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Building Bridges ~ Creating Community

Ronald Omyonga ~ Our Chance at History

BOZEMAN -- At its meeting on Monday, the Montana State University chapter of Engineers Without Borders warmly welcome a man that few club members have met, yet who is vital to the club's efforts to provide clean water to schools in western Kenya.

Six years ago, Ronald Omyonga, an architect from Nairobi, Kenya, who was raised in the country's rural Khwisero District, wrote a proposal to Engineers Without Borders. The proposal asked for help providing nearly 60 schools in his home district with the wells and equipment needed so that students could spend more time learning and less time fetching clean water.

That project was eventually given to the MSU chapter of Engineers Without Borders, and since 2004 the group has sent MSU students halfway around the world to make Omyonga's proposal a reality.

Omyonga, a soft-spoken man with a big smile and obvious passion for the project, will deliver the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture at the Strand Union Ballrooms on Wednesday. The lecture, which will be focused on "Our Chance at History," begins at 7:30 p.m. It is free and open to the public.

"Life is a chance given to you to do something that adds to humanity," Omyonga, 34, said Monday. "I want to raise a bit of passion and confidence in ourselves. We are not too small; the challenges are not too big. We can do something."

Omyonga also plans to use his lecture to thank the Bozeman and MSU community for its help in his home country.

In addition to his speech at MSU on Wednesday, Omyonga will spend six weeks meeting with various groups around Bozeman and delivering special lectures to architecture students at MSU on the challenges of designing buildings for the developing world.

Omyonga will also sit down at length with the leaders of the MSU chapter of Engineers Without Borders to plan the group's next round of trips to Kenya, which will take place this summer. The group has installed five wells at five schools since 2005. This summer, the group hopes to install at least one new well and possibly as many as three, depending on funding. The group also hopes to install an MSU-designed distribution system that will take water from existing wells and pump it to other nearby schools.

The group's new president, mechanical engineering sophomore Griffin Stevens, said Omyonga's visit is important for the group members who haven't had the chance to visit Kenya and see the people they are helping.

"It's a really unique and important opportunity for the people here to hear the story first-hand from people who are benefitting from the work," he said.

The group's projects coordinator, cell biology and neuroscience junior Raima Amin, said having Omyonga in Bozeman will help local supporters make a personal connection with the work that they will probably never see with their own eyes.

"For lots of people in Bozeman, Kenya might be really hard to relate to," Amin said. "Having Ronald here will really put that into perspective."

The group also hopes Omyonga's presence will bring more donations to the group, which operates on money raised by special events, door-to-door work and a handful of grants, Stevens said. Each well costs about $15,000 to install, he said.

Amin and Stevens said the group's 50 members are very excited to have Omyonga in Bozeman. Amin hopes his visit will help draw more members into the club from disciplines other than engineering.

"Our program isn't so much an engineering program," Amin said. "It's a social program with an engineering aspect."

Omyonga said drawing non-engineers into the project is important because there is a lot of social work that needs to be done in the Khwisero District too. A volunteer doesn't have to go to Kenya or join the group and just think about water well design, he said.

"It's about packing your knowledge afresh," he said. "All those highly trained skills must be tempered with a bit of social activism."

Omyonga is humble and insists that the good work attributed to his name really should be credited to the volunteers in Kenya and Bozeman and at MSU who have given his proposal a life of its own.

"I really thank god that I can be a part of this," he said. "We have established a partnership between two communities that I think can only grow."