Karibu! Welcome!

Since 2004, EWB@ MSU's professional and student volunteers have worked with community members in Khwisero, Kenya to provide water and sanitation infrastructure at the district's 58 primary schools, making it easier for Khwisero's children to avoid waterborne disease and get an education.

In that time, the group has grown from a small club to one of MSU's premier student organizations, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund seven borehole wells, six composting latrines and a biogas latrine that serve thousands of community members.

Thank you for joining us as we continue to work hand-in-hand with local partners to make a difference in one small part of our world. As Western Kenya's limited internet access allows, we will update this blog while in-country with the successes, stories and lessons provided by our work.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Home Again!

Home. Well home-ish. We arrived last Saturday evening to Bozeman after only three flights home: Nairobi to Brussels, Brussels to Chicago, Chicago to Bozeman. A seamless trip back to the states, though a bit miserable for me, as I was recovering from some interesting African bug that hit me like a sack of rocks when we arrived in Nairobi on the evening of the 13th. My energy has been up and down since getting back, but I feel rather good right now and am excited about it, mainly about having an appetite again.

After travelling to Africa for the first time last summer, I now have a vague familiarity with the burden of returning home with more than a fair share of emotional and intellectual dilemmas. I heard a remark yesterday that it’s great to return to a country that uses purified, potable water to flush its toilets. An enormously cynical remark, but one that is accurately indicative of the challenge that faces many: the assimilation back into a culture that we’ve been raised in for only two decades, but one that has permanently shaped us. A general response by many is a reassurance that we’ll “adjust,” but it’s hard to balance the fact that we do flush our toilets with the same water that we’re working to bring to thousands in Western Kenya, an issue that ultimately eclipses, though affirms, any personal dilemmas in priority or validity.

So with this in mind, I find myself, once again, sitting back in an attempt to take an objective look at what is going by. Class has already started, which is priority for nearly every one of my peers. I’m able to overhear how stressed everyone already is from two days of class which equates to a brand-new routine for many and how everyone’s break was “too short.” Agreed. Though after attempting to understand only sliver of what it means to live in a developing nation, and devoting a significant portion of waking hours to a project that attempts to create a better life for those who are purely less “lucky” than all of us, I am left with a deep concern for “those whose greatest expression of humanity is the newest cellphone,” as Nicholas Kristof put it last fall when he spoke to MSU.

What I’m left with is an affirmation that I’m on the track that I want to be on, one that might not be for everybody, though to some extent I think that everyone here is obliged to some level. Peter Singer, a famous contemporary philosopher put it pretty clearly, “if one can act without sacrificing something of equal of greater moral worth then one ought to.” I’ve been raised in food banks and helping with homeless feeds as my mother has devoted her life to helping the less fortunate in some way, as she understood what it meant to be poor in America. I don’t.

And in a more shallow sense, when it comes down to it, bouncing around in the back of a Kenyan matatu, avoiding police checkpoints (avoiding having to pay bribes/fines) is much more exciting for me than a night in Las Vegas or a 15’ cliff drop. Maybe I’m arrogant and self-righteous, I’ll take that, but I’ll defend the fact that there is more out there than the “newest cell phone.”

Thank you all for reading and following our trip. Apologies for not writing more (we had to walk about six miles for electricity), but I hope that if anything our writing helped to articulate what it is that we do: at the very least, providing clean water and sanitation at a few schools in another developing nation, at the most, catalyzing community development and offering a deserved opportunity for students to actualize their inordinate potential.

Until the summer,

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Catching Up

My apologies—we’ve gotten a bit behind in our blog posts over the pastweek or so. Things have sped up enough on the ground here that we’vebeen keeping ourselves too busy to write as much as we’d hoped.

We’ve held two community listening sessions and managed to officiallyset up our management committee (which is calling itself the MEMUWater Pipeline Project—more on that later). We also completed ourGPS-based route surveys for the distribution system and visited everyschool we’ve worked at to check up on their management committees.

