posted October 8, 2008

Film Explores Cultural Impact of Service and Research Project

A documentary produced and premiering at Hope College considers the cross-cultural dynamics of service projects geared toward developing nations.

"When the West Brings Civilization Back to Africa" will be featured at the college's Knickerbocker Theatre in downtown Holland on Saturday, Oct. 18, at 6:30 p.m.

The public is invited.  Admission is free.

Created by Dr. Ji Hoon Park, assistant professor of communication, with Hope senior Samantha Webbert of Holland, the film focuses on the college's ongoing service and research project involving the village of Nkuv in Cameroon.  It explores how the project, which has focused on improving water quality and hygiene education in the remote and rural community, has had some unintended consequences, with some of the villagers feeling discouraged even as it has literally saved lives.

Park emphasizes that the documentary is not a criticism of the project or its goals.  Since beginning during the 2005-06 school year, it has been overwhelmingly successful, cutting the death rate of young children due to waterborne disease from four to six per year to zero in the first year and every year since.  "I definitely think that they are doing such a great job," he said.

However, even as he and Webbert, a communication major, accompanied the Hope team this past May to document the successes, they were also interested in observing the project's effect on the village in other ways.  And thus while Webbert developed a documentary about the water quality and hygiene training that the college will make available at no cost for other programs to use in helping similar communities, Park focused on Webbert's experiences as a first-time visitor and her conversations with the villagers themselves.

They found that while the villagers appreciated the team's work and the difference it was making, some were also experiencing a sense of inferiority, becoming painfully aware of the resources and opportunities they lacked in comparison.

"People from America came to this village, and children no longer die.  How can you not develop a sense of Western superiority?," Park said.  "The people often say, 'No, I'm not happy because we don't have the things that you people have.'"

"We may accidentally teach them that they're poor," he said.  "And that's the saddest part."

Park noted that the documentary doesn't offer a solution to the problem.  Instead, he hopes that it helps build awareness among organizations that engage in service efforts concerning the broader effect that their visits to such communities can have.

"There are no easy solutions to these questions," he said.  "At least we can be more aware of these cultural dynamics in a small village like Nkuv and help the community members develop strong self-esteem and self-confidence."

It's a lesson that's very much on the minds of the Hope team.  Dr. Jeff Brown of the Hope engineering faculty has been a part of the project since it began, and has experience with service in Africa that includes time with the Peace Corps.

"This film identifies a number of critical issues related to development work," said Brown, who is an assistant professor of engineering.  "Cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity have always been major priorities for our group, but the film does capture glimpses of underlying cross-cultural dynamics that have forced us to ask very difficult questions."

A panel discussion will follow the screening of the film.  Participants will include Dr. Amanda Barton, assistant professor of nursing; Brown; Mary Crickmore, of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee; Dr. Tamba M'bayo, assistant professor of history; Park; an international student from Kenya; and two students from the college's chapter of Engineers Without Borders.  Webbert is off-campus participating in the college's New York Arts Semester this fall, holding an internship with NBC.

The Hope service initiative, which is partnered with the Life and Water Development Group of Cameroon, began during the 2005-06 school year as a service project for the college's then-new student chapter of Engineers Without Borders-USA (EWB-USA), with an emphasis on providing Nkuv with purified water through the construction of free-standing bio-sand filters.  During the first year the effort expanded to include the college's department of nursing, which surveyed the villagers' health and began working with them to improve hygiene, sanitation and nutrition.

Starting in 2007, the college's department of education became involved in helping to develop instructional materials that the people of Nkuv can use to teach themselves and others the health and hygiene lessons needed to improve health.  The engineering effort has since expanded to include developing a piping system to bring water closer to the village from a river that is up to an hour's hike away.

The team is also emphasizing providing training so that the villagers can help themselves and train other remote communities as well.  The villagers now build their own filters based on an initial design developed by the Center for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology (CAWST) in Canada.

The Hope team has so far made five trips to Cameroon--in March, May and December of 2006, and in May of 2007 and 2008.

The improvement in the villagers' health has been measurable.  Barton noted that her team's initial survey of the population found that many of the children in Nkuv had some form of water-related disease, often manifested through diarrhea or even bloody diarrhea.  The problem was so acute that experience had shown that four to six children under the age of five could be expected to die in any given six-month period.   Within six months, the rate of diarrhea and bloody diarrhea in children had declined by more than 50 percent, and no children have died from diarrhea or dehydration since the college started the filter project.

The Knickerbocker Theatre is located at 86 E. Eighth St.  The documentary runs 106 minutes.