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FEATURE STORY July 15, 2021

“I would not have gotten to where I am without determination and perseverance”


Photo: Awa

The African Higher Education Centers of Excellence (ACE) program, launched in 2014, aims to meet the demands of the labor market for specialized skills. It has since become synonymous with success and has already provided support to more than 14,000 students working toward master’s and doctoral degrees in agriculture, health, and science, 30% of whom are women, such as Awa, who reflects on the road she has traveled and the challenges she has had to overcome as a woman.

DAKAR, Senegal, July 15— Awa has always been interested in science. She “fell madly in love” with everything related to water and the environment from the moment she realized the importance of this sector to her community.

In some parts of Senegal, women travel miles on foot in search of water that is not always potable. Open defecation still takes place, despite various on-site sanitation projects. “There are many areas in which progress is certainly being made, but a tremendous amount of work remains to be done.”

The opportunity to study at the International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering in Burkina Faso offered Awa “a chance to fulfill a dream.” The Institute trains skilled and innovative engineers/entrepreneurs who can respond to the African continent’s development challenges. “I wanted to learn how to provide potable water to communities that are not receiving it, how to collect wastewater, and how to irrigate the land.”

She does, however, admit that she felt a bit apprehensive about going to study in an unfamiliar country. She nevertheless decided to submit an application and was accepted. She even received a scholarship.

"I would not have gotten to where I am without determination and perseverance."
Water and Sanitation Engineer in Senegal who will soon receive her Doctor of Science degree

It was not easy in the beginning, but she was determined to adjust.  She received a great deal of support from other students who, like her, had come from all over Africa. They spanned more than 35 nationalities and had diverse cultures. Lasting friendships were formed and networks created to support the integration of skills. “Because of the wealth of diversity, the Institute was a bit like a miniature version of Africa. I visited Africa while staying in the same place!”

The Centers of Excellence—spaces for cultural interaction and integration

“My time at the International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering is one of the most unexpected and marvelous experiences I have had so far and I am happy to say that I have a point of contact in every West African country to provide me with guidance and explore ways for regional collaboration and opportunities.”

Awa’s research focuses on the impact of the construction of the Diama Dam and the opening of the Saint-Louis breach on the salinization of the land in Gandiol, Senegal. Her work has allowed her to acquire practical skills in the areas of pollution and the cleaning of soil and salty land.

Awa, a student at the International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering, conducts geophysical field work in Kamboinsé, Burkina Faso. Photo: Awa

As part of her master’s program, Awa also spent a few months as an intern at the Société nationale des eaux du Sénégal but quickly found a job as a works supervisor at the Entreprise sénégalaise de construction et de l’industrie.

She sees her work more as a passion than a job and very much appreciates the opportunity to be in the field and have direct contact with the beneficiaries of her work.

“Every time a beneficiary opens the tap in his or her house for the first time and sees potable water come from it, the satisfaction and joy on that person’s face fill me with happiness that nothing material can provide. It’s simply magical; I feel as though I have performed a miracle in that person’s life and that I am making a contribution to society.”

Intelligence, rather than strength—women are magicians who transform everything they touch!

As a woman working in the field of engineering, she does, of course, face awkward situations. However, in Awa’s view, the time when women did not pursue studies in the field of sciences has long passed.

“I am always greeted with a look of surprise when I meet with the beneficiaries or partners of a project. I am invariably asked whether I am really an engineer. I’ve gotten used to it now, but I understand that this is also attributable to my small size. I think they equate engineering with strength rather than intelligence, when in fact just the opposite is true. One day I had to meet with a beneficiary to explain different procedures to her and brief her on the execution date. She confused me with a student from the high school near her home before apologizing profusely. I still laugh at that.”

Awa with her friends. Photo: Awa

Awa is currently a second-year science and technology doctoral student at Thiès University’s École doctorale de développement durable et société (ED2DS). She views women as magicians who transform everything they touch.

“We instill in our children values that make them outstanding individuals. We transform ingredients into delicious meals. Our mood makes the home a warm or gloomy place. We can therefore overcome anything. The important thing is to want something and to have the perseverance and will to achieve it. I would not say that it is an easy environment but it is a beautiful one. Let’s add our touch to science and technology to shine a brighter light on their splendor!”