm at 4:30 AM with Aaron´s (our Teaching Assistant) Mr. Miagi speech still ringing through my ears. Last night, he had decided to hand over the baton of water sampling leadership to myself, as well as words of wisdom to combat any unforeseen challenges. Little did I know how precious his words would be.

Our two hour drive today was to Sica Sica, a small town beyond El Alto. Although Carlos, Melissa, Kaitlyn, and I nervously felt Aaron´s absence, we were luckily accompanied by Lauren, a project manager at Engineers In Action who had graduated from University of Minnesota with a degree in mechanical engineering. She had arranged for a partnership with the municipality of Sica Sica in order to sample various rural sources. As we cruised in a Jeep with several community leaders throughout the area, we sampled taps at schools, households, and water tanks. Unfortunately, we hardly reached our third source location before trouble arose.

As I was examining acidity by a tank on a beautiful grassy hill, I suddenly felt sharp stings on my feet – a fire ant attack. Unfortunately, my fashionable decision of wearing Sockos (Chacos with socks) had backfired into discovering a new allergic reaction and adventuring to my first Bolivian clinic. More surprises awaited after receiving medications at the clinic, as a ring of women and children steadily filled the clinic room to hear an unplanned lesson on proper water usage. Although Lauren and I were awaiting the Jeep´s arrival at any moment, Lauren obliged to the women and children, who had already formed a circle to listen.

Lauren´s lesson consisted of the importance of clean water and simple treatment methods. Despite the short notice of the lesson, I was amazed at Lauren´s fluency in engaging the community throughout her lesson by asking simple questions such as ¨Who here drinks water?¨ and  ¨What are some ways you can purify water?¨ She continued her lesson by explaining how to rid harmful waterborne microbes by exposing bottles of water to sunlight and filtering water through layers of cloth. She ended the lesson by allowing community members to ask questions or express any concerns. I thought Lauren´s water lesson was amazing for an impromptu mini-speech, but what struck me the most was the way in which she empowered the community throughout the meeting. Never once did she speak as a know-it-all scientist, nor a community leader in charge of their daily lifestyle, but rather challenged the community to test the methods for themselves. She even jokingly told them they could call her a liar if the children´s health did not improve after a month of water treatment. It was then that I realized the importance of community empowerment – allowing a community to realize dignity through independent strength, as opposed to community provision, which creates dependence and a hierarchical attitude.

As Lauren and I waited after the lesson, I looked around the room full of women and children whom I had never met. It suddenly dawned on me that I was in a foreign community far away from home, had no clue when the Jeep would arrive, and was without any clean water. For a split of a second, I panicked- not because I was afraid for my safety, but because I felt trapped. I felt trapped in the area, trapped with dirty water, trapped with a community whose voice was not heard. For the first time, I felt my eyes being opened to the gravity of my ignorance, despite the time I had spent thinking about these communities and their challenges. I realized no matter how much education I received, I would always have much to learn from these communities, as I could never understand the weight of poverty more than those who have experienced it. As for me, my responsibility was to acknowledge what I have yet to learn and to diligently contribute the knowledge which I have gained.

Today, I revisited my goals with a new light.  As a new generation of civil and environmental engineers receives the baton to lead international development, I realized the great potential young engineers could have by cultivating an attitude of partnership and humility. As this week slowly comes to a close, I think of my friends back at Georgia Tech and hope our lessons from Sica Sica reach ATL soon.

-Rebecca Yoo


Giving an impromptu workshop on water use.


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