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, June 29, 2011

Education in Khwisero: Making the Most of Scarce Resources

Above: EWBers and company partake in a football match at one of Khwisero's Primary Schools.

Thomas Wells

Greetings once again from Khwisero!

Since I (an education major) arrived in Kenya a few weeks ago, I have been surprised again and again by the resourcefulness of the school system and the educators present within it.

In 2003, the Kenyan government made public primary education free—since then, millions upon millions of students have shown up for primary school, many of them as old as 17 or 18.

Rather than rejecting students, schools have opened their arms wide to accept as many students as possible. The result is that every student has the opportunity to receive education in Math, Science, Religion, English and Kiswahili.

Unfortunately, the schools often do not have the resources to meet the needs of their student population. Malaha Primary School, in the Mumias district, for example, has 681 students in the school with only 13 teachers to teach them. That’s around 52 students per teacher.

As a result, most teachers must lecture rather than hold open discussions like we are more familiar with in the US. Further complicating matters, Malaha doesn’t have enough classrooms to support the student population: it has few sanitation facilities and water is a lengthy distance from the school. Needless to say, that’s a LOT of problems to be facing as a school administrator.

And while these conditions (I believe) are echoed throughout Khwisero and Kenya, many of the teachers I have met manage to educate students quite well (according to test scores, at least). Some teachers go above and beyond the call of duty, teaching groups of students on Saturdays to ensure as much retention as possible.

Head Teachers like Samson Kaka of Mwisena Primary and Harriton Mwakha of Emwaniro Primary work very hard to improve the lives and educations of their students on a daily basis. Both schools have benefited from a EWB well, and both headmasters taken full advantage of the opportunity, setting up a system of fees and maintenance for the wells so that they can continuously work. Both are always looking for ways to improve their schools through new technologies and feverish grant writing. [Editor’s note, a new block of classroom’s at Emwaniro was recently funded by OPEC]

Being such an outsider to the school system, it’s very difficult to get a good view, but from what I’ve seen, my perspective on education has been vastly changed.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Adventures of the Mushikongolo Composting Latrine Committee

Kiera McNelis, Project Manager

Today [Editor’s note—June 22nd; I’m a bit behind in posting] was the first training session for the Mushikongolo Composting Latrine Committee. The committee was formed to oversee the latrine’s long-term maintenance and is composed of seven members including school-teachers, community stakeholders, and school management representatives. Along with a couple of our local partners, we took its members to visit the latrine built last summer at Elwangale Primary School in eastern Khwisero.

Our adventure opens to a slow start after we wait an hour at Mushikongolo for our matatu’s unsuccessful search for petrol in the Khwisero market. Eventually, the bus ended up rolling on down the hill to Mushikongolo to pick us up, running nearly on empty. “We are lucky,” state the Kenyans as we eventually find fuel on the roadside.

Nevertheless, I had my doubts that we’d ever get to Elwangale when I saw how little the driver put in the tank. Then, I reminded myself that it is important to have faith in the transport system in Kenya. Otherwise, I would be constantly worried about reaching the destination and never enjoying the journey. We set out towards the zenith of Kwhisero, Misango hill.

Everyone was excited for the training, especially Texel, who is developing a composting handbook for primary schools this summer. Elwangale resides on a steep hillside. To reach Elwangale, which resides on a steep hillside, we had to navigate a narrow, rocky road. Seeing my face as the matatu swayed, our fellow John joked that “now, this is Africa.” Everybody laughed.

Fortunately, the training went as planned. The committee members and the EWB team broke up into small groups to investigate the composting collection chambers, stalls, and urine diversion. Together, we discussed the differences with the composting latrine design we are implementing this summer, the upsides and downsides of Elwangale’s maintenance efforts, and overall compost process.

The theme was explaining how the latrine takes all the waste and turns it into resources that can be utilized. Over a short lunch of steaming milk chai and Blueband [margarine] sandwiches, the committee discussed the few changes they would like to their latrine and asked question on usage.

By this time, we are running about two hours behind schedule; Autumn and one of Musikongolo’s teachers especially need to hurry back to Mushikongolo to conduct a Project Wet training. So we take off—until about 500 meters from the school, when a shrilling sound from underneath the matatu informs us that the vehicle has bottomed out in a ditch. The driver tries to turn the engine, but the harsh sound repeats itself. At this point, all the men pile out to assess the situation. No luck!

After coasting the matatu back down to the school, we walk up the hill for a few kilometers to the main road. At the intersection, we share sweets, bubblegum, and mangos amongst each other from the neighboring kiosk and, having no alternative, find motorcycles taxis to pick us up.

Once we reach the Khwisero market, my cell phone rings. It is Abraham, the composting committee chair, informing me that his motorcycle was in a minor accident. The stress begins to wear on me as I struggle to face yet another challenge.

We decide to bring sodas to Abraham and Benson, another committee member who was riding with him, at the clinic. Abraham thanks me for the soda while I ask him how he is feeling. “Fine. Fine. No problems. That is life you know. This is life. It can change in a second, one can be paralyzed or even die. This is just life—I am fine.”

I smiled, “Yes, you’re right, Abraham.”

The other day, a Kenyan told me this: “We are humans. Once we solve a problem, we always find another one.” Looking back at today, I can’t help but think how true that is. We certainly had our ups and down—literally, given the hills—but the successful training and the committee’s ability to come together and solve problem after problem with a positive attitude assures me that the project is in good hands.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Football at Mushikongolo

Texel Feder

The hot Kenyan sun beats down on my head and shoulders. Sweat trickles down my neck and back. Ants crawl over the tops of my bare feet. I stand at the center-line of the field, waiting for the kick-off.