On Sunday, Joe, Hilary and I journeyed over to Eastern Khwisero andsurveyed around Ekatsombero Primary School, where geology kept us fromdrilling a well last summer. At present, we’re looking at twodifferent alternatives for providing water to the school—putting aborehole in at a nearby government office and piping water to theschool, wiring electricity down to the local spring and pumping waterup from it. Unfortunately, it looks like both options have some majordrawbacks, so we’re going to have some challenges to deal with there.

Beyond that, things are going well, though we’re finding (as weexpected) that we don’t have nearly enough time tomorrow (our last dayin Khwisero) to do everything we’d like to do. Joe and I did manage tomake time to have Nellie, Jackson’s wife, teach us how to cook, but wehad to give up plans to buy and slaughter a goat for a final meal.

The following few posts will be things I sketched out on paper in freemoments, but haven’t had the chance to type until now. Hopefully thesomewhat backward chronology isn’t too confusing.

Keshterre Bosei (Good afternoon to all),


A Tough Day, 1/5/10

I had one of my more frustrating days in Kenya today, or rather, thisafternoon. Things started out well enough, with a series of positive(if not particularly interesting) meetings with assorted localgovernment officials. However, things took a definite downhill swingafter we arrived at Emwaniro Primary School for what we thought wasgoing to be a meeting with the committee that would be overseeing theproject.

Unfortunately, for nearly two hours, almost no one showed up. Themeeting had been scheduled for 1 p.m., but, about 3 p.m., we foundourselves sitting around waiting for the remaining two-thirds of thecommittee, at which point we decided to start as best we could.

To make things worse, my communication skills seemed to be on hiatus,as well. As I tried to communicate our plans for deciding where tobuild water distribution points along the pipeline route, it seemedlike I wasn’t getting anything in response except blank stares fromthe community members. I tried asking Jackson to explain things inSwahili and resorted to drawing a picture on a chalkboard in anattempt to clarify things, but seemed to have no luck.

I eventually gave up and tried to move on to another topic, workingwith Matt to facilitate a discussion about the committee’s structure,but that didn’t go much better as we found ourselves effectivelygiving a presentation instead. Eventually, it became clear that thingsweren’t getting across because the group we were talking to didn’tconsider itself the project’s management committee so much as itthought of itself as the precursor whose job it was to form themanagement committee.

At that point, it started to rain and the racket of droplets on theroom’s tin roof effectively ended the meeting. Without too muchregret, we agreed to try again after a community listening sessionlater in the week.

Sorry about how downbeat this post is. It certainly isn’t the mostexciting thing I’ve ever written, but the truth of the matter is thatdays like today are part of the reality of development work (if not anyhuman undertaking). The challenges we’re facing in Khwisero are veryreal, from communications barriers to days when our project simplyisn’t the most important thing going on in the lives of the peoplewe’re working with (as it wasn’t today—most of the school headteachers were off at another meeting talking about the results ofKenya’s national tests).

I’d be lying to say I’m not frustrated this evening, but I’ve come tothe conclusion that all I can do is ask myself what I’ve learned (tospeak slowly and use simple ideas when I’m trying to talk across alanguage barrier, for one thing) and get up and try again tomorrow.

One bad day certainly isn’t enough to derail the project and we’ve hadenough good ones in the past couple weeks that we are certainly doingbetter than we could be. But still, today wasn’t much fun.

MEMU is Founded, 1/8/10

It’s official: we’ve managed to facilitate the formation of the MEMUWater Pipeline Project Committee, the group of community members thatwill oversee the construction and, if all goes well, operation of thedistribution system. (If you’re curious, MEMU is short for Mundeku,Ematsasa and Mulwanda, the three sub-locations whose residents arecovered by the project. We swear we had nothing to do with how funnyit sounds; the decision was left entirely to the committee).

