Montana State University

Spring 2007

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Mountains and Minds

Water's Burden April 02, 2007 by Tracy Ellig • Published 04/02/07

8.3 pounds: The weight of a gallon of water MSU students bring clean water to Kenyan villages
In the highlands of southwest Kenya, around the villages of Shirali and Munyanza, it is the job of girls, women and small children to fetch water for their homes and schools. They must do this every day, sometimes several times a day.

They walk barefoot, as all young people do in this place, over paths of packed red earth through lush green undergrowth. For some, it is a two-mile trip one way to a natural spring. Lines form to gather water for cooking and drinking. If the water bearers are school age, they miss class.

Children wait to collect water from a shallow, spring-fed pool in southwestern Kenya. Such surface water sources are home to a variety of microscopic life that cause diarrhea, the third leading cause of death in Kenya. A group of MSU students is working to bring clean water to the region. (Photo: Callie Blackwood)
Children wait to collect water from a shallow, spring-fed pool in southwestern Kenya. Such surface water sources are home to a variety of microscopic life that cause diarrhea, the third leading cause of death in Kenya. A group of MSU students is working to bring clean water to the region.

Exposed to the surface, the water teems with microscopic life that brings sickness, fatigue and death through dysentery, typhoid and cholera. It is the only water there is. There is not enough fuel or time to boil it all.

Diarrhea is the third leading cause of death in Kenya, after HIV/AIDS and respiratory infections such as pneumonia. Diarrhea isn't even among the top 10 most common killers in the United States, where men and women are many times more likely to commit suicide than die from the runs.

The life expectancy of women in Kenya is 48 years. A girl born in the United States can reasonably expect to live to 81.

The girls, women and small children at the wells do not know this. They fill two-gallon, three-gallon and five-gallon buckets of water. They hoist the buckets onto their heads. Standing straight-backed, they walk home with their burden.

Escape from poverty

In the Khwisero Division of Kenya, homes are made of earth and tin and have no indoor plumbing or electricity. Public schooling is available through the eighth grade. After that, a family must pay. Since most families live on less than $1 U.S. per day, secondary education is rare.

Many farmers coax corn and beans from plots too small to feed a household, their families surviving because a relative works in a city and sends money home -- a common Kenyan story.

Ronald Omyonga, 32, grew up here. He attended the Shirali School in Khwisero Division and then -- through the help of an older brother -- furthered his education to an architecture degree. Though he lives in Nairobi for work, Khwisero is home.

"When I became an architect, it became obvious that my professional skills would be of no use to the people of Khwisero apart from giving them hand outs -- something I do not believe in," Omyonga said through an e-mail interview. "Architecture training in Kenya is tailored to serve the rich, so most of the people who saw me grow up would not benefit from my skills because of their poverty."

Searching for a way to help his community, Omyonga was surfing the Internet when he discovered Engineers Without Borders.

Founded in 2000, Engineers Without Borders is a Boulder, Colo.-based nonprofit that uses local chapters to aid communities worldwide. EWB trains engineers and engineering students to develop projects local people can own and maintain.

Omyonga liked what he saw: a partnership, not a handout. He applied to EWB in early 2003. He wanted clean water for the schools of Khwisero, so the children would not be sick and the girls would not miss class.

"Education is one of the only escape routes out of poverty," Omyonga said. "I am different today from my former playmates just because I went to school."

MSU Beginnings

Months later, and a half-world away, Montana State University chemical engineering student Amber Larsen launched the paperwork for a chapter of EWB after hearing about the organization from a professor.

She recruited a handful of students and the group attended an EWB conference in Boulder, Colo., in the fall of 2003.

"To be able take the basics of what you've learned and use it to help someone was amazing," said Larsen, of Hamilton. "We signed up for every single project. We were willing to take anything."

In early 2004, the chapter was assigned its project: drill wells for 56 schools in Kenya. It is a project that could take decades to complete and cost nearly a million dollars.

By then, Larsen had graduated. She is now a process engineer for Ferro Corp. in Louisiana, and has started a professional chapter of EWB in Baton Rouge.

Over the next two years, a small core of students would struggle with fund-raising and recruitment to keep the MSU chapter going.

One of them was Kim Slack, a civil engineering graduate from Sheridan, Wyo., who described herself as "being involved in causes since I was a little girl: Save the Whales, Adopt a Manatee, composting. I remember reading a book Fifty Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth."

