Canadian Consulting Engineer

Lessons from Ethiopia

January 1, 2004
By Bronwen Parsons

Often the most revealing and colourful parts of a story are left out because space is limited and the information doesn't fit with the main theme.So when I met Bill Ainley for the Human Edge article (...

Often the most revealing and colourful parts of a story are left out because space is limited and the information doesn’t fit with the main theme.

So when I met Bill Ainley for the Human Edge article (page 54) and heard many fascinating stories and insights but had no room for them in the article, I was loathe to leave them as illegible scrawl in my notebook, never to see the light of day.

My conversation with Ainley taught me that engineers are not only caring individuals who work to make the world a better place, but also that an engineer’s life can be full of adventure. Ainley is also a humble individual who is ready to admit that engineers and the authorities they work for don’t always have the right answer — or at least they don’t provide the whole solution.

After the great Ethiopian famine of the 1980s, Ainley took off and spent a year drilling wells in the drought stricken country. It was the first of a series of volunteering trips he has spent in Third World countries.

When he returned to Ethiopia after the first year-long visit, he was shocked to find that only about a third of the 32 wells they had dug were functioning. The equipment had broken down and the villagers had no money to pay for replacement parts, nor any means of travelling the hundreds of kilometres necessary to obtain them. They had tried to fix the pumps with nails, rope and other makeshift materials, but to no avail. Women were again having to walk miles to fetch and carry water. Evidently, someone had missed the big picture. The government and engineers had been so excited about the big engineering project, they forgot about the villagers’ needs and that they would need ongoing help to maintain the system. Ainley doesn’t say all this in so many words — he’s not judgmental and prone to drawing grand conclusions. He simply tells you what happened.

One day the engineers returned to a lakeside village and found it deserted. It was a new settlement ordered by the government to consolidate two or three older villages. Ainley’s team had drilled the well. Now, all that remained at the new settlement was the slab of concrete for the pump; everyone had gone back up to live on the hillside. None of the government planners and engineers had factored in what the locals already knew: that the mosquitoes were so thick, the lakeside spot was uninhabitable

Ainley also relates some unforgettable experiences. He remembers driving to the teeming city of Addis Ababa on the hunt for a truck part they desperately needed and being taken by an Ethiopian through “terrible places — just shacks in the wall.” In Cambodia he was surrounded by teams of machine-gun-toting heavymen. They were hired to protect him from kidnappers when he went to search for dam sites in the jungle, but to Ainley the bodyguards were almost as frightening as the brigands.

Ainley has managed not just to run a successful practice here at home, but also to find time to help those who needed his expertise in other countries. Recently, engineering organizations have been trying to revamp the image of the engineer, hoping to show that engineers are “cool” and not the nerdy, introverted types they are often depicted. People like Ainley are great examples of how far the stereotypical image is from the truth.


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