Sonia-Lynn Abenojar has a lot on her plate, so to speak. As an architecture and community design major, she is working to complete her final portfolio. As a senior, she is preparing for graduation in May, and as a future alumna, she is already working toward the next step: a master’s degree in urban planning.
Abenojar’s Sunday afternoon is spent applying to graduate schools and working late in the FX Arts studios. She is miles away (both geographically and culturally) from the 115 degree Sunday afternoons she spent working for a non-governmental organization in India this past summer.
From May through August, Abenojar lived in Rajasthan, India where she helped design a water conservation system for farmers living in a village located outside the city, as part of the Sarlo Scholars program. The program is a full-immersion, volunteer-based trip sponsored by the University of San Francisco’s Leo T. McCarthy
Center for Public Service and the Common Good.
The program, she said, tries to match foreign organizations to a student’s major or future interests. Abenojar was assigned to work for Prayatna Samiti, a small sustainability development NGO that focuses on bettering the livelihood of nearby farmers through water and resource management. Water storage, for irrigation and home use, is vital to farmers in the desert-like climate surrounding Udaipur, the district in which she lived.
Abenojar designed a roof rain water harvesting structure for the traditional mud and stone homes of the farmers in the Bambura village. Her design consists of two light-weight, grooved metal sheets that are placed on top of the mud tiles to form an upside-down ‘V’ structure. When heavy rains come during monsoon season, the water runs off the metal sheets, into the gutters, and then through PCB pipes that enter into an underground storage tank.
“It was pretty simple,” she said. “The company had already been creating a similar design for concrete homes of wealthier households,” she continued, “so they just needed me to find out if it was possible to use water run-off from mud tiles.”
Triple language translation, labor-intense research, sustainability design, and heat rashes do not sound like the common definition of simple. But many aspects of Indian life, explained Abenojar, are exactly that.
“I learned that you don’t need much to live —in a good way! The language barrier was tough. I had to conduct interviews with the farmers to see what was going on, but I needed one, sometimes two, translators with me,” she explained. “First, they’d translate my questions into Hindi, and then, a second person would translate that into the local dialect of the farmers. It was crazy,” she recalled.
One of the ways Abenojar could be said to have had a little less on her plate is pretty literal. There wasn’t a surplus of food. Families in the communities lived off only chic peas, lentils, and a homemade wheat dough, she said, “but they aren’t yearning for something more, they aren’t yearning for something greater than what they have.”
According to Abenojar, however, her host family fed her well. “There’s lots of of cumin, coriander, and red chili powder,” she said. “It’s really delicious.” Regardless, the cuisine did take some getting used to. “My host family was Hindi,” said Abenojar, “so I went veg[etarian] for three months which was unusual for me.” In accordance to religious practice, most Hindi do not eat meat. She said she now cooks with more fruits and vegetables.
Abenojar experienced another culture shock, albeit a playful one, when women in her host family or in the village poked fun at her for having her nose ring pierced ‘on the wrong side.’ Nose piercings, which are in abundance in female Indian culture, are typically worn on the left nostril. “They’d all be laughing at me and asking why my nose piercing was on the wroside, and I would say I didn’t know!” she recalled.
Although she’s back in America, Abenojar has not left her experience in Udaipur behind.
“It is what I love about traveling; everything is brand new to each of the five senses. I’ve come back with a deeper understanding that I’m a global citizen,” she said. “It sounds cheesy, but when you’re over in a foreign country where you think the people are living so differently than you, and then you realize that you can relate to all of these people—it really makes an impression.”
She said the Sarlos scholarship instills in its students the reality that they are not in India to try to save the world. “It’s easy to go overboard. You’re there and you’re excited, and you want to do everything you can and meet everybody around, but you just have to take a step back,” she said. “Take a step back, and look at what these organizations have done for their communities already, and appreciate the opportunity to help as an outsider.”