Montana State University

MSU students overcome obstacles to help Kenyan school

May 22, 2006 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service

Recent (2004) MSU civil engineering graduate Kim Slack visits with students at Munyanza School in western Kenya. Slack and other MSU students and recent alumni are working to bring drinking water to Munyanza and other schools in the area. Photo courtesy of Callie Blackwood.   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
Bozeman -- After three years of planning and fund raising, a group of Montana State University students and recent alumni have succeeded in drilling the first of many drinking water wells for an impoverished school district in western Kenya.

In February, the MSU Chapter of Engineers Without Borders had a well drilled that yielded 44 gallons of water per minute for the Shirali School, which has 600 elementary students but no potable water. Prior to the well, children - mostly girls - were sent on a three-mile trip for water.

The group is hosting a public presentation of their work on Wednesday, May 24, in the atrium of MSU's Engineering and Physical Sciences Building. There will be hors d'oeuvres, traditional Kenyan food and a silent auction from 6 to 8:30 p.m. The group's presentation, which includes video of their most recent visit to Kenya, begins at 7 p.m.

The well project originated with Ronald Omyonga, an architect in Nairobi, Kenya. Omyonga submitted a request to the national office of Engineers Without Borders, in Boulder, Colo., for a drinking water and sanitation project for the district of Khwisero, where he grew up and where Shirali School is located.

The well project has been filled with unexpected turns for the MSU group. On their most recent visit in February, drilling was to begin on the day of their departure from the United States. The drilling was timed so members Callie Blackwood, a 2005 chemical engineering graduate; Kim Slack, a 2004 civil engineering graduate; and Mike Kreikemeier, a semi-retired electrical engineer from Belgrade, could oversee the installation of the well's cement apron and hand pump.

Instead, drilling started three days before they had to leave Khwisero.

"Things don't run the same over there," Blackwood said. "It was a hard lesson to learn."

A concerned water minister demanded work stop until he realized the group had the proper government permits. Then there was the drilling company's use of steel and plastic for the well casing, when the group had specified only steel.

"As engineers we had certain specifications about how things should be done," Slack said. "We wanted a certain diameter pipe, but that didn't happen either."

But the well came into being and now the group is trying to figure out how to run a nearly one-mile water line from the well to the next school on their project list, Munyanza. The national office of Engineers Without Borders has assigned the MSU chapter responsibility for 56 schools in the Khwisero district.

Munyanza School has 400 students and is "falling apart," according to Slack.

The Munyanza project poses a handful of challenges. So far, the group has been unable to locate a machine that could dig a trench from Shirali to Munyanza, which means the trench might have to be dug by hand. Additionally, a holding tank must be built and the group wants to upgrade the Shirali well with a solar-powered pump with which to extract drinking water for the two schools.

For the Shirali stage of the project, the group raised $25,000.

"That's pretty huge for a student group," Blackwood said.

The water line, the trench and the solar panels are estimated to cost another $13,000. The students would also like to repair Munyanza School and construct some sanitary latrines to replace the pit toilets the schools currently use.

"There is a discontinuity between school and home water treatment," Blackwood said. "They know that untreated water causes diarrhea and so they boil it at home, but at school the children are drinking untreated water."

Over years, the group hopes to see the incidence of water-borne illness decline and test scores rise as children have access to potable water at school.

In August, MSU students Andrea Miller, Sam Friesen, Quinn Bloom, Galen Parke, Shena Buxbaum, Tim Blackmon and local carpenter Peter Jacobsen are hoping to visit Shirali and Munyanza to do more surveying and field work.

Members are quick to point out their work is not charity. They have labored hard to involve the Khwisero community so it feels a sense of ownership over the project.

"They've set up a Water User Committee, a governing body to oversee the use and maintenance of the system," Slack said. "It's up to them to keep it going."

"We hope it's a sustainable design for them," Blackwood said. "It's their well. It's not our well."

For more information about the MSU Chapter of Engineers without Borders visit their Web site at or e-mail them at

Contact: Andrea Miller at or Kim Slack at