Dr. Kurt DeGoede, professor of engineering and physics, discussed the work he has been doing with Elizabethtown College students in the Gambia to help develop better technology in the country on Tuesday, Oct. 14.
The Gambia is a small African country about 25 miles in width and 350 miles in length. DeGoede said that traveling from the southern end to the northern would only take about a half hour depending on the mode of transportation. The size of the country also means that most people know everyone in the country. DeGoede explained that this means no one goes hungry because those with more food give to those with less, and no one is homeless. “It’s mind boggling to Gambians that there are homeless people in the U.S.,” DeGoede said. The Gambia is also referred to as the “smiling coast.” The people are extremely welcoming, and tourism is a big industry for the country.
He also explained the dynamics of the land. DeGoede explained that the country used to be called Gambia; however, it was frequently confused with Zambia. Thus the name The Gambia came into use in order to prevent that confusion. The Gambia also has a rainy season from June to October, during which time it rains almost every day. During those four months, The Gambia receives more rain than London does in an entire year. Despite this, sunshine is still a prevalent part of the environment, and after the rainy season it does not rain for the remainder of the year. “If we want to go to the beach in January, we don’t have to worry if it’s going to rain. It’s not going to rain,” DeGoede said.
The political structure of The Gambia is also fairly stable. DeGoede said that overall the country is safe and has one of the lowest crime rates in the world. Frequently, people use small locks to lock anything from a bike to a house, and nothing is ever broken into. “They aren’t going to break and enter. If it’s locked, it’s locked,” DeGoede stated.
This political stability has aided DeGoede in beginning a program in conjunction with Etown students and students at the University of The Gambia (UTG). They generally work on projects to develop the technology in The Gambia. DeGoede and the students are currently working on a project to build solar-powered cell phone chargers that will be affordable to all in the country who wish to buy the product. DeGoede said the chargers will be the equivalent of about 10 U.S. dollars. “We’re just trying to solve a problem, and we think the best way to do that is with an affordable product rather than charity,” DeGoede said. He also wants to help the Gambians learn how to produce the charger in their own country.
DeGoede first began service trips over to The Gambia in 2012, when he began an organization with students called Social Business in Africa (SBIA). The goal was not to act as a charity and provide devices and technology for the country, but DeGoede hoped to work in conjunction and learn together with the students of UTG and the organization in order to facilitate the improvement of the community resources. In order to make this type of working relationship, DeGoede identified trust as the key. He said that the locals needed to trust him and the students enough to tell them if an idea would work or not and help in implementing the project. This strategy has worked well thus far. DeGoede identified some moments when students of UTG even acted without his help, such as building a naturally ventilated kitchen in a local school and putting a photovoltaic in a Mosque.
Since beginning his project, DeGoede has found a village to test the charger as well. DeGoede described bringing the charger to the community while the leaders and all the people stood around as he explained what the device was and how it would work. “They said ‘we don’t have anything to give you, but we can offer a prayer of blessing,’” DeGoede said, adding that many of the students who traveled with him left with tears in their eyes. The products are not implemented in The Gambia yet, but DeGoede hopes to eventually make the product affordable and available to produce in the country.