Montana State University

MSU engineering students plan to bring water to Kenyan village

February 8, 2005 -- by Jean Arthur, MSU News Service

Montana State University student Tucker Stevens and MSU graduate Heather Mullins spent two weeks in Kenya last month scouting wells for elementary schools for an Engineers Without Borders project. (Photo courtesy of Heather Mullins.)   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
Bozeman--For centuries, girls in Kenyan villages have carried water in clay vessels from distant springs and back home. When the school bell rings in Shirali and Munyanza, elementary schools in Kenya's western province, today's schoolgirls are still carrying water. A group of Montana State University students hopes to help the girls get to class on time.

In 2003, a dozen College of Engineering students formed a local chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), a national non-profit organization initiated in 2000. After discussing possible projects, the MSU chapter's 20 members decided to volunteer for a water and sanitation project at two primary schools in rural Kenya.

"School children in the Khwisero region currently do not have access to adequate drinking water or sanitary facilities," said Kim Slack, 2004 engineering graduate and past president of the MSU chapter of EWB. "Instead of spending their time learning in the classroom, girls must walk up to five kilometers to fetch water for the school. The sanitary facilities consist of makeshift structures built over open pits. When the holes are full, the community must tear down the structures, fill in the holes, and start the whole process again. These one-time-use pit latrines increase the spread of disease. Children have even died from falling into them."

Contamination of potable water and fear of disease drove a village leader to request assistance from EWB. Ronald Omyonga posted a request to the national Engineers Without Borders for civil engineering assistance for his east African community.

"Essentially, the rural areas around Khwisero lack enough water points, wells or springs, for the population density, and there is a water-quality problem because people only have pit latrines," said Tucker Stevens, an MSU senior from Minnesota and project manager for the Kenya project.

Stevens and 2004 MSU graduate, Heather Mullins, spent two weeks in Kenya in early January scouting out the projects that the EWB group will tackle in the summer. Stevens and Mullins examined and tested the available water sources, photographed dilapidated outhouses, and met with community leaders--and school children.

"The children were too shy to talk much," said Mullins of the 850 primary school students in Shirali and 350 in nearby Munyanza. "English and Kiswahili are both official languages, but people also speak the local language, Kiluhya. 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, an art graduate who had previously traveled Kenya, explained that the village is very poor by Kenyan standards and extremely poor by Montana standards. The only apparent industries included bicycle taxis, called boda bodas, a bike-repair shop and a corn mill. Vegetable gardens surround simple, well-kept mud huts. Few people own livestock and none have running water among the 12,000 area residents.

Their host, Omyonga, arranged room and board with his mother. During their village tour, Stevens and Mullins assessed the water needs and researched the type of wells that could produce potable water. They struck on a solar-powered pumping system for a 200-feet-deep well--most local wells are 70-feet-deep, hand-shoveled pits. The club assessed composting toilet systems and plastic toilet structures manufactured in Nairobi. They intend to import their knowledge while using local materials: cement, lumber, corrugated metal.

Cost estimates for two wells, twenty pairs of latrines and July travel for six to eight MSU students is $30,000. The organization is accepting donations and can be reached at or

As the 20 MSU student engineers generate design alternatives, research technologies and raise monies from their MSU desks, they emphasize that the project is more than just charity work.

"Engineers Without Borders pledges to not work for communities in need, but work with them," said Slack. "Ideas for projects come from the community itself, and local people are included from start to finish. In this way the people of the community are educated on the upkeep and maintenance of the project. EWB projects are therefore a great opportunity for students to have hands-on experience in sustainable design."

In return, the Montana students received the gratitude of villagers--and a chicken.

"As a thanks, the village deputy chief gave us a live chicken--a great honor," said Mullins. "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."

Contact Tucker Stevens 556-1492 or Susan King, EWB advisor 994-7474