This is a huge step forward for us, since the committee will need tocarry out much of the preparatory work for next summer’s constructionwhile our American team returns to Bozeman to take our spring semesterclasses. Specifically, they’ll need to acquire grant money from theKenyan government and select a contractor for the project (with thehelp of whatever guidance we can provide from the US).

In some ways, that’s a lot of responsibility to hand members of anAfrican community (as it would be for members of any Americancommunity, for that matter), but we’ve come to the conclusion it’snecessary, since community responsibility is quite possibly ourproject’s most important value.

Khwisero is quite literally littered with the remnants of failed waterprojects—crumbling ferrocement tanks, exposed, broken pipes, rustingwater kiosks, some on the other side of the road from where we plan toplace our own project. At a recent listening session, a communitymember even asked us why he should bother to hope our projectsucceeds, since he’s served on committees for so many projects thathave collapsed.

Jackson (our local coordinator, and himself a community leader)responded before I could. He explained that the common factor in pastfailures was poor leadership, ranging from apathy to downrightcorruption—things that we can avoid if we can manage to properlyengage the community and do our job right creating a managementcommittee.

As usual, Jackson, is dead right, I think. He’s a local farmer whoseformal education consists of local secondary school and a handful oftraining seminars put on by assorted NGOs (he’s also worked on severalprojects before taking on a key role in EWB-MSU’s efforts). In hisanswer, he underscores a pair of fundamental truths about our project:

First, in relative terms, building a pipeline is easy. Creating thecommunity management structure to make it last isn’t. I’ve certainlyspent a lot of time over this trip (and the months leading up to it)worrying about the nuts and bolts of the project—everything fromsurveying to my woefully inadequate understanding of hydraulics—but,when it comes down to it, the community organizing is where our mostimportant work lies. To repeat one of EWB –MSU’s organizationalclich├ęs: this is a social project with technical aspects.

As an engineering student who finds nuts and bolts (and GPS units)fascinating for their own sake, it’s oftentimes easy to forget thattruth. And, to be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some ofthe groups that came in here before us did.

Second, the knowledge and leadership ability to make this project doesexist in this community—Jackson is just one example. The stereotypicalpoor, uneducated African farmer stereotype really doesn’t apply hereat all, and I’m finding that very often the people we’re working withare much better than I am at understanding what needs to be done anddoing it. At community meetings, I’m finding that the more I shut upand let Jackson talk, the better things seem to go.It’s those realizations that give me hope that this project really ispossible. We—EWB-MSU and our local partners—certainly have our workcut out for us. Nonetheless, I’m starting to believe we can reallymake this project happen.



Long-walks in Kenya result in seemingly inordinate amounts of time for reflection. On one such six-kilometer walk back to the compound I thought about the relationship that I have with the Inyundos, a retired Kenyan man and British woman who have lived in Kenya for decades, which I met last summer when I was in Khwisero.

I haven’t had much in the way of extended family growing as my closest family consists of: mom, dad, my little brother, my grandpa and uncle. To make matters worse, I haven’t really found a “home” as we moved away from my parent’s hometown, Lincoln, NE, when I was six-years old. We lived in Mukilteo, WA for three years, a small ferry town on the coast of Puget Sound and then we moved to Denver, CO, and lived in a suburban hell about seven years. After spending the rest of elementary school and middle school in Denver I saw myself attending Arapahoe High School in Denver and then, (ironically enough) Montana State University, as a family friend had attended MSU and my biggest love at the time was snowboarding.

Several weeks before high-school was to start I found out we were moving to Helena, MT, which was a little different from the suburban Denver that I had gotten comfortable in. So, we get to Montana a week before High-School starts, providing no time for adjustment, but rather an exponentially increased anxiety for me, as you can only imagine any freshman feeling, but picture a city kid fitting in with what he initially perceived as being Hickville, USA. I eventually began to feel at home as I tried out for the football team (a sport I had never played before) and discovered that fly-fishing was closer than ever before.

Now as I’m walking down a relatively foreign dirt road to visit this relatively foreign couple I find myself feeling a relatively foreign sense of belonging. I’m the only white person to be seen and I don’t speak much Swahili or Luhya but the hospitality would attract any foreigner.

