In 2001 several large magnitude earthquakes rocked the small Central American republic of El Salvador. The effects were devastating on an already struggling country where civil war had ended in 1991. In 2002, several Imperial civil engineering students volunteered to work on a development project in one of its poorest communities. Following this project another team went out in 2003 and pioneered a student-community participation scheme working with a local Non Government Organisation (NGO). The volunteering projects have now developed into an annual student participation scheme working with the Salvadorian NGO, REDES. Students from several universities and disciplines travel to El Salvador and work with the community for 5 to 7 weeks on various development projects. Over the past 4 years the projects have included a seismically resistant adobe pre-school, concrete block model house, construction of pit and compost latrines, construction of drainage pits, retaining walls, steel framed houses and various social welfare projects.
This year a team comprising of eleven students of this department (first year to PhD) and two architecture students from University College London travelled to El Salvador to work on four separate projects. The projects were completely organised by the students and funding gained from industrial sponsorship. Once again, it was in conjunction with REDES but also included other NGOs in keeping with the groups hope to expand. These projects included the expansion of a school and nursery in Santa Marta, a radio station in Victoria and compost latrines in Pepeto, Gualcimaca.
This small isolated village is home to around 4000 inhabitants and out of this underprivileged community, they have managed to send 18 youngsters to the capital to study at university. Though this place is deprived, my first impressions of the people were that they were very open and welcoming to us. The leaders of the village talked about Santa Marta describing their history and the oppression during the civil war. They had endured kidnappings and murder, forcing families to flee and become refugees in the neighbouring Honduras. The group continued to explain how they were never going to forget their oppression and that they would show people the truth about the government so that atrocities like this would never happen again. Though they had every right to be bitter for their misfortune, they weren?t. They spoke with conviction and determination and approached their problems rationally and sensibly. I was impressed by how well the community was structured and organised. They were probably one of the few communities that have come together so effectively to get themselves back on their feet.
As the women talked on, we managed to understand that one of the reasons for their susceptibility to tyranny was that much of the country is under-educated and that the people were easily manipulated by the government. Obviously the situation is a lot more complicated but 13 people can?t change El Salvador in 6 weeks. The best anyone could do is let them know their voices are being heard and as young active engineering students offer whatever else we can to help them.
The projects in Santa Marta include the construction of more classrooms in their local high school and nursery (over time we came to know these as the Escuela and la Guarderia). As many of the older generation were lost to the war, Santa Marta is a fairly youthful village and so the school brings the community together and provides hope for children. At the Escuela, a second floor building was being built on top of an existing derelict ground-floor-building. The upper floor would be used as classrooms and the ground floor would be used as a recreational area. The classrooms, designed by REDES, are modern block and reinforced concrete buildings. However, the only thing not so modern about it was the way in which we had to build it. Excavations, concrete mixing and pouring, bar bending and soil compacting were all done by hand.
The work planned for the la Guarderia is the construction of more classrooms, a dining hall and a playground for the children. Work had not started before our arrival so there was a lot of site preparation and excavation to do. I remember the hysterics of our first task. Armed with only four mallets, we had to demolish a 5m high, large brick and reinforced concrete building.
Outside of Santa Marta in the closest town of Victoria was the Radio Station project. The objective was to help the community rebuild their radio station, a valuable cornerstone to the surrounding isolated villages like Santa Marta. It provides information about the outside world such as current affairs, public services and announcements that are free from government censorship. A new station is required to provide room for more volunteers to work and large rooms to hold seminars and education programs for the people. This two storey building, situated on a slope, required the construction of a large retaining wall and strong foundations. Similar to the Escuela, the materials and design were fairly modern, but because money is always an issue, the methods were fairly traditional. Thanks to the depth of the retaining all of us spent hilarious amounts of time in a pit compacting soil with a concrete-filled-paint-pot on the end of a stick.
Our fourth project brought us with CIRES (a different NGO) to a remote settlement called Pepeto. It could only be reached on foot or in a 4x4 on a good day meaning transportation of building materials was tricky. CIRES, unlike REDES, concern themselves with medical aid and they are not engineers. Their projects mainly raise health awareness and supply aid to places which have no free government care due to inaccessibility. Our aim was to build five compost latrines for five selected households in Pepeto, North East of Chalatenango bordering Honduras. The objective was to improve health thereby reduce disease and illness such as diarrhoea, vomiting, headaches, and dizziness.
