Twenty-year-old Shrewsbury resident Bianca Castagna had wanted to visit Africa for years. She recently got her chance through a Worcester Polytechnic Institute project, working to create a home-stay program with the Namibia Tourism Board.
Castagna, a junior at WPI, said she had to do the Interactive Qualifying Project as a school requirement. She was among 27 students who traveled to Namibia, divided into groups of roughly four to work on various projects in the African country.
The environmental engineering major said she could choose to do her project on or off campus, at any site in the world, but has wanted to go to Africa since she was in the eighth grade.
“It just seemed very interesting to me,” she said, explaining that her interest was further piqued when she took an African and Asian History course while attending Shrewsbury High School.
She and her group helped to “set up the regulations and also provided recommendations to the Namibian Tourism Board” to create the home-stay program, aimed at any sort of tourists whether they were students working on projects or people of any age traveling to the country. Its purpose is to match visitors with local families so they can stay in their homes rather than in hotels or bed and breakfasts, she said.
Some of the regulations Castagna’s group worked on include requiring the homes have certain facilities such as bathrooms and showers as well as making sure the homes are clean and up to the health and safety standards of the country, she said.
“Making sure they have enough space as guests and that they feel comfortable,” Castagna said. “The main reason is for visitors to get a cultural experience, immerse themselves in the culture.”
Instead of all that tourism money going to the hotels and bed and breakfast establishments, the program “allows lower income people to make more of a direct income,” she explained.
As part of the project, Castagna was able to travel throughout Namibia, attending community meetings in the country’s various regions and collecting feedback.
“I really like working with people,” she said. “I chose it (the project) for that reason.”
Castagna was gone for about two months, returning on May 6. A lot of research was done before the trip, she said, and she spent her first week on spring break in Cape Town before working two weeks in Windhoek and then traveling the country of Namibia for about a month.
Among her many experiences, she got to stay in what she called a cultural village outside of Gobabis which was a set-up tourist destination to show how life is like in traditional huts made of clay and cow dung. She said she stayed in the hut with a mattress and a candle and ate dinner cooked over a fire.
Local children there got together and performed traditional dance and songs for Castagna’s group, she said.
Throughout her time in Namibia, she also got to see sand dunes and beaches, visit Etosha National Park, and go on safaris.
“Namibia is very diverse,” she said, explaining that one could see a city there similar to Worcester and then travel four hours and find people living in traditional huts and cooking without electricity. “Everybody is very welcoming. It’s a beautiful country … I would go back.”
Castagna’s group worked on the first phase of the project. Several phases need to be completed before the program is implemented, she said. Next up, Castagna will be spending the summer in Connecticut to do an internship with GE Aviation.
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