When I arrive at the Inyundos I’m greeted by Evans, on of the young-Kenyans they employ to run their small farm. Jill is sitting on the porch and is eager to criticize my tardiness. Jill is not so kindly referred to as “abulunga,” which means “cruel” in Luhya. Jill is harsh, which is why I like her so much. She is inescapably British, as the grey haired, 5’5” 72 year-old often prefers mincemeat over Ugali, a local Kenyan dish. Yet she has been in Kenya for over forty-years and has a masters degree in Anthropology from London University (where she met her husband Weboko); she understands the roots and current Kenyan culture better than many Kenyans and speaks fluent Swahili, but no Luhya, out of respect for the community. After explaining why the “tea party” movement in American is illogical, the differences in British and American healthcare and the merits of Montesorri education, I spend the rest of the day discussing the complexities of the work we are doing on the ground here in Khwisero.

Jill is a wealth of knowledge as she has seen innumerable aid projects come and go, including one of her own. Jill and Weboko started the Khwisero Water Development Project (KWDP) after two healthy young boys died of dysentery after drinking from one of the local springs in 1996. After protecting many springs in the area (a method that mitigates erosion and contamination) and promoting various development projects over the years, the Inyundos and their KWDP staff now just manage a small demonstration farm that includes hybrid-dairy, diverse crops as well as tree and fish farming.

What Jill and I really discuss is the need for community buy-in and ownership of a project in order to ensure its sustainability. Earlier in the trip, Hillary and I were discussing a Western example of this community buy-in that we face. If a student pays for her schooling or another works for his money, she is more likely to study harder and he will most likely have a higher value for what he earns than someone that is given the same thing. What is necessary in aid projects like ours is for a group like EWB-MSU to come in and essentially subsidize the cost of development but not to just hand something out. We want the community to own the project and know that we are working with them in order to secure a healthier future for their children.

Jill went off to make me lunch (left-overs) so Weboko and I chatted about the nature of African Polygamy, which he saw as another social epidemic. African leaders like Jacob Zuma, the president of South Africa, just married his fifth wife, and is telling Africans that polygamy is traditional, tribal culture and as a result, most African men have several wives yet are incapable of supporting the large family that inevitably results. Weboko is about 5’10” and has broad shoulders, very skinny legs and a white beard. He was a professor of Economics at Kenyatta University in Nairobi before he moved back home to Khwisero with Jill, who taught high-school in Nairobi.

What I find in this couple is a sense of family that I never had growing up. I had a small close family, but what I am finding with my time in Kenya is that I am almost subconsciously ending up with family members through my studies and travel in Bozeman and Khwisero, two places that are very literally worlds apart, yet home for me. George Metcalfe and Deb Wahlberg, a couple in Bozeman has taken me in, in an identical fashion, as I met them through EWB, and they have assisted in preparing me for my work in Kenya as both have extensive experience after being involved in African Aid for decades. I consider them and the Inyundos as close as I consider my family, which it apparently takes a walk down a long Kenyan dirt road to realize.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

A Day at the Driller

Jackson accompanied Eric and me to Kakamega to meet with Mohammed Ali of Haikal Investments, the drilling company we have been working with since 2008. He welcomed us into his office and asked if we would like a soda. Eric and I both declined, not being sure exactly what we would be agreeing to if we accepted. Mohammed smiled at us and explained that to turn down the soda would be considered rude. Understanding that the soda was a gesture of welcoming, we gladly accepted.

As we sipped our sodas, Mohammed walked us through all the specifics of the borehole and the test pumping procedures he used in gauging the potential of the well. The procedures seemed very similar to those that had been recommended by drillers in the Bozeman area. He made a copy of the report that detailed the methods and results from the well test which should provide sufficient information for our team in Bozeman to design the proposed pipeline. Knowing the details for the well and the application we were hoping for, Mohammed was able to recommend a suitable submersible pump for our project.

