Montana State University

Kenya offers lessons for MSU students

April 15, 2007 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service

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Leaking cisterns, inoperable solar panels and a local populace that didn't remember the organizations which built those things: They were sobering lessons to a group of Montana State University students who went to Kenya earlier this year to help an impoverished school district.

"A lot of aid work goes into projects in Kenya and then when something breaks it just sits there and rots," said Quinn Bloom, 28, a junior in industrial engineering. "We don't want to have our project become another development skeleton littering the landscape of Kenya."

Seven members of the MSU student chapter of Engineers Without Borders spent a month and half in southwest Kenya in December and January installing the second of 57 drinking wells and their first composting latrine for schools in the impoverished rural region.

The student chapter has been working since 2003 to bring fresh drinking water and sanitary latrines to schools in the Khwisero District of Kenya. They will host a presentation of their work 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., April 17, at the Museum of the Rockies.

Simple hand-pump drinking wells in schoolyards can profoundly improve life for students in the region. Most drinking water in the Khwisero district is collected from shallow surface springs or streams and consumed untreated. As a result, diarrhea is the third leading cause of death in Kenya, according to the World Health Organization.

Water collection falls disproportionately to girls who miss hours of class daily walking to and from water sources, either balancing water containers on their heads or lugging them in their arms. Because the girls go unattended for water there have been rapes, the MSU students recently learned through talking with schoolteachers in Khwisero.

"If we can bring fresh water to all of these school districts, we could potentially change the lives of tens of thousands of people," Bloom said. "If the water doesn't cause sickness and the girls don't have to miss class every day, that will cumulatively have an enormous effect."

But key to making the project work is getting the Kenyans invested in the work, said Chris Allen, a junior in bioresources engineering, and chapter president.

"If they don't want it, or they don't know how to fix it, or if they feel like it doesn't belong to them it will fail," he said. "We are spending a lot of time thinking about how to make this work theirs."

To that end, the MSU students worked with the community to create a water-use committee in 2006 to oversee the continued operation of the first well they installed. The students held a hand-off ceremony, formally turning over control of the well to the community. They plan to create a water-use committee for every well they install.

"We've worked very hard to overcome their stereotypes of white Americans and Europeans who come to Africa to build aid projects," Allen said. "Their stereotype is that whites arrive in a car, tell them to build something, then leave -- never to return -- and the project falls apart."

To overcome that stereotype, Allen, Bloom and architectural student Andrea Orr helped dig the pit for a composting latrine.

"The men in Kenya got a kick out of me digging with them," Orr said. "They kept telling me that Kenyan women couldn't do this sort of work. I told them that they just need to be given a chance to prove they could. Only fifty years ago it was thought that American women couldn't do this sort of work and now they do. When we were done digging, they said they were proud to work with me."

The MSU students have raised - and spent - $50,000 on the project so far. On their most recent trip, each member came up with more than $1,000 of their own money for transportation. They hope to raise another $50,000 in the next 18 months and build three more wells and three more composting latrines.

"We could not have done this without the generous support of hundreds of people in Bozeman," Allen said.

Allen, Bloom, and another chapter member, Callie Blackwood, plan to present their project at a national EWB conference in Boston this spring. Two chapter-MSU alums will join them: Kim Slack and Ryan Cargo.

"Our goal is to knock everyone back a few steps," Bloom said. "Unlike many chapters, we have an unusually long-term project -- one that could last more than a decade. That has forced us to really consider the long-term sustainability of our project and our relationship with the Khwisero community.

"Many chapters have projects that can be completed in one or two visits and then the chapter can move on to another community or country," Bloom said. "We have to think in the long term because we're in it for the long haul."

Contact: McNaught at jordan.mcnaught@myportal.montana.edu