Montana State University civil engineering grad Kim Slack is shown a geography book by students at Munyanza School. The school possesses very few supplies. Students share books and many classrooms don't even have chalk for the chalkboards. There is also a lack of teachers. (Photo: Callie Blackwood)
Montana State University civil engineering grad Kim Slack is shown a geography book by students at Munyanza School. The school possesses very few supplies. Students share books and many classrooms don't even have chalk for the chalkboards. There is also a lack of teachers.

She joined EWB because it offered something different from her classroom work.

"Appropriate technology, sustainability, culturally appropriate: those are some of the new buzzwords in engineering and I wasn't hearing them in my engineering classes, but I was through EWB," Slack said. "With civil engineering classes we were taught how to design systems, but we weren't taught the human side. It's the human side of it, the softer side of engineering projects -- how they affect people -- that I found especially interesting."

Quinn Bloom, a double major student in industrial engineering and microbiology from Juneau, Alaska, was drawn to the mission of EWB.

"When I was 14, I drew a circle on a piece of graph paper and started to design a city. It was a city free of crime and problems," Bloom said. "For as long as I can remember I've thought there has to be a better way of doing things. I feel like there are a lot of problems in the world that are preventable if there are people willing to make a sacrifice to deal with them."

Bloom also liked the on-the-ground practicality of EWB.

"Classroom work is a lot of theory and calculations, but at some point you'll be on a job where you need to fix something with duct tape," Bloom said. "The engineering on this project is pretty simple. But getting people to come together to do all the right things is the big obstacle."

Getting people together proved a huge challenge. While at the Boulder conference, Bloom and Slack heard stories of EWB meetings attracting hundreds of students at other campuses.

"We were told to make sure we had a big enough room," Slack said.

But the crowds never materialized at MSU. To this day, a big meeting is 20 students.

"We were flabbergasted that no one was jumping on the bandwagon," Slack said. "And when someone dropped out, we felt it was our fault."

Fund raising was the other enormous obstacle the group faced.

"It never ends," said Callie Blackwood, a chemical engineering graduate from Twin Falls, Idaho, who led the early fund-raising efforts.

"Intuition would say that the hardest part should be the engineering and the implementation of the project, not getting the money, especially since so many people have so much money and do not even realize what a little donation could do for so many other people," she said.

Despite these hurdles, art school graduate Heather Mullins of Evergreen, Colo., and chemical engineering graduate Tucker Stevens of Circle Pines, Minn., went to survey the first well in January 2005.

"We succeeded on outright stubbornness," Slack said. "I said to myself 'I haven't worked on this for a year-and-a-half to see it come to a grinding halt.'"

Mullins and Stevens were well received.

"They were curious to see us because white people rarely come to their villages and if they do, they don't work to help the people," Mullins said. "As a thanks, the village deputy chief gave us a live chicken, a great honor. Put it right into Tucker's hands. We brought it back to our host's home, and she butchered it and cooked it for dinner."

The first well

By February 2006, the chapter had raised enough funds, done enough research and become organized enough to drill its first well -- a $25,000 project.

The group's work would have been virtually impossible without the help of an in-country contact, Francis Ashira, a Kenyan living in the Khwisero Division. Ashira coordinated everything from meals, to housing, to well-drilling, to meetings with the community.

Ashira's dedication to the group was a measure of how valuable the project is seen by locals: To stay in e-mail contact, Ashira rode a small motorbike more than 15 miles one way to check e-mail, his only communication with the MSU students.

Slack, Blackwood and EWB community member Mike Kreikemeier, a semi-retired electrical engineer from Belgrade, flew into Nairobi, Kenya's capital with a population of 4 million. From there they took a bus, then a rental car to Khwisero.

In Khwisero, they were greeted by Omyonga's mother, who showed them to seats under a shade tree in her yard, the Kenyan version of a board room. There were tea and introductions with community leaders. It was Sunday. Chickens scratched in the yard. The ever-present smoke of cooking fires hung in the air. Being less than a degree south of the equator, the sun set around 6 p.m. They slept in small, simple huts of earth and tin. Their only lights were headlamps they had brought from the States.

Out of fear of sickness, they also brought bottled water, the only unboiled water they'd drink for the next two weeks.

School in Kenya

Shirali seemed the more prosperous of the schools with walls of brick and mortar. At Munyanza, the school was made of packed mud and looked frayed at the edges.