He was easy to communicate with and we discussed the project for about an hour. We were pleased to find that his firm has experience with everything from boreholes to the implementation of a distribution pipeline. We discussed the importance of community buy in and he is willing to work with the community if his bid is accepted for the project. We explained that we are planning to work on the pipeline design as a group, in MT, and he is willing to work with us and remain in contact via email as we work toward a final design. Overall, we were very pleased with the outcome of the meeting and are looking forward to engaging him in our future projects.


Friday, January 8, 2010

Under the African Sun: Surveying and Politics

Our team spent the day dispersed somewhere between Emwaniro Primary School and Mundeku Primary School along the proposed course of our pipeline project, approximately 1.5km. What was unique about the workday was the leadership. We set-up our GPS equipment and met with our Kenyan partners: Mr. Lanya, the retired water expert from our Kenyan Board, stepped up and directed our team, the ligurus (village elders) and the various community and committee members as to how we wanted to survey the route. Lanya, Caleb, the Emwaniro Water-User Committee Chairman; Wycliffe, the Mundeku Primary School Management Committee Chairman; Amos, a local youth; myself and Eric went ahead of Hillary and Joe and staked out the pipeline route while discussing the complexities of the route from a social and technical standpoint. We met the assistant-chief, a short jolly man named Willie, who is the head of one of the governmental sub-locations that our pipeline will crisscross. Overall, our planned pipeline will begin in the Emutsasa Sub-Location, continue to cross the road, which is a political boundary, to serve Mundeku Primary School, which is in the Mulwanda Sub-Location. The third phase will serve Namasoli Primary School and Health Clinic, which are located in the Mundeku Sub-Location.

Now for a bit of a political science lesson, to the best of our knowledge, the assistant-chief is similar to a small-town mayor and is an official in the civic services division of the executive branch of the government. The civic service structure is incredibly complex as Kenya is divided first into provinces, while each province is headed by a Provincial Commissioner; Khwisero is in the Western Province. Each province is divided into districts, Khwisero is one of twenty-seven in Western Province, and is overseen by a District Commissioner. The Khwisero District is divided into two divisions, Kisa East and Kisa West. Each division has a Division Officer and each division is cut up into locations, which have a chief, and then sub-locations, where our friend Willie comes in, he is in charge of the Emutsasa Sub-Location.

We recognize that we have to engage politicians from Willie on up to the District Commissioner in order to generate appropriate support. We have scheduled meetings with most of the officials that will be associated with our projects and it is incredibly fascinating to learn about the governmental structure in the area, especially what works well and what doesn’t.

After the surveying we all relaxed and enjoyed a soda under one of the “umbrella” trees in the Emwaniro School yard and discussed how the management committee should be structured, waited patiently for results of the survey and were in awe of the GPS technology that the university loaned us. This day went precisely how we wanted it to, we were following the lead of the community members, they were ahead of us along the route, staking and discussing the pipeline with the landowners. We scheduled two barazas, essentially community meetings, and the committee and government officials are organizing it. Ultimately we want this project to be in the hands of the community, more and more it appears that we’re seeing our goal materialize before us.

After surveying the other day, our team remained at Emwaniro Primary School and leeched some electricity while meeting various community members who have been coming by the school to see the annual test results from the past year. One would be making a profoundly understated observation by saying that education is important in Kenya. Families will live in the slums of Nairobi so they can afford to education their children and annual standardized tests are the one measure of how a school and its students perform versus every other school in the country. Douglas, an Emwaniro student who helped us on our hand-washing stations and I played football with last visit, scored the top in the school with a score of 387. The next highest student scored nearly 50 points lower than Douglas whose mother just came by, recognized me, and told me how excited Douglas was after working with us last summer and how proud she was of her son.

The impact we have on the kids at these schools by just talking with them, taking their pictures or running beside them in a football game is far more profound than we can comprehend. Phelisters, one of the ladies that cooked for us on our last trip came by to visit our team and told us how nearly all of the twenty children who we played football daily with last August were asking about us every time they saw her.

