Yesterday, following an invitation, I attended a meeting of the Compatible Technology International (CTI),in Saint Paul, Minnesota. This is an organization of engineers whose vision is a world where everyone has adequate nutritious food and clean water, and whose mission revolves around "designing food and water technologies that are sustainable and appropriate to local cultures." CTI works in many parts of the world, such as India, Bangladesh, Mali, Uganda, Guatemala, and the Caribbean.
I was invited to share my ideas on the cultural aspect of such ventures. Now, we might ask, is there a relationship between culture and the work of engineers? If there is, what is it?
As a student at the University of Dar es Salaam, I studied the dynamics of transfer of technology and the issue of appropriate technology. As a graduate student in Development Studies, I even gave lectures on these topics to Engineering and Science students. In those days, we dwelt mainly on the technical aspects of the topic. Although we explored the social dimensions of science and technology, using texts such as J. D. Bernal's Science in History, we did not zero in on the human aspects of science and technology the way I am able to do these days, after developing a deep interest in studies of culture and, in particular, folklore. I am better able, now, to discuss how local traditions, values, and beliefs might help or hinder the adoption of technology.
Before I went to the meeting yesterday, I studied the CTI website, gaining a basic understanding of how my work on cultural issues fits into the work of the CTI. Relying mostly on my Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences, I figured out what to say on the cultural matrix of concepts that appear on the CTI website, such as food, nutritious food, food supplements, and clean water. I figured out how to talk about the ways in which food processing technologies might impact and be impacted by cultural realities. Brief as it was, my talk generated much interest.
Committed to such ideals as sustainability and cultural sensitivity, CTI believes in collaborating with people of various backgrounds, perspectives, and skills. Already, I have learned a great deal from my as yet very brief contact with CTI, and I know I will learn more in the future. The sky is the limit.
It seems that my association with engineers will extend beyond the CTI. One of the engineers present at my talk would like to have me speak to a local chapter of Engineers Without Borders. I will write about this in due course.