Predeparture blog

Conor McGlacken writes from Heathrow Airport on a new undertaking in Tanzania.

From June 14th to August 16th, I’ll be living, studying and working in northern Tanzania, putting my engineering skills to use with hospital equipment.

Yes my walls are that colour
My life for the next nine weeks

I’m taking part in the Engineering World Health (EWH) Summer Institute, which runs courses and placements for around 60 (mainly American, some European) engineers each year in Nicaragua, Rwanda and Tanzania. The program sets out to tackle some of the issues that come with the masses of mainly donated, often inappropriate equipment flowing into less economically developed countries like Tanzania. These challenges were a recurring theme at an IET conference on affordable healthcare technologies that I attended, where I first came across EWH. There’s a TED talk here covering the basics. As for my motivations, I’ve written before about my background and what volunteering means to me, but in short it ties up my growing medical devices specialism and my passion for international development. My nine weeks in Tanzania will be split in two: in the first month I’ll be learning technical skills and studying Swahili and in the second I’ll be working at Mawenzi hospital in Moshi, near Mt. Kilimanjaro.

In the first month I’ll be living and studying in Usa River. I’ll be participating in lectures and lab workshops to learn the skills needed to effectively repair and maintain hospital equipment. EWH have done some stellar work in this area: the vast majority of equipment can be returned to service using only a few dozen techniques and the tuition will focus on these. I’ll also be learning Swahili, the official and widely spoken language used for primary education, politics and a fair bit of everyday life. English is used for secondary and further education, as well as for scientific work, so decent understanding of both is essential. One down!

For the second month I will be working at Mawenzi Hospital in Moshi, near Mt. Kilimanjaro in the north of the country. It’s a relatively small hospital, which started life as a German medical dispensary in 1920. It has suffered over the years from fluctuations in investment, evidenced by a surgery but no surgical equipment and a maternity ward with no… walls. While there is another hospital in Moshi, Mawenzi is busy and the work I do should make a difference to the people who rely on it. Interestingly, when you look up this hospital online a lot of the information is in Swedish or Norwegian as apparently they have a lot of medical students from Scandinavia doing electives there as well as EWH engineers. There could well be some interesting parallels between the problems caused by donated equipment and those caused by donated labour, but I’ll save that for another time. I suspect the real development value of the placement will come as much from the equipment reports I write as much as the repairs themselves.

Moshi itself should be a good place to live. It’s a hub of coffee production and trade, and has a diverse mix of mosques, Hindu temples and hotels catering to tourists with their sights on Kilimanjaro. The region was done down for a while by economic policies prioritising industry over agriculture, but it has seen a resurgence of late and become a hotbed of political opposition in a country where one party has controlled government since independence.

I hope to learn a lot about improving healthcare in Tanzania and how engineers can contribute, if at all, and of course improve the quality of care at Mawenzi. To say I’m fully convinced sending engineering students over is the solution would be a huge overstatement, but I’m sure you’ll be hearing a lot about that in blogs to come. For now I’m approaching the challenge with an open mind, ready to learn and to record the experience here. Thanks for reading.

I’ve written about the costs of the trip and how I funded it, here it suffices to say the project is made possible by funding from the Royal Academy of Engineering through the Engineering Leadership Advanced Award; The IMechE through an Overseas Development Project Award; The Univeristy of Bristol Alumni Foundation and Engineering World Health’s own financial aid program.

  1. This is an awesome summary Conor! I look forward to reading more of your reflections now that you are on the ground!

  2. hello i am biomedical technician from Tanzania. i would like to join you guys when you come in Tanzania so i can get more knowledge and skills cause were very poor trained here. please tell me what to do so i can get this opportunity. Asante