(Summer ’15) Fernando “Nani” Ruiz, ’16

Fernando “Nani” Ruiz, ( ’16 Mechanical Engineering)

This summer Fernando will be working with ARTI Energy in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. ARTI is an NGO that works to create sustainable charcoal by training farmers to carbonize their agricultural waste; ARTI processes the carbonized waste to make charcoal briquettes. Fernando will be assisting ARTI in creating improved training techniques by documenting current carbonization practices and training methods as well as analyzing samples of char produced by farmers.

Tuko Pamoja (We’re Together or We’re on the Same Page)

So I leave tomorrow… I can’t believe almost 3 months have gone by!

Things are pretty hectic right now as I try to finish up all I want to do before I leave. I’ve spent the last couple of days translating the new on-site testing manual into Swahili. I was translating with Shabani, one of the factory supervisors who is still learning English, but who I have already trained to do the tests.

Although there was a language barrier, we were both heavily invested in accurately translating the instructions. To make sure we understood each other, we incorporated a rule free game of charades that allowed both parties to speak, use props and make sound effects. We spent 9-10 hours translating the document, communicating using whatever we could find on the office table as props: as the ruler rumbled like the extrusion machine and the marker pen charcoal was placed in the cell phone cookstove, we asked each other “tuko pamoja?”

Yesterday, I printed a copy and gave it to Allen, the factory manager who lived in the US for 5 years and speaks fluent English. He read through the English and Swahili translations and to my amazement we only needed a few modifications. When he told me the good news, I sighed and confidently said “tuko pamoja.”

Currently, only the supervisors know how to do the tests but we have agreed that they will train some of the other factory staff with the help of the new manual when I am gone. Finally, what I have been working on for the past three months with a select group of people (namely the best English speakers), is on paper for everyone to understand.  So far, the translated instructions have been a success.  The document floated around the factory the whole day as different people came by to read it. It felt like people finally understood what they have confusingly watched me do for the past three months. For the first time it felt like “tuko pamoja.”


Different members of the factory staff reading the translated testing manual (and one even taking notes).

Different members of the factory staff reading the translated testing manual (and one even taking notes).

These past three months I oftentimes felt that I had too much work on my plate. I had to make many of the samples on my own, or I had to do so in the process of teaching someone who spoke limited English. But these past three days have been different. It seems like everyone wants to help to conduct the tests. I have spent most of my time watching my trainee, Rahim, successfully teach another member of the factory staff, Said. It feels like I have become obsolete, and I have never felt so happy to feel unneeded.


Rahim, the factory supervisor and my trainee, trains Said.

Despite many surprises, frustrations, and living permanently with charcoal dust stuck under my finger nails, I have had an amazing experience in Tanzania. I am hopeful the culture of experimentation I brought with me from MIT will remain after I leave. I am proud of everybody I worked with here, mainly Rahim and Shabani, the two factory supervisors. They have never ceased to help me during my time here and I confidently leave the long-term success of my project in their able hands.

The last few days have been bittersweet.  I am thankful that introducing the translated manual was such a success, but I feel as though my work is just getting started. I feel like it took me this long to have people understand what I’m doing. I am sad because now that I’m leaving… finally…“tuko pamoja.”

Upon leaving, Allen Shaidi the factory manager wrote me a note I want to share:

“Fernando, you exemplify the spirit of adapting and overcoming challenges that one faces either on a personal level with relationships in a foreign land or with obstacles you faced after your planned research did not come to play. You immersed yourself physically to work hands-on researching about the quality of our briquettes, its performances and variations in the recipe. I thank you for your work coming up with an improved version of our new testing and reporting systems.

Congratulations on a job well done! We look forward to further build up on the successes you have contributed tremendously for the factory to achieve. God bless!”

Allen and I say our final good byes.

Allen and I say our final good byes.

On Being a Foreginer

There are certain situations that always seem to catch me off-guard. They are situations of special treatment, of money, of being foreign.

