Part 1 of a series, starring a man, a plan, and a root vegetable.
“Nobody is going to do it, if we don’t do it.”
The room is quiet.
“Will you go back?”
This moment is a snapshot of many conversations I have had with many other international students at MIT, heavy with the challenge of obligation. I invited members of the EESA (Ethiopian-Eritrean Students’ Association) to my room to discuss recent developments in Ethiopia, to get some things off everyone’s chest and provide a safe space to talk.
On February 15th, Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigns from office. Earlier that month, a slew of Ethiopian political prisoners (bloggers, journalists, activists) were released, some had served sentences as long as seven years. Protesting has been breaking out constantly throughout the country for the past year, with intermittent internet shutdowns and phone line closures orchestrated by the government to control the situation. For a month, my father would try to call home only to get an operator’s voice in Spanish, an absurd, confusing moment. These events affected even my water project, which would have likely been completed sooner without the communication interruptions.
In my room on a cloudy Saturday sit several different Ethiopian international students. I use “international” as a fluid term–I don’t always mean literally students without U.S. residency, rather, some of them are international students, some are American-born Ethiopians like me, and some are sort of in-between, who have spent time in both the U.S. and Ethiopia, and may hold one or the other passport. All of the people I refer to as “international”, though, have a very committed sense of belonging to a non-U.S. country, sometimes more or less so than the U.S. itself, sometimes equally.
We have been having a long, chronological discussion of post-World War II Ethiopian history, which I hope will give context to our modern events. The discussion takes an interesting form, with people jumping in to say, “that’s not true,” or “but also this…” or “but their real motivation was…” I realize that the attitude, in the U.S. and some other places, of taking history as Facts with a capital ‘F’, is very different in places like Ethiopia. Instead, I am seeing history more like historians likely see it–with a variety of competing sources, with some details that all line up and are probably facts, and others that don’t. The discussion is so long, that students’ come and go throughout the afternoon and evening (“are people still there?” “I left in 2005”, a freshman jokes in our group chat, referring to the history timeline we were discussing).
When I ask where people learn about these pieces of history, I get interesting answers.
“Some of it we’re taught in school…”
“You have to buy books from street vendors. And then they’re censored books, so you have to wrap them in newspaper when you read them. If you try to take them in your luggage out of the country, you can get arrested.”
“My parents told me some of these things…”
The big, obvious events are of course clear–”these people ruled from this time to this time” is hardly disputable, or “there was a war this year”, or “there was a conflict here”. Less clear are the reasons behind such conflicts…
“The conflict was about land.”
“No but really it was about currency!”
“The ruler was his relative, so he practically gave them the port and everyone was mad.”
As we wrap up this lengthy discussion of history, I am struck by how short it really is. Modern Ethiopian governance, a system of ‘ethnic federalism’ where representation is divided by region/culture, has only been active as long as I’ve been alive. Most of us have grown up only knowing this government, but our parents knew a drastically different world. Our discussion does succeed in giving me, at least, some context–is it so surprising that something dramatic should break out now, when the government in Ethiopia has only been alive for twenty years? I compare it with the early United States, where the initial “Articles of the Confederation” that was before modern U.S. government barely lasted ten years or so–at least Ethiopia hung on for twenty, and even now, the major tenets of the system are likely to stay in place, with major policy changes.
When I ask how my classmates feel about these events, I get mixed responses. Some are scared. Some are optimistic, or even excited. Instability can foster all of these emotions and more.
But then, the conversation switches and focuses inward, emphasizing a key point:
“Nobody is going to do it, if we don’t.”
Despite the politics and history and various topics we’ve been discussing, Ethiopia needs practical solutions too. Good governance is of course necessary, but so is economic development. A freshman student here refers to the fact that some people leave the country and never return, are afraid of doing business there, and he is frustrated by this. I joke that I’m down, if we can just meet back in 5 years. I propose a semi-joking plan to export organic rice to China (“guys, I’m telling you, I have a relative in this business”) and use the profit to fund a connectivity company. But on a more serious note, I know that this is not really out of the question; this is not a faraway dream.
This is in some sense, the “normal” of African international students.
Africans@MIT Part 1: Cassava Connection
Inspired by my conversations with my Ethiopian classmates, I decided to write a series of posts about African students and organizations at MIT, first because I think it will be interesting for prospective students in general, and also because I have been amazed by the lengths many African students are willing to go to execute projects in very difficult situations. I realized a common factor is a very strong sense of obligation to home countries and communities that appears among many students–not just Africans, of course, but I wanted to highlight some of the amazing projects I’ve seen in this particular community.
Take one of the most active Africans I know, for example, Pelkins A. ‘18. Pelkins is from Cameroon and entered MIT as a transfer student, where he became president of the MIT African Students’ Association. He is also Course 2A in Mechanical Engineering, so we were both in the same communication group for 2.671: Measurement and Instrumentation, where I did a project about different types of coffee brewing methods and Pelkins did a project on different image detection algorithms for driverless cars.