Last summer I found myself in front of the equivalent of an 8th grade honors class after ducking out of a school tour. The student apparently didn’t feel comfortable asking questions about America in front of their head-teacher so I snuck away from our school tour and spent the better part of an hour answering political queries from the student body. What struck me was how incredibly advanced the students were, they didn’t just ask about what I thought about Obama, but rather what “the implications of globalization would be on the U.S. economy.” Or what the U.S. Secretary State Clinton was up to that day in Nairobi or how U.S. environmental policy was different from Kenya’s. I was astounded, but went through the process of legislation in the U.S. Senate and House of Reps, how Obama loaded his cabinet, etc. Eventually the head-teacher found me and made me attend the meeting that we had come to the school for in the first place, where everyone was patiently waiting for me.

You’ll never guess where you’ll find yourself when you just take up chance encounters. A year ago I never thought I would ever visit Africa, now I’ve spent nearly two months of 2009 in Kenya and have begun 2010 in a mud-hut in the middle of Sub-Saharan Africa; and, after needing only brief reflection, I couldn’t be happier.


Friday, January 1, 2010

We Are Students

During the course of a community meeting the other day, I found myself sitting at a table with Jackson and several middle-aged Kenyan men, surrounded by an audience of 20-odd community members, my other teammates, and a couple of members from our regional management board.

The utter absurdity of the situation hit me as I rambled through a list of points explaining our plans and expectations for the coming months. There I was, a 20-year-old college student with three semesters of a civil engineering degree under his belt, being taken seriously as a technical consultant by an African community. In that context, the fact that I was outlining a project that could change several thousand lives seemed almost inconsequential.

The only thing crazier than that, I think, is that our team in Kenya and organization back home really does have the talent and resources to make this happen. Sure, this project is going to cost tens of thousands of dollars before we’re through, but we can raise the money (and a grant we’re in the process of securing from the Kenyan Government is certainly going to help). Sure, we don’t yet know nearly enough about how to design and build our system, but we can find people in both Bozeman and Kenya who do. Sure, we’re not entirely sure how well the often-competitive schools will be able to put aside their differences and work together to manage the project, but we’ve got some of the most talented people I’ve ever met—Kenyan and American—working to make this socially sustainable.

And, most importantly, after giving it our best shot, we’ll be coming back to Khwisero in the coming years to fix our mistakes, and build on our successes.

And that, I think, is the essence of what we’re doing here in this wonderful place that’s starting to feel like a home. It’s that attitude and approach that’s let a group of college students from a school in Montana change a small part of the world over the past several years, and that perspective that will take us toward whatever success we, and the Khwisero community, will bring to our future.


The Cow Analogy: Eric

Yesterday morning, we held our first meeting with the committee that will ultimately be responsible for the pipeline’s operation and maintenance. Perhaps our most important task this trip is to spend enough time working with the group to empower them, since it will ultimately be their management skills that make the project a success or failure.

Laying a foundation for community members from different schools and tribal divisions to work together to oversee the project may well prove to be the most challenging task we’ve undertaken in Khwisero. Fortunately, yesterday’s meeting was the best start we could have hoped for, I think.

In order to explain the need for community support for the pipeline, we’re attempting to use what we’re calling the “cow analogy,” where we explain that, like a cow, the pipeline will need to be taken care of by being maintained and ‘fed’ electricity for the pump if it’s going to provide water to the community.

We did our best to make clear that the committee must demonstrate to us that it’s capable of taking care of the project before we can justify spending the money to build it. We’re hoping to create a sense that the community must work to earn the project so that it has a stake in maintaining it in the years to come.

As best I can tell, we’re on track to make that happen. The committee was more receptive than we expected to a request that they organize the community to excavate trenching for the pipeline, and seemed to understand our concern over the need for buy-in.

A couple of people even repeated the cow analogy, which made my day.