Last semester, I took an intro to international development class. Among other topics, I studied the relationships formed between donor countries and recipient countries and how historical events such as colonialism and the Cold War have affected these relationships. In the past, I have visited “developing” countries, but after studying relevant topics, I have perceived these certain situations through a new lens. I have been able to live what I have studied.

I want to share my experiences on how being foreign has affected my daily life. I want to share my thoughts on how my experiences have introduced me to a problem much larger than myself.

Mostly, there are innocent ways in which being a white foreigner affects my life here. For one, it always seems like I am the center of attention. People stare; they shout “mzungu!” or “white!” to get my attention. Children follow me around to ask “how are you?” and they giggle when I answer. People really want to drive me around; bajajis honk to get my attention, and piki piki drivers stop next to me on the street if I am walking.

Beside innocent curiosities or minor annoyances, there are the other situations -situations of special treatment, of money, of being foreign – that has made me ask:

How should I react?

What should I do when a conversation goes from “how are you friend?” to “can I have 5000 shillings?” How do I respond to a child who tells me he/she is hungry? What do I say when a member of the cleaning staff at the university where I work asks me for money?  Should I accept paying double or triple the normal price, or should I try to talk down a price that is already cheap by American standards?

At times, it seems like people make two assumptions when they seem me. One, I have money. And two, I am here to give it to them.

How did I react?

I became frustrated by these recurring interactions and I became colder to the people around me. I began to ignore ‘njoo!” or “come!” from the side of the street. I was annoyed when people tried to charge me double the normal price; I felt worse if they would tell me it’s the normal price after I insisted I knew what it normally costs. I walked past beggars, looking directly ahead, like they didn’t even exist.

But, I soon realized isolating myself was getting me nowhere, instead I tried to think of the situation from their perspective. I started asking myself why.

Let’s go back a couple of months… I am in Boston finishing up my semester and preparing for my summer in Tanzania. I remember some peoples’ reactions when I told them of my summer plans. Some people didn’t know where Tanzania is on a map, most knew it was in Africa. Most people were confused to hear I’d have internet access and electricity or that I would live in a large city where people wear button-down shirts and khaki pants. Many were concerned for my well-being. I do not blame anyone; their surprise and concern makes sense given what most Americans are told about Africa.

To give you an idea of how skewed a Western perception of Africa is, I want you to do a google search for “African people.” The images include starving children, colorful Maasai jewelry, and child soldiers. The top 5 recommended searches are: culture, poor, tribe, dancing, and starving. This is the Africa people thought of when I told them I was going to Tanzania for the summer. This is the Africa we are most often exposed to in the States. Although these images are real, they focus on the negative and give an incomplete picture. It doesn’t tell you about the rising economies of African nations or about scientific advancements such as a generator that runs on urine.

This skewed perception has been addressed by people like Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who warns about the “the danger of a single story” in her TED talk. And recently, there has been an attempt to alter skewed perceptions of Africa on social media #TheAfricaTheMediaNeverShowsYou. But these attempts are overwhelmed by images of “povery porn.”

For the sake of completeness, let’s google search: “American people.” There are images of red, white and blue; stars and stripes; politicians in suits; happy Americans: groups of whites, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics together. Don’t get me wrong, these images are real but they are incomplete. It doesn’t tell you about America’s problems like its large and growing debt, or about recent racial atrocities like the Charleston Shooting.

Which brings me to my next question…What does a Tanzanian know about the United States or more generally about “developed” countries?

People are exposed to American hip-hop, movies and TV shows. But, first-hand experience is usually reduced to foreign aid organizations and development workers. In Oyster Bay (one of the nicer neighborhoods in the city), there are several organization headquarters like USAID, Norwegian Development Agency, government embassies, and the World Bank.

I began realizing that people’s perception of me is a relationship that was established a long time ago with the West’s aid relationship with Africa. The West has been giving handouts to African nations for generations. Aid organizations continue to give handouts, and aid workers continue to be associated as handout givers. This association has expanded to include all foreigners since many foreigners living in Dar work for aid organizations.