In both schools, students sat on rickety benches worn smooth by generations of children. There were dusty chalkboards, but little chalk. Students shared battered readers with missing pages and fading print. Students sometimes fainted from malnutrition or diarrhea-caused dehydration. Nearly 1,000 students attended the two schools. They all used pit toilets.

"There was not always a teacher in every classroom. I walked by many such classrooms, full of young and energetic children, and instead of jumping up on desks and causing chaos like you would expect in the United States, they were sitting perfectly still, patiently waiting for a teacher to come in and teach them," Slack said. "Their sheer eagerness to learn, their desperation to succeed, made me realize just how much of an impact we can make by improving this community's schools."

Shirali had more land than Munyanza and so during recess, seventh and eighth-grade Shirali boys worked a field cultivating food crops. At both schools the children, mostly the girls, gathered water every day for the school. On Friday, all the children spent two hours sweeping the dust from the dirt-floored school rooms.

The children loved soccer. Their ball was made from wadded plastic bags bound with rubber bands.

Barbed wire: A measure of value

Slack, Blackwood and Kreikemeier oversaw the drilling of a well for Shirali and surveyed a well for Munyanza. The chapter members contracted with Kenyan well-drillers for the dig, but did the surveying themselves. They took water samples for analysis and conducted surveys on health, hygiene and student academic performance.

"We're hoping that with clean water, student scores go up," Blackwood said. "The students should be healthier and no longer miss class to gather water."

As part of the project, the chapter pushed for the creation of a community water committee made from a cross- section of the residents. The committee assesses a fee -- less than 2 cents U.S. -- for roughly five gallons. The money will be used for maintenance and, possibly, improvements.

"I think our biggest contribution will be if we can make that water committee work," Kreikemeier said. "That may be more valuable than the well itself in the long run. You can give people all the infrastructure in the world, but if you don't set up a social mechanism for its maintenance, then it could all be worthless in five years. Money buys the well, a sense of community ownership will keep it pumping."

The well-drillers dug 260 feet and found a source of clean, uncontaminated water. A hand pump, of a kind commonly found in Africa, was installed. Now, three gallons per minute can be pumped in the Shirali schoolyard. The well's capacity is 14 times that amount, but a solar-powered pump would be needed to completely utilize it.

The well is so valuable it is surrounded by a barbed-wire-topped fence and locked gate to prevent contamination by animals, possible vandalism, or damage from children using it as a plaything.

"I was recently at home after the EWB's work and I stood and watched at a distance as women and children cheerfully drew water," Omyonga said. "No words can capture the feelings in my heart as I saw what transformation this project had brought to these people."


Kenya also changed Slack, Blackwood and Kreikemeier.

"You realize how much we waste. I have a different focus now that I'm back. We recycle all the stuff at our house and we didn't before," Kreikemeier said.

Kreikemeier remains heavily involved with the group.

"I don't want to stop doing this," he said.

The experience sparked in Slack a desire to do international humanitarian aid work, but she found most organizations wanted several years of experience and so she is out earning it. She currently works as a stormwater design engineer for Contech Stormwater Solutions in Portland, Ore.

She is still involved in the Kenya project and has joined a professional chapter of EWB in Portland.

"The expectations we have of our lives compared to theirs are so dramatically different," she said. "We don't even have to think about clean water. It's absurd that it's not available to everyone. It's easy for people in the U.S. to look away and pretend poverty in the rest of the world isn't happening."

Blackwood still lives in Bozeman. She works two jobs, neither in engineering, but has stayed actively involved in the MSU chapter and went to Kenya a second time in December. She has struck up a correspondence with a Shirali student and is trying to assist his education.

Though committed to the Kenyan project, it has left her feeling uneasy about the American lifestyle and how the rest of the world views America.

"It made me question our society and how we can live this kind of way -- so spoiled and oblivious, while halfway around the world in Kenya there are all these eager people who want to know what it means to live in America. They think America is the answer to everything. How do you explain that it's not without feeling wretched?"

The gulf between the wealth of the United States and the poverty of Kenya was made most clear to Blackwood while she was questioning students about the problems they have obtaining water.

"A student asked me 'How do you fetch water?'" Blackwood said. "I felt absolutely at a loss for words. They had no concept of turning on a tap and having water."

Donations to Engineers Without Borders at MSU can be made to:

Engineers Without Borders at MSU

Students for a Sustainable Future

SUB Box 9

Bozeman, MT 59717

(406) 994-7156