About a week ago, I flew from South Africa to Cameroon to work for a fellow MIT alumni’s start-up called CassVita. The start-up aims to transform raw cassava to flour to make other staple food such as chin chin and fufu—but what really makes this start-up unique is its bigger mission. CassVita aims to empower the local Cameroonian community—starting with employing local young graduates and buying local farmers’ cassava—and as the company grows, all the employees speak to CassVita’s drive to help the local community with students’ scholarships, community skill building, holidays dinners, etc.
I am sincerely inspired—especially as someone who wants to make my own impact on the world. I also noticed a pleasant surprise in how I talk about making an impact—I think I say it with more confidence now as opposed to before this summer when I would hesitate to share what motivates me with others. As of right now, I want to make an impact on the problems revolving around basic necessities in developing countries using my engineering skill set. However, a thought that has been consistently on my mind is how do I make an impact on developing countries if I’m not from that country? From taking D-Lab classes at MIT, I have heard countless stories of large sums of money being thrown at projects that only sound good and really have no impact on the communities they want to help. This is an issue I had on my mind before this program and it will continue to stay on my mind.
A thought that never crossed my mind before working with this start-up though, is the idea revolving around how I was born in Vietnam but grew up in America so I identify with being American more than with being Vietnamese. One of the main things I admire about CassVita is that the MIT alumnus that co-founded it grew up in Cameroon, was educated in America, and then came back to his community to give back. I can’t help but think, should I go back to Vietnam to give back to “my community”? I’m confused personally because I didn’t grow up there—I don’t know anything about the community besides the language and the food. And as of now, writing this blog, I still don’t know how to answer that thought, but it has made me consider new facets of my own identity and cultural heritage in relationship to both my work, the impact, and where I work.
Being with other people on this Cameroon program has helped me reflect as well. It is a contrast to my experience in South Africa where I was alone for the majority of my time there. Here in Cameroon, I have two friends who are African Americans and the MIT alumnus who is from Cameroon. I appreciate hearing their perspectives on issues that I was unaware of because of my privileges of being an Asian woman. In particular, on the way home from a beach trip, we were stopped by the police and asked for our phones. The police took my friends’ phone and escorted us to another area where there were more police. It turned out, we weren’t supposed to be taking pictures of the power plant that was in the background. We, the Americans, were all scared, but after the event was over and we debriefed, we talked about what we thought was going to happen. I was scared that they would take my friends’ phones and demand all our money. My African American friends were scared that they were going to shoot us all and kill us.
That thought never occurred to me even in my moment of fear; I never feared for my life. What privilege that is.
I understand that reading this experience might scare someone who has never been here, but it is truly just what I thought was going to happen—it doesn’t reflect the reality of what did happen. The local Cameroonian who was taking us around told us afterwards and during the whole event that nothing was going to happen and that the police were just doing their job to ensure safety of everything and everyone. And that was what happened.
I think besides that one encounter with the police, the quiet, beach town I was in was filled with friendly people who always greeted me with “You’re welcome.” Actually there was one night in particular that I cannot get out of my head. One of the co-founder of CassVita took us back to where he grew up to meet “Auntie May of this town”—who was his mom. Everyone in the company was there and we ate great food and enjoyed each others’ company. At some point in the night, one of the founders gave a speech that recounted the mission of the start-up and how each one of us are a part of something incredible—and I don’t know how to describe the feeling I had that night, but it just felt… right. I’ve never had this feeling before and I don’t think I can ever forget how it felt. But this, this is the feeling I’ll be chasing in everything I’ll do.
I am currently halfway through my time here, and my brain is always murmuring and thinking. It is tiring, but this is something that is necessary and part of the whole process of being abroad. Navigating and reflecting on these new situations, reflecting on who I am, what I want to do, and the different perspectives we each bring with us, is all part of this experience.
Trang Luu is a graduate student studying mechanical engineering. This summer, she will complete two MISTI internships. In June, she worked with a NGO called AeT on improving cook stoves for mealies vendors in South Africa. In July and August, she is working with an agricultural start-up called CassVita on their manufacturing facilities to transform cassava into flour products in Cameroon.