It seems Americans are exposed to Africa at its worst while Tanzanians are exposed to the West at its best. Americans are exposed to an Africa in need of handouts while Tanzanians are exposed to a West of handout givers. The West is told they are “developed,” “first world,” or “industrialized” while Tanzania is told they are “developing,” “third world” or “underdeveloped.”

Once I put these uncomfortable situations into perspective, it was easy to realize why they were happening. It was based off of generations of aid promoting foreign dependence.

How do I react?

I’m still working on it.

After being conflicted for some time, I decide to seek help. I wrote my international development professor, explaining my concerns. I told him I do not want to promote a relationship of dependence because I am in Tanzania to try to empower people. On the other hand, I told him I felt guilty for not giving, considering a dollar here can go much further. He responded with useful insight:

“…guilt is never a good incentive, especially in development, because it makes the problem to be about your relief, rather than the actual wellbeing of the person you are trying to “help”… If you are doing everything you can, through your work and personal relationships to collaborate with that community, there is no reason why you should feel guilty for not giving. In fact, you ARE giving, and way more than those couple of dollars.”

So now, I try not to feel guilty when I do not give money. Instead, I try to give through my work. When I’m asked for money on the streets, I do not give money but I always try to give human kindness. I never ignore people. At the very least, I give them a smile and ask them how they are doing.

Getting Dirty, Getting Surprised, Staying Optimistic

I haven’t updated this blog in a while so I have a lot to share with you.  I’m going to lay out a couple of things I have learned this month:

1. Things don’t go according to plan.

Originally, my project was aimed to create better training techniques for farmers producing char from agricultural waste. As I said in my last post, when I arrived here I learned ARTI has lost contact with many of its farmers and is only recently starting to retrain farmers. Because of this, I started focusing on testing different ratios of binder to determine cost-effective and test briquette quality. That’s where we left off last time.

I’ve spent the last month producing and testing samples of briquettes. My tests include on-site testing, some of my own and some created by a former D-Lab team, and proximate analysis at the university. I usually work alone or with one other person to produce my 50kg samples at the factory. It’s proven to be pretty exhausting, but getting my hands dirty has been worth it. I have gained valuable insights on briquette production in the process of doing it myself.

IMG_1358 (2)IMG_1377 (2)IMG_1349 (2)

 But, things have changed. One of my tests, Water Boil Test, measures the amount of time it takes for water to boil. In order to compare different briquettes, I was using the same stove. Well, last week I broke the stove… I dropped the clay insulation and it shattered, which brings me to the next thing I’ve learned:

2. When things don’t go according to plan (and they won’t), something valuable is learned.



I definitely learned that the clay in cookstoves is not held in place, but that’s not what I’m referring to. In the process of breaking the stove, I realized important shortcomings of the on-site tests. I realized they don’t necessarily test what they intend to, and more generally, testing briquette quality can be tricky. There is no “perfect quality” briquette. Some combinations of binder and char make dense, durable, quick-drying briquettes. Generally, these briquettes are more difficult to ignite, heat-up slower, but last longer. Other briquettes are less dense, less durable and take more time to dry. Generally, these briquettes are easier to ignite, heat-up faster, but last less time. In the end, the optimal briquette depends on what you are cooking. If you want to boil water to make pasta, you want a briquette that heats up fast; if you want to slow-cook meat, a slower-burning briquette is ideal.

Unfortunately, I don’t have time to repeat the tests, but I will have time to continue training the factory workers. By working together with me, they are already familiar with the tests I’ve been doing. Now, my focus for the remainder of my time is to make sure they can conduct the tests without my help. I have just completed documenting my tests and revising the on-site testing manual. The new manual will be similar but will address shortcomings I have realized this past month as well as new tests which interfere less with normal production at the factory.

Friend and work colleague, Mikael, flies solo on a Water Boil Test

The trainings have gotten off to a good start and I think they will go well in the next 3 weeks.  I am optimistic but still a little worried. Trainings have already proven to be a challenge due to the language and educational barriers. Luckily, things have gotten better.

