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A Place to Call Home

Students at the Namibia Project Center design low-cost, energy-efficient housing for Goreangab shack-dwellers

We travel to learn; and I have never been in any country where they did not do something better than we do it, think some thoughts better than we think, or catch some inspiration from heights above our own.

—Maria Mitchell, first professional woman astronomer in the United States, post-Civil War abolitionist, and women’s rights advocate

By Natalie Mello, Photos by Andrew Mumford ’05

Namibia was not Andrew Mumford’s first choice for completing his Interdisciplinary Project requirement. He wanted to go to Zurich. Now, this member of the Class of 2005 admits that if he’d gone to Switzerland, he’d be a different person today—someone whose eyes had not been opened to a world he never knew existed.

Mumford teamed with Jesse Tippett ’05 and Jessica Sulzmann ’05 to help a community of shack-dwellers in Goreangab, Namibia, improve their shelters. The experience, he says, “increased my appreciation for the necessities of life that we take for granted.”

The team’s project was sponsored by the Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Bureau of Namibia (R-3-E), through the Polytechnic Institute of Namibia. Their objective was to spend two months planning and designing a low-cost, energy-efficient housing cluster (from 50 to 100 structures) using locally available materials capable of keeping the homes cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Jessica Sulzmann ’05 with her Namibian namesake.

No-cost construction

The students, advised by Professors Susan Vernon-Gerstenfeld and Arthur Gerstenfeld, founders of WPI’s Namibia Project Center, prepared for their project by corresponding with R-3-E to outline the needs of Goreangab residents. Besides improving the construction of the shacks, they learned that they would need to insulate them. In the summer, the interior of the shacks can reach 104 degrees; during winter nights, the temperature often plummets to 23.

When they reached Namibia, the students were struck by its beauty (“a technicolor dreamscape, a land of swirling apricot dunes and shimmering white flats,” according to one travel Web site) and its poverty. “What I saw in settlements took me by surprise,” says Sulzmann. “I knew there were many people who lived in poverty, but I had never witnessed it firsthand.” Shack-dwellers who live in informally settled areas, or ISAs, such as Goreangab, earn less than $180 U.S. per month; a large portion of that goes to wood and paraffin for cooking and heating.

Jesse Tippett ’05

“The people we worked with had nothing,” says Mumford. “No running water, no electricity, no cars, no money, few clothes, barely a roof over their heads—just a drive to survive and better themselves. They worried about the essentials of life: food, clothing, shelter.”

The team set out to develop recommendations the shack-dwellers could implement at little or no cost. First, they met with community members, in groups and one-on-one, to build trust. “We were worried about what they would think of us as foreigners coming into their homes with our ideas,” says Sulzmann. Respect for the shack-dwellers’ way of life was a key component of this trust building. The team recognized that while the 10-by-15-foot shacks—made from corrugated iron, flattened oil drums, and other readily available materials—were not aesthetically pleasing, they were still homes. Mumford described the pride people took in decorating the interiors with wall hangings and in maintaining their properties. The students kept aesthetics in mind as they focused on ways to control the temperature variability of the shacks.

Andrew Mumford ’05

Raising the reed roof

The team found a plant material that was an ideal insulator and was also strong enough to be used in the ceilings of the shacks. Reed cane, also known as “the giant reed,” migrated into subtropical and warm-temperate areas from countries along the Mediterranean Sea. It resembles bamboo and grows rapidly; immature plants gain as much as two feet per week for the first few months, and mature canes reach up to 30 feet. The students discovered that, woven together into mats, reed cane would be strong enough to support other insulating materials installed between the ceiling and roof.

But the first reed mat the students created collapsed. While they pondered what to do, the pregnant woman who lived in the shack, a carpenter by trade, gave them the components they needed to hold the ceiling in place. Her shack became the model for the community’s other dwellings.

Out of Africa

Namibia at a Glance

The students went to Namibia to complete a required project, but each came out of Africa with a new perspective on life. Although Tippett will remember the staggering poverty in Goreangab, he’ll also recall that he never saw a homeless person, which to him reflects the importance of community in Namibia. He says his life will continue to be shaped by that experience as he looks for a career where his efforts can “directly benefit people, not just a profit margin.”

Once the reluctant team member, Mumford says he continues to wrestle with why he has so much when others have so little. He hopes that thinking about this issue will direct and guide decisions he makes in the future, as both an engineer and a citizen.

Sulzmann plans to return to Africa soon, if only to visit her sister, who is stationed in Ghana in the Peace Corps. In fact, her experience in Namibia has prompted her to consider applying to the Peace Corps herself.

Until she returns, there will still be a part of Sulzmann in Africa. Two days before the team departed, the woman who helped the team figure out how to secure the reed ceiling gave birth to a girl. While she may not remember being held by Sulzmann, the child will be reminded of her every time someone says her name: Jessica.

Note: On Dec. 1, this student project was awarded first place in the 2004 President’s IQP Awards.

—Natalie Mello is director of global operations in WPI’s Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division.

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Last modified: Dec 16, 2004, 15:25 EST
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