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.

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 organizationalclichés: 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.


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