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Saving Children With Civil Engineering & Montessori — #CleanTechnica Interview With Ross Prize Winner Ayikai Poswayo

In areas of sub-Saharan Africa with underdeveloped infrastructure, children have died too many times on the way to participate in education — many more children die than in other parts of the world due to traffic accidents, and other parts of the world are still too high.

In areas of sub-Saharan Africa with underdeveloped infrastructure, children have died too many times on the way to participate in education — many more children die than in other parts of the world due to traffic accidents, and other parts of the world are still too high. They walk along busy highways with no walkways. The children then scan for breaks in traffic and dart across a street hoping to get to their classroom on time. Every day, this journey puts their lives at risk as they contend with busy streets simply trying to get to school. In these places, there are no crossing guards, sidewalks, or crossing lights to help the drivers notice them and not kill or injure them as the kids make their way to school.

The winner of The WRI Ross Prize For Sustainable Cities, Amend’s SARSAI, changed things for some of those children and in doing so saved children’s lives in some areas of sub-Saharan Africa.

The Juror’s thoughts include, “Children and the poor are the ones brutalized by poor planning. SARSAI has created a consciousness that is very powerful. It’s very visceral, emotional. It’s about mortality, making it less brutal, giving people a quality of life.”

Ayikai Charlotte Poswayo, a civil engineer and program director of SARSA, highlights the overlooked child as one of the most surprising and invisible situations in plain sight:

“The fact that children are getting killed and injured on roads, and nothing seems to be done about it. It’s just one of those problems that is there, but somehow very systematic steps are not necessarily being taken to address the issue. It’s the fact that this issue is so serious, but it seems to be overlooked. The number of road traffic deaths among young people surpasses other public health issues like malaria and HIV/AIDS that get so much more attention in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Amend’s SARSAI Corridors of Safety needs to be implemented in too many other cities in Sub Saharan Africa as soon as possible.”

<p>Ayikai Charlotte Poswayo accepts the WRI Ross Prize for Cities at WRI’s Courage to Lead dinner in New York City. Photo by Schuyler Null/WRI</p>

Ayikai Charlotte Poswayo accepts the WRI Ross Prize for Cities at WRI’s Courage to Lead dinner in New York City. Photo by Schuyler Null/WRI

CleanTechnica congratulated Ayikai Poswayo, Amend’s program director of SARSAI, and enjoyed an informative exchange with her. Ayikai provides refreshing viewpoints and offers experienced insight into saving children’s lives, improving road safety, pedestrian life, city infrastructure, education, and more.

I found something thoughtfully well rounded in Ayikai’s communication — in her work, SARSAI’s work, and her communication during our interview. Having taught art for a few years in a Montessori school, I am familiar with an education that involves children as planetary citizens from day 1, not limiting them to any lesser viewpoint. Also, Montessori is an education that works with the child’s view. Ayikai is not only a highly skilled civil engineer, but she also has an in-depth study of Montessori as a teacher herself and brings that beauty and comprehension to her work.

“Road safety does so much more to a city than just keep people safe,” said Ayikai Poswayo, SARSAI program director at Amend. “It determines how a city operates, how the people within a city feel.”

“What SARSAI does is to look at our cities from the angle of the child pedestrian,” said Poswayo. “If we can design our cities from that angle, we would be designing it for the safety and security of all.”

I asked Ayikai to share more about her journey, to share what brought her to her present work, which offers so much to the surrounding communities, especially children.

Ayikai Poswayo: “I sort of fell into it initially. I come from a family of mostly architects. Both my mother and my father are architects and my eldest sister is also an architect. Initially, I was interested in architecture —because, I’d been exposed to it all my whole life. It was just fascinating. I liked the ideas, the things you can do with spaces.

“But at the point when I was making a decision of what to do, I thought about it again. I thought maybe it would be good to do something slightly different, just so there are not so many architects in the family. That was my initial train of thought. I looked through and I read about different programs being offered and I thought civil engineering was close enough to my interest and also that it involved numbers, which I enjoyed working with. I thought I would give it a try and that’s how I started off with civil engineering.