3. Knowing (or just trying to speak) the language  goes a long way

This seems pretty obvious but it is something I can’t stress enough. The ability to communicate is something I normally take for granted, but here I quickly learned the importance.  When I first arrived in Tanzania, I became frustrated by the difficulties to communicate especially at the factory. I was training some of the factory workers who speak very limited English. But I figured if they made an effort to speak to me in English, it would only be fair if I tried to speak to them in Swahili. So, I put my frustration to good use and I started learning. I started studying language books and doing the exercises. I quickly realized what anybody who has studied a language book already knows, language books can be pretty terrible. While doing the exercises, I spent a lot of time thinking, “When am I ever going to say this?” So I started learning a more interesting way.

4. Immersion is the best way to learn a language.

I look at my book every once in a while, but most of my learning happens by speaking to people. I speak every day at the factory, I give bajaji drivers directions, I buy things at a store, and I talk to people on the street. I try to always have my notebook with me. If I learn a new word, I write it down. If people try to speak to me in English, I respond in Swahili and try to hold the conversation as long as I can (which usually isn’t very long). The streets of Dar es Salaam have become my classroom. Although I oftentimes can’t understand completely or I make a fool of myself (like mixing up the word for chicken and brother), people appreciate the attempt or at least get a nice laugh.

I have also started a learning experiment at home by labeling everything in my house in Swahili. This has helped me acquire a vocabulary and as an added bonus makes my house much more organized. The picture shows you pretty much what my whole place looks like.


I am definitely far from fluent, but learning from my day to day interactions has been a quick way to learn relevant words and phrases. I think learning this way can also have its drawbacks, my grammar is pretty terrible, and I don’t think I will ever understand Swahili noun classes. But, I can now communicate so much more effectively and that’s what I wanted all along. Now, with my Swahili and the factory workers’ English, communication has gotten easier.

New Place, New Name, Exciting Work

Mambo! Greetings from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania!

My name is Nani….. well….kinda…it depends who you ask.

If you’re one of my Tanzanian friends you know me only as Nando. It turns out “nani” means “who” in Swahili. When I learned this, I began introducing myself as Nando to avoid extremely confusing introductions.

The way you introduce yourself in Swahili is:
“Jina     langu    ni    (name).”
which translates directly to:
“Name     my      is      (name).”
If I were to say: “Jina langu ni Nani.” I would be asking the other person what my name is… So, to avoid being the confused “mzungu” or “white person” who asks people what his own name is, I decided to change my nickname.

So let’s start again… Jina langu ni Nando. I am a rising senior in Mechanical Engineering and this summer I am working with ARTI-Africa.

After spending a week visiting some friends in England and the Netherlands, I arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on the 5th of June. I have spent the last two weeks settling in and getting started on my project (as well as waiting to get Wi-Fi to post this blog!). My work colleagues have been very welcoming and made my first weekends in Tanzania relaxing and enjoyable. But, before I tell you about my fun weekend I should probably tell you about my project…

This summer I will be working with an NGO: Appropriate Rural Technology Institute (ARTI) on their sustainable charcoal briquette project. This project addresses the unsustainable use of biomass (charcoal and wood) fuel in Tanzania. Currently, about 90% of the population relies on wood based cooking fuel. The huge demand has caused deforestation, especially near large urban areas such as Dar es Salaam. Burning wood-based fuels also creates indoor air pollution which can cause respiratory illness; this affects mostly women and children who are most exposed to the harmful emissions.

ARTI produces charcoal briquettes from waste. Their process is simple, but provides users with a more sustainable, more affordable and cleaner burning cooking fuel. First, agricultural/organic waste is carbonized to make char (which is basically charcoal dust). Then, a sticky cassava-based binder is mixed with the char powder. Finally, the char/binder combination is pressed to make briquettes and allowed to dry in the sun. ARTI trains smallholder farmers to complete the first step of the process. The farmers use kilns made by ARTI to carbonize their waste. ARTI then buys the char from the farmers and completes the briquette-making process at their factory. Once the briquettes are finished they are sold on the market under the brand name “Mkaa Mkombozi” which means “Savior Charcoal” in Swahili.

