Friday, November 06, 2009

The 58 well challenge

An engineering club at Montana State University had an immense challenge. Build wells for each of the 58 school districts in Khwisero, Kenya.

The students had no idea where to start, but have come around to build six wells so far. Future classes of the engineering club will continue the work.

From the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, writer Gail Schontzler describes the joy that one such well brought to a village.

Fresh, clean water gushed from the new water pump, and J.J. Larsen took a drink.

"Obulayi muno," which means "very good" in Kiluhya, he said to the Kenyan villagers gathered around him. "They all cheered."

And with that, the people of Mwisena celebrated their new water well with speeches, dancing and a chicken feast.

The well is the sixth installed by students from the Engineers Without Borders chapter at Montana State University.

Larsen, a 27-year-old from Seattle who just earned his master's degree in mechanical engineering from MSU, was co-project manager this summer. He was one of 19 MSU students who traveled to Kenya to tackle one little part of the vast problem of poverty in Africa.

The new well is another step toward the MSU students' long-term goal of bringing clean water to all 58 primary schools in the Khwisero district of western Kenya.

Installing wells means villagers no longer have to drink from muddy watering holes that can carry water-borne diseases. It means children, especially girls, no longer have to miss out on hours of school while walking miles to fetch water in cans carried on their heads.

"Being a college student, you can still make a difference somewhere in the world," Larsen said. "That just feels good, feels right."

The MSU chapter of Engineers Without Borders has come a long ways in five years. When the first MSU students expressed interest in 2004, the national EWB handed them a huge assignment -- answer a plea from Nairobi architect Ronald Omyonga to help children in his home district get clean water and a better chance at an education.

The students started from scratch, with no organization, no money and no idea where to begin.

Since then, students have learned a lot -- how to get wells drilled, build latrines, collaborate with Africans and raise money back home (each well costs $15,000 to $25,000). They have managed to build a student organization that keeps going, despite constant turnover and graduation, passing on inspiration and lessons learned to each new generation of student members.

This summer, in addition to one new well, the MSU students installed two sanitary composting latrines, ran a health clinic, distributed 200 eyeglasses, researched a water pipeline system and oversaw construction of the group's first bio-gas latrine, based on design work done last year by an MSU engineering class.

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