“Throughout my studies, I was particularly drawn to transportation engineering. After I completed my civil engineering degree, I got a job working with an engineering consultancy in the UK. … At that point, I realized this is something which I found very interesting. It was something, I felt, one could actually utilize to impact people’s lives positively.

“But then, as time went on working as a traffic engineer, I realized how easy it is to begin to lose focus on people. One can end up thinking more about the big picture of a design and forget the people one is actually designing (the infrastructure) for.

“And so it hit me one day — this was after I had gone back to Ghana and I was working with an engineering consultancy here. I was doing some traffic modeling for a new major intersection in Ghana. And I was so lost in the numbers — looking at the number of vehicles passing through this junction, trying to get the signal timings and everything else in the model to work. And I had a sudden realization that I was forgetting about the majority of the people — the pedestrians — who would be using this junction. It was a junction I knew very well.  I had visited a few times because of this work and many times on personal business.

“I knew there were many pedestrians who used this junction, but somehow the traffic modeling program I was using didn’t allow me to take into account these pedestrians in a way that they should be considered as the predominant user. We were focusing the whole design on vehicles — the cars and trucks going through this intersection, and there was something is not quite right about that.”

I asked, “So, you were able to then bring childlike vision to the forefront?”

Ayikai: “It was in that moment that I thought I should start looking at another job where I could be more connected with people –– but at the same time, I was still interested in engineering. Also at the time, I had begun to develop a passion for education and children. So I decided to do a Montessori teacher training course part-time. I did not really know what I was going to do with the new skills, but I pursued the course out of interest at the time.

“Shortly after that I went for a conference and I came across the organization I currently work for — Amend. Two of my current colleagues were at the conference, giving a presentation on the work and I just felt there was something about this the work which was very appealing — the focus on people and communities. And so I got chatting with them and that is how I got working with Amend.

“For me, the greatest part was that the SARSAI program brought together different interests that I have. It brought together the engineering aspect, but then also the community aspect, and the education of children. So in a way, I feel very lucky to have found this organization and this work.”

I added, “Yes, I see that Montessori vision reflecting in the photos of Amend’s work, your work.”

Ayikai: “This program existed before I even joined the organization, but yes, you could say there are some general Montessori principles embedded as part of the program. It was such a delight for me to find Amend and the SARSAI program. Because this just brings together all these different aspects in a very nice way.”

I asked, “Do you plan to continue and keep on expanding due to so much more need?”

Ayikai: “Yes, currently that is the plan. We feel like we need to (do more). We are currently focused on bringing more attention to this issue of safe journeys for children. A small NGO like ourselves cannot provide safe infrastructure for all the children in sub-Saharan Africa or wherever. In order to make the program more sustainable, it needs to be owned completely by governments and community members, not by an NGO.

“As part of the program, we’ve been doing advocacy and reaching out to governments and, of course, we need to partner with them in order to implement the program. We are trying to raise more attention to the issue and in the long term encourage governments and people in authority to prioritize this issue — to make sure that they are thinking about children in the planning of cities and the design of infrastructure in cities — that budgets are allocated to make sure that our cities are designed for some of these most vulnerable users who are using the facilities in the city.

“I think the WRI Ross prize is going to bring more attention to the issue of safe journeys for children. I don’t think people realize how serious an issue it is. So we are going to continue with our advocacy work around this.”

“There is such dangerous invisibility of the pedestrian too many times — even in more developed areas of the world,” I added. “Are people more willing to listen to you about the changes you encourage now that you manifested such a positive change in some areas?”

Ayikai: Absolutely. We are already seeing that in some of the places where we work. The children, in the places where we work, don’t have a voice. In a way, this whole program is giving a voice to the child pedestrian who is facing all these challenges on their way to school.

