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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

A sustaining summer trip

Brandeis student travels to Nicaragua with Harvard group

Published: August 29, 2008
Section: Features

Every night before getting into bed last May, David Drayton would check it for scorpions. Then, kicking back and reflecting on the work he had done that day in El Limon, Nicaragua, he would journal for an hour.

Woken up at 2 a.m. by rising roosters, and then again at 5:30 by either cool air or an alarm clock, Drayton ’09 had to be quick if he wanted to take a shower in the morning. Trudging outside with a little bucket filled with ice cold water, he would enter the tiny stall and take a quick shower in a makeshift bathroom space.

Hopping in a truck, Drayton was then off for the day to perform fieldwork. Maybe he would work with water development today. Or perhaps he might take part in a community dance. Whatever it was, it was sure to be an adventure, he recalled.

This past May, Drayton took part in a trip to Nicaragua hosted by a group of Harvard University students and their group Harvard Project for Sustainable Development (HPSD).

The vision of HPSD is twofold, including both an academic outreach component on campus and actual fieldwork. Through campus outreach programs including speakers and workshops, HPSD seeks to inform their peers first in the issues of development.

After doing so, members of HPSD travel abroad to put their knowledge to practical use, taking part in fieldwork trips.

“Our goal is development that’s sustainable, development that’s rigorously responsible,” HPSD’s co-president Toby Norman described.

Countless hours of preparation go into one trip, as members study the history of development and strategize on how best to execute the specific projects they are about to encounter. HPSD’s work is based out of the Nicaraguan village of El Limon, but they work in several other communities in the vicinity, taking two trips a year to the country.

Through his work as Director of Operations for the Millennium Campus Network (MCN), Drayton met Norman at an MCN event. Comprised of several university student groups, MCN is an organization started by Brandeis students Sam Vaghar ’08 and Seth Werfel ‘10. By uniting several college groups with similar goals, MCN supports the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which seek to eradicate extreme poverty. Brandeis’ Positive Foundations is one such member.

Impressed with HPSD’s work, Drayton started to attend most of their meetings and help out wherever he could.

Back at Brandeis, Drayton formed a group at Brandeis comprised of Positive Foundations members and others with the goal of supporting HPSD.

This group conducted research on metals in water to support HPSD’s water project, and Drayton gave water filter lessons to members using a filter borrowed from HPSD. Eventually, Drayton helped to raise about $1000 for HPSD.

May came and so did show time, and Drayton departed for Nicaragua with 16 other students. Before landing, Drayton caught his first view of the country’s landscape, eyeing one of the first volcanoes he had ever seen.

But incongruously juxtaposed to all this geographic splendor was the hard hitting reality of the poverty prevalent in this second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, Drayton said. Next to this beautiful landscape, outside of this modernized airport, were beggars, vendors, and poor housing conditions. “It was a really shocking experience and it took awhile to get used to,” Drayton described.

As were many other aspects of the journey- the early wake- up calls and open- door community policy not excluded.

One thing Drayton got used to fast though was the welcoming environment of his host family and the surrounding community. Some good, natural tasting meals did not hurt either.

Taking part in one important component of this year’s trip-the water project-Drayton and other HPSD members distributed ceramic water filters, or ceramic water purifiers (CWP’s) to the village’s 60 households and some in nearby villages and schools. This year, a lot of research went into how best to approach the water project, with field analysis in how to test water.

These colloidal silver-coated ceramic water filters extract bacteria, protozoa, parasites and the like from water, making it potable.

While this method doesn’t solve every problem associated with water such as the abundance of or transportation of water, when done well it drastically reduces infection rates.

Though each member of HPSD specialized in a specific project, like Drayton did with water, they all assisted each other wherever they could. For instance, Drayton also helped to transport and unpack computers and handed out toothpaste for HPSD’s dental project.

But even though their fieldwork succeeded in many tangible ways, not everything went so smoothly, as Drayton recalled. HPSD members and the Nicaraguan advisors they had hired did not always agree on what development actually meant, and how extensive HPSD’s work should be.

Though these challenging moments of debate caused many a moment of stress for Drayton, they also taught him an important lesson. “You don’t learn anything if a trip goes really well, but you learn a lot if you have to work through a lot of problems that you didn’t expect,” he said.

In addition to actual field work, Drayton and other members of HPSD took part in talks with community leaders at which any problems the leaders were facing would be discussed. Later in the day, HPSD members might play soccer with the local children or have a community dance to get to know the locals.

Though he had underestimated the value of the cultural aspects of development work before this trip, by the end of his stay, Drayton realized that understanding and relating to the community in which one works is more important than he ever could have imagined.

In fact, forging connections with the local community proved to be both an invaluable and enjoyable part of his experience, he said.

Drayton’s evenings were filled with the musical sounds of his host family and neighbors who came to visit and pass the night away.

Learning about and witnessing how a different culture operates earned Drayton’s respect and also surprised him. With an open door policy, the people of El Limon keep their doors unlocked and spend their nights relaxing.

“It was just a really, really relaxing experience the whole time and it kind of added a lot more depth to what this community was like so instead of just looking at [thinking these people need help] you get to know the people and the way they live and it completely changes the way you look at the situation,” he said.

Fresh from his experience, Drayton started a summer job with Mercy Corps, a nonprofit organization which works around the world to alleviate poverty and assist in development.

Ranging from simple administrative tasks such as getting the mail, to projects dealing with greening the office and learning how to keep a clean paper trail, Drayton’s duties taught him increased organizational skills and revealed some of the inside workings of a nonprofit business.

Drayton also even helped to evaluate a potential partnership with a philanthropic tea company seeking to create closer ties with Mercy Corps in an attempt to improve the lives of plantation workers.

Still involved with HPSD and MCN, Drayton also is dedicated to the Millennium Student Initiative, (MSI) a new project formed by Brandeis students which will launch later this fall. MSI seeks to both raise money for a millennium village in Africa and create a cross-country dialogue among all college students.

Drayton also anticipates more work with Brandeis’ Freshwater Initiative, a group which working to bring fresh water solutions to impoverished areas of Peru. If his work so far says anything, it will be that Drayton has a busy year ahead of him.