Originally, the main scope of my project was to assess training methods used by ARTI and document char-production of experienced char producers. When I arrived here, I learned ARTI has lost contact with many of the farmers whom they trained and are now starting to regain contact and hold trainings for new farmers. Instead of using carbonized waste, they have been relying on “waste” charcoal dust from charcoal sales in the city to produce their briquettes. Because of this, the focus of my project has shifted. I have already attended one training session and I will still be attending, assisting and documenting training methods used by ARTI. But, the focus of my project has shifted to quality control of the briquettes during production at the factory.

ARTI field officer gives a demonstration during an ARTI kiln training in Kibaha District

ARTI field officer gives a demonstration during an ARTI kiln training in Kibaha District

I will be working closely with factory workers to conduct experiments on the amount of binder ARTI uses in their briquette mixture. My experiments will serve two purposes: optimize the briquette mixture for cost effectiveness, briquette quality, and speed of production as well as train the factory workers on how to conduct experiments. The factory workers are full of ideas on how to improve the briquettes and are heavily invested in improving the quality of the product. After a short explanation of the scientific method, one factory worker, Michael, filled up pages with ideas of tests he wants to run and initial hypotheses for the tests.

I will also be analyzing samples of the briquettes at the University of Dar es Salaam’s College of Engineering and Technology under the guidance of Dr. Hassan Rajabu, a senior-lecturer at the university. I hope to finish the summer with a recommendation for ARTI on how to improve their mixture as well as provide them with technical information on their briquettes such as calorific value.

So, now that I’ve told you about my project, I can tell you about my weekend!

This past weekend I went to Bagamoyo which is a small coastal town North of Dar es Salaam. The town is an old German slave trade post and is filled with ruins which serve as a reminder of the happy town’s sad history. My new friend Rahim, one of the ARTI factory workers who is originally from Bagamoyo, invited me to meet his family and spend the day at the beach.

A tree grows on top of a German ruin.

A tree grows on top of a German ruin in Bagamoyo.

We went on the local bus which are called called “Dala Dalas.” It has approximately 15 seats but it rarely has less than 20 people and oftentimes has more than 30. The dala dala we took was some sort of modified Chinese school bus for primary school kids. So when I say there were 15 seats, I mean 15 seats, each of which can hold about one butt cheek. Public transportation is always an adventure here, and it usually feels like I’m in a clown car; more people can ALWAYS fit. Just when you think, “there is no way they will pick up more people,” five more people enter the dala dala.

A common sight in Dar es Salaam: a dala dala gets loaded up with a questionable number of passengers.

So after the sweaty, two hour bus ride, we reached Bagamoyo. Exiting the bus, I was welcomed by the refreshing coastal breeze. We made our way to Rahim’s family house and on the way, I was greeted by several children shouting, “Mzungu! How are you?!” This is a common occurrence when visiting more rural areas because the children rarely see white people and are always excited to see foreigners. When we arrived to Rahim’s house I was welcomed with “Karibu!” by his family. We spent the morning attempting to communicate with my broken Swahili, and Rahim’s slightly better English. They appreciated the attempt and laughed when I didn’t know a word and our conversation resulted in a game of charades. While I was there, I received a special performance by Rahim’s 7-year old sister who is an amazing contortionist and dancer. She is a bit of a local celebrity and she has come out on several local newspaper articles.

Rahim's very talented younger sister puts on a show for me in the family's living room.

Rahim’s very talented younger sister puts on a show for me in the family’s living room.

After meeting the family, Rahim and I went to the beach and spent the rest of the day swimming and relaxing on the sand. After eating some “chips mayai” a common local dish (“mayai” means eggs), which is basically a French fry omelet, we returned home for another adventure on the dala dala.

My new friend, Rahim, and I enjoy our day off from work on the beach.

My new friend, Rahim, and I enjoy our day off from work on the beach.


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