“As you know, we are now doing this in 8 other cities, so 9 cities in total. And in each place, we are seeing those signs that people are beginning to realize the magnitude of the problem. People are like, Oh, Yes! How come we’ve been ignoring this issue? So, for example, one of the cities has already agreed to drop speed limits to 30 kilometers per hour around all schools in the city. The next step is making sure it is actually implemented and enforced. But, yes, in each place we are seeing growing interest and willingness to do something about it.

“In some countries, the laws and policies are there in place for reduced speed limits and safe school zones, but the problem is the implementation of those policies and laws. One sometimes comes across very beautiful laws regarding the safety of children around schools, but then they are not always implemented or enforced.”

CleanTechnica also delves into the terrible health issues of children due to air pollution,” I noted. “Do you have concerns about emissions standards?”

Ayikai responded that they are aware of that problem — it definitely is an issue, but it is not an issue they’ve had time to look into yet as they’ve been so focused on the work with road traffic injuries and deaths. They are part of a group called The Child Health and Mobility Initiative. A segment of that group does work with that problem.

“Do you have any extra advice for other civil engineers, city planners, advocates?”

Ayikai: “I would say that we should never forget to speak to the people who we are designing for. In planning our cities or designing infrastructure for our cities, we need to speak to the whole spectrum of people who we are designing for. And children are a group of people who we should be speaking to as well. We need to take the experience of a child navigating a city into account. As I always say, if we can design our cities for the safety of children, our cities would be safe for everyone.”

I concluded, “Any last words of advice from your experiences and success?”

Ayikai: “Something I would like to highlight is — maybe as a world, we need to be rethinking how we train our engineers and other built environment professionals. Once I started working, I began to realize how the whole educational system (at least in Ghana) is set up such that you are training engineers who are primarily thinking about vehicles. We need to be rethinking the training we give to our engineers and related professional so that we are bringing a group who are addressing the real problems within cities.” [Editor’s note: This is a problem in most places in the world, not only Ghana.]

Children safely cross the road at a designated “zebra crossing” developed by SARSAI. Photo by Kyle Laferriere

I found Ayikai gave valuable insight for all educators and systems, especially those that lose sight of the people in the educational process. It is a larger subject, but one she identifies for her field and those training for her field — a field that is one of the most valuable fields in a growing urban environment worldwide.

In a previous interview by WRI, Ayikai also talked about her use of data, her data-driven approach:

“Because we have limited resources, we need to use those resources where we feel they will make the most impact. As a first step, data helps with that. When we do our assessments at schools, we find out which schools are at the highest-risk of road traffic injury for children. At those highest-risk schools, we identify the highest-risk areas and what could be done to reduce road traffic injuries.

“We collect data on the number of road traffic injuries in the school population, as well as data like: Where are the children coming from? How many of them are walking? Where do they cross the road? What are the number of vehicles in that area, and what are the speeds of those vehicles? We collect all this data to help us focus.

“Finally, we also collect data to help us evaluate what we’ve done. We carried out a population-based scientific study that measured the impact of this program in Tanzania to help demonstrate to governments and other people that this is an important issue—an issue that can easily be addressed with low-cost infrastructure. Data is very helpful with the advocacy piece of the program.”

Ayikai Charlotte Poswayo

Ayikai is not only a civil engineer, but she is also a mother. She explains, “I would say having a child of my own makes me apply myself more passionately to this work.”

The jurors’ considerations on her work: “The model is also highly replicable. In a short time, SARSAI has expanded from two schools in Dar es Salaam to more than 50 school areas in nine countries. From the initial assessment of the most dangerous areas of each city to picking specific interventions for each school, SARSAI shapes localized solutions around a common framework.”

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Written By

Cynthia Shahan started writing after previously doing research and publishing work on natural birth practices. (Several unrelated publications) She is a licensed health care provider. She studied and practiced both Waldorf education, and Montessori education, mother of four unconditionally loving spirits, teachers, and environmentally conscious beings born with spiritual insights and ethics beyond this world. (She was able to advance more in this way led by her children.)


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