The extent to how deprived this community was, meant that sanitary facilities were very limited and we had to walk ten minutes to get a wash. This village had little in the way of hygiene and sanitation. Consequently, providing compost latrines is a big step forwards. Unlike the projects at Santa Marta and Victoria where we had a Maestro, here we were given full flexibility for the engineering of the latrines. The concrete mix, the foundation size and the mortar and blocking of the latrines were all coordinated by ourselves.
Update on projects and where they are now:
Radio Victoria is to be completed by mid-late October. The Escuela is expected to be finished for the end of September and the Guarderia completion date is unsure as the project has only recently begun. The five compost latrines have been completed and CIRES have decided to support a full program of 17 more toilets totalling up to 22 toilets.
Next Year?s Group
There is great potential for the future years. This year?s group has managed to establish and strengthened more ties with other NGO?s and communities in El Salvador. There is also discussion whether or not to make our ties with REDES an official one. The various projects in conjunction with ADES, CIRES and REDES could include: water collectors near San Miguel; libraries and computer labs for schools; and construction work with El Salvadorian Students.
If you?re interested look out for upcoming presentations and publicity!
Dan ?ear licker? Woodier: Currently spending fourth year in Paris. Responsible for inflicting a bunch of students on a country with worse things to worry about.
"I went to El Salvador in 2003 as a first year and had such a good time I decided to go back. Although totally different because of the increased responsibility and the nature of the projects, this year?s trip didn't disappoint. Having finished, I miss the banter with the various characters we worked with (just the word 'suave' still cracks me up), my lively family and kicking back at the tienda after work with a well deserved pilsener.
A bit about the weekends: REDES feel that this volunteer programme is as much about our experiencing the country and its culture as about the engineering side. They organise a punishing schedule of tourist excursions that you would never get out of a guide book, from Mayan ruins to the beach to a bar just around the corner from the REDES office talking to some of the most interesting people you are likely to ever meet, the work during the week can sometimes feel like time off. It may not be a large country but you'll soon realise that six weeks is not long enough."
Alice ?no days off? Clarke: now in second year, suffered from pizza sweat.
"It was seeing the report from the group who went out in 2004 that made me decide to come to Imperial. I think I was seduced by the picturesque sunny beaches and lush green mountains and the idea of working on such an exotic construction site; it felt like the furthest place possible from London.
"As well as the rewards of working on site, (seeing the projects moving forwards so quickly, the surprising satisfaction at looking down on a hole 5ft deep in the ground that you?ve dug by hand and the puny muscles I developed compacting Tierra Blanca into the retaining wall on the Radio Victoria site for two weeks), there was much more to the El Salvador project than manual labour. In the village we lived with an old lady who was better at skipping rope than I was in junior school and her 12 year old granddaughter who had developed the biggest crush on Wongy and Alex. We had dinner in the home of a famous El Salvadorian artist, attempted to learn salsa in the clubs of San Salvador and visited a church with the most wonderful interior I have ever seen. I had such an amazing time I didn?t really want to come back."
Paul 'cabeza' Wong: now fourth year, scared of spiders and MS 13, ?built like a Greek god?
"It is almost impossible to forget the trip to sunny El Sal. I mean, how can anyone forget making concrete in blistering heat, being stalked by little monkey kids during dinner, making concrete, having your life flashed before your eyes when encountering the local gangsters, making concrete, watching a guy taking a dump in his own backyard (while he was suppose to be 'making' aggregate), making concrete, attaining your own building tools and, of course, our favourite pastime in El Salvador, making sweet and sexy concrete.
"In one of the most beautiful yet troubled countries I have ever encountered, I have gained one of the greatest experiences of my life. And if anyone were to embark on this trip, they will never forget this lovely country and the lovely people that live in it."
Myrto ?Mamacita? Papaspiliou: Now doing PhD, formerly the 2006 Santa Marta sex symbol.
"We returned from El Salvador about one and a half months ago and since then a lot of people have asked me about the trip. I have not yet been able to find the words to make others see what a wonderful time I had as all these ?you should have been there? stories come to my head. I really think that anyone with some free summer time should go for it. People seem to get stuck at the description of the certainly different and behind-the-time living conditions, but it was so much more than that; it was definitely the best experience of my life, and the best way to spend most of my last summer (as I will no longer have three-month long summer vacations in my life!)."