Tammi Aiken shares of her time and expertise in Central America

Tammi Aiken spent time in El Lagartillo.


For most of the year, Tammi Aiken, M.Eng.’94 in civil engineering, leads a hectic worklife as a project manager in Facilities Engineering, overseeing infrastructure projects related to the university’s roads, utilities, geotechnical, and other civil and structural engineering challenges. She has recently managed such projects as replacing electrical, steam and water distribution systems and the rehabilitation of East Avenue.

But, thanks to the support of her colleagues and the flexibility of her supervisors, Aiken spends personal leave and vacation time helping those whose lives are focused on the basics of life: food and water.

Early this year, Aiken spent time in Honduras working with the International Rural Water Association (IRWA) to help with small rural water projects, and about three weeks in the small village of El Lagartillo, in Nicaragua, to experience life in a farming community that is without running water, electricity or digital connections to the outside world. Once the site of a large sustainable farming cooperative, El Lagartillo was decimated during the Sandinista revolution and the U.S. war on drugs, but has since been rebuilt.

“El Lagartillo is a remote, sparse farming settlement on a steep hilltop in the northwest part of Nicaragua,” Aiken said. “Here, I would awake at dawn to hear the din of a thousand birds.” A bus comes in once a day, if the roads are passable, to serve El Lagartillo and surrounding communities.

During the day, men work long, hard days in the fields, while women stay in the village. “They sweep, scrub, cook, make cheese, soak and hull maize, or corn. Their children play in the road, and chickens peck and scratch everywhere,” she said.

Corn and beans are the staples of the area, Aiken said. They are boiled, dried and fried. “Making tortillas is time-consuming, and so is making the local cheese,” she said, noting that she spent her days helping the family by doing kitchen chores and taking care of the domestic animals they depend upon.

What draws her to El Lagartillo is the “beautiful, simple, amazing culture – the tightness of their community,” Aiken said. “For me, working with people like this, living there, hearing their stories, seeing how they survive – it is all so different from life in Ithaca.”

Aiken’s love of Central America began when she decided to study Spanish by participating in an exchange program offered through what was then Cornell’s Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy. Later, as a civil engineer and project manager at Facilities Services, she participated in the Aqua Clara program.

Work in that program put her in touch with the International Rural Water Service. She estimates that over the course of her career she has gone on eight or nine trips to Nicaragua and Honduras, all on her own time. She tries to time her trips so that the projects she is managing are not affected, she said.

But, she said, she could not pursue this passion to share her knowledge, her expertise – or, as in her visit to El Lagartillo, her time – working with others to create sustainable communities if it were not for her colleagues and her supervisors. “My whole purpose in sharing my story in Pawprint was to thank those around me for supporting me and helping me apply what I have learned since coming to Cornell, both in my work on campus and during my time in villages such as El Lagartillo,” she said.