Pelkins representing MIT undergraduates at the MIT Better World Campaign
Pelkins took his 2.671 research project (as many mechanical engineering students do) forward beyond the class, in a way. He interned with GM over the summer on the driverless car team, and worked on similar algorithms and key problems in driverless cars, and actually ended up filing a patent at the end of his internship for a new radar calibration method he worked on.
After achieving something so exciting, Pelkins was energized to go out and solve problems of his own, in Cameroon. This is a feeling other students at MIT get, too–that after the struggle and success of the Institute or things you find out you’re capable of while here, you get more real confidence that you can truly accomplish or learn anything.
Pelkins grew up outside the capital city, and describes his family as middle-class for Cameroonians. His parents worked in business and education, and highly valued his education, sending him to the best schools that they could manage. He felt deeply supported by his family growing up, and because of this, never thought about class as a barrier to success, though some of his classmates in Cameroon would come from wealthier backgrounds.
After initially attending school at the University of Texas at Arlington, Pelkins transferred to MIT his sophomore year, where he later took 2.671 with me and interned at GM. His best friend Milton, however, stayed in Cameroon and attended university there at the National Advanced School of Public Works. They known each other all their lives, grown up together, and playfully competed in school (“sometimes he would be number 1 and sometimes I would be number 1!”) and maintained close contact across the great distance Pelkins had traveled for school.
As Pelkins became more excited about doing just something in Cameroon, he would call up Milton with an idea, and they would work on it for a while–maybe a month or so, and then setting it aside. In that initial rush, the ideas didn’t “stick” very well. Pelkins realized he needed to put more thought and research into making sure his ideas were needed and important. He needed to formally, professionally seek out an important problem rather than act on moments of inspiration. So, like any MIT-trained researcher, he started reading academic journal papers, published by Cameroonian universities.
It was during this dive into research when Pelkins noticed a trend: cassava. It was everywhere in Cameroonian research, a plant that Pelkins, with a little agricultural background in his family, had not realized was incredibly important to Cameroon, farmed ubiquitously and integral to daily life. “It’s funny”, Pelkins said when I interviewed him, “somehow you can learn more from looking from the outside!” When you are in the middle of the problem, sometimes you can’t even tell that it’s there.
Cassava has many desirable properties. It is a starch-heavy plant that is gluten-free, and very versatile. However, the methods used to process cassava in Cameroon were still very traditional, as it is used on a small scale for cooking and eating. Pelkins wondered if there was a way for cassava to be processed in mass quantities, as the plant itself spoiled rapidly after harvesting. When Pelkins talked to Milton and Milton did his own research, he was beyond ecstatic. In just one month, Milton rented an apartment that they used as an office space. “I get a lot of credit,” Pelkins says, “but this project would not be possible without Milton”. They agreed that Milton would work on the initial research, and Pelkins, with many opportunities at MIT, would search for funding.
Pelkins got some funding from Sandbox, first a $1,000 grant, then $5,000, and they also connected Pelkins with other investors and mentors at MIT. He found another teammate in his roommate, Tyler Lerner, who was integral in developing the business and financial strategy with Pelkins. Every week the founders, Pelkins, Milton, and Tyler have a meeting, with Milton calling in over Skype.
Milton dedicated himself full time to the project, which they named “Cassvita”. As they acquired more funding, they hired lab techs in Cameroon, who worked on processing the cassava into a state that would not easily spoil. With roughly 8 months of work, the team found a way to process cassava into a powder just like wheat flour, except it was gluten-free and non-allergenic–the perfect substitute. They envisioned exporting different finished products, from the flour itself to dried goods like pasta.
Now, Cassvita is working on commercializing this process. A lot more needs to be done, and some more MIT students are going with Pelkins to Cameroon this summer to work on the project, with the support of MIT programs like MIT-Africa and MISTI. Other mechanical engineering classmates of mine, like Trang L. ‘18 and Pelkins himself, will work on viable mass-manufacturing approaches, looking for and combining machines that can achieve the steps from plant to flour. Exporting needs to be figured out, and the team would like to fortify the flour with protein, something two other Africans@MIT, Amaka A. ‘19 in Course 9 (Neuroscience), as well as Gabby B. ’19 in Course 21E (choosing Computer Science and Anthropology) will be investigating. After more progress, Cassvita wants to seek out high-capital investments to really push the business forward.
Pelkins is excited, and I’m excited talking to him. “I cannot think of a better way to live my life than to give back to my community,” he says, “it’s not that you owe anyone, you just have a responsibility.” Here is that obligation–no, aspiration–I felt so prevalent. It’s not as much a duty as a dream, these mental images of aunties and uncles and family that supported you, and the dream and excitement to use what you have to make life better. Rather than being a task, it is an achievement; it brings joy. With Cassvita, Pelkins hopes there will be a way to monetize cassava more effectively for Cameroon, and aid the many farmers that produce this crop. But beyond that, he hopes that a pretty regular Cameroonian like him accomplishing something like this will pave the way for future students. “What truly brings me joy is that you can do something to inspire someone else.”
It is truly a labor of love.
The Cassvita team in Camerooon, with Milton seated second from the left.
To learn more about Cassvita, check out their website at www.cassvita.com