A hodgepodge of wazungu and Kenyans, including EWB-ers, primary school students, university students and several translators make up the teams. Within a few minutes of starting, the sidelines are filled with school children watching us intently. All sixteen of us fix our eyes on the ball as it bounces and rolls across the uneven field at Mushikongolo Primary School. We’re surrounded by rolling green cornfields; just below us is the Yala River.

A kick, a cheer, reflexive deflection by the goalie, oooohs and aaaaahs from the sidelines. A large crowd has gathered on the other side of the schoolyard fence, as well. Mamas with their babies tied to their backs cheer us on just as loudly as the kids. A number of piki-piki (motorcycle taxi) drivers watch the game unfold, although they remain more aloof than their fellow spectators.

Sitting with the cheering crowd, Autumn attempted to take photos of the game. She was quickly smothered by riotous giggling at the magic of technology. Who knew digital cameras could be the source of so much laughter? The stream of questions, answers and giggles seemed endless.

The girls also seemed to enjoy teaching Autumn Kiluhya phrases, particularly hearing her accented pronunciations. When I took a break from playing, they surrounded me as well, asking questions, teaching me words, and touching my hair. I couldn’t think of a reply when they asked why my hair was so soft, though.

Back on the field, the EWB-ers tried their hardest to keep up with our Kenyan team members, but it became clear that we hadn’t eaten enough ugali (cornmeal mush, the local staple) to make it happen. Despite all our hard-breathing and dripping sweat, we just couldn’t keep up. After an hour-and-a-half of nonstop play, the clouds heralding the afternoon rain began to cover the sun, forcing us to return home.

I left the field with a swollen bruise on my shin (the result of a collision with Josek, a translator at Ebukwala Primary), Jonah Barta’s left knee no longer had any skin, and Kiera Mcnelis suffered a mild twisted ankle; all-in-all we felt pretty rugged.

In my post-game excitement, though, I forgot to stretch—and regretted it deeply the following morning, when I awoke to discover that I could barely move and that every muscle in my body seemed to hurt. For the rest of the day (in all honesty, for the rest of the week) every step I took was a reminder of our match. And that was just fine with me.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Frogs, Soccer and a Rainforest Visit

Team Mushikongolo


Team Mushikongolo’s exciting stay in Khwisero is coming to an end. Our team, composed of Autumn LaBuff, Texel Feder, Kiera McNelis, and John Rios, is constructing a girl’s composting latrine at Mushikongolo Primary School. After three weeks of meetings, daily walks to and from our EWB-Kenya office in the Khwisero Market, and endless cups of delicious Kenyan tea, the excavation of the latrine finally began Monday.

Over the course of the two past three weeks, we have had several visitors come to our mud compound near the Yala River. A frog, whom Texel named Jim, surprised us one evening. After much laughter, and a few too many shrieks, Autumn finally caught him in a large ziploc and released Jim back into the wild.

The neighboring children come over play soccer in the compound’s yard with the soccer ball we brought from Our Kid to Khwisero. Points were scored by the ball being kicked through the goal of our legs. Needless to say, we lost the game.

John Rios a recent graduate from Sociology at MSU is traveling to Kwhisero for his second time conducting household surveys. Autumn Labuff is a sociology student staying in Khwisero for two months, here working with John Rios on surveys and Project WET educational follow-up.

Texel Feder, a liberal studies and sustainable foods and bio-energy systems student is here as the vice-president of EWB, making sure s--- happens. Bam.

Last but not least, our ever-positive and musical genius, Kiera McNelis is the glue. She holds this fort together. Go Camp Counselor Kiera!

Two weekends ago, all our teams in Khwisero traveled to KEEP in the Kakamega Rainforest. Saturday evening, John valiantly conducted a delightful meal of pesto pasta and green beans. Early Sunday morning, we made pancakes with mangoes and honey for breakfast (skillfully using a Dorman’s coffee can lid to flip the flapjacks). Our guts were thankful for a break from ugali and skumawiki (indigenous green vegetables; think spinach with sketchier origins).

That morning, we got to go on a guided tour through the forest, seeing black and white monkeys with long, bushy white tails and marveling at the sheer grandeur of the trees. Vibrant butterflies followed in our wake; mushrooms and half-eaten guava fruit blanketed the forest floor.

Ebukwala welcomed all of the teams the following night – Karibu – where Jonah, Thomas, Joe and Dolan are currently staying. We made dinner on the wood stove, indulging in some tunes, jokes, and good conversation. In all, it was decidedly a relaxed and comfortable weekend.

As we write this blog back in Khwisero, raindrops play powerful percussive beats on the tin roof. It’s reaching crescendo as we cozy up with our books and journals in the hut before supper.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Exciting Times at Ebukwala

Thomas Wells

Hello from Ebukwala!

Hanging out in Kenya has been an awesome experience for me thus far, in spite of my pasty white skin having been fried by the extra-strength Kenyan sun and my newly developed fear of giant beetles (apparently,I can scream at glass shattering frequencies).

So, Kenya is great, and we’re making great progress developing a composting latrine here at Ebukwala Primary School. We met with the teachers and school management board of the school on Monday and then took them on a tour of a past composting latrine on Tuesday. Everyone seems very positive (perhaps because they’re getting something), but we have also faced some tough questions about the maintenance of the latrine itself.

The idea of composting human waste is a very new one, both here and in the US, and selling people on that idea is no easy task. It seems that the community will take ownership of the project, as they all seemed interested, and the meeting with the parents today was PACKED. We plan to break ground on the project next week, so it is very exciting.

In other news, we’ve been hanging around with our Kenyan translators, Stella, James, Joseck, and Winnie. They’re a bunch of great people who we relate to very well (it’s nice to hang out with other 20 somethings, especially since all the people we work with at schools are older than us). James in particular started right off asking me questions about biblical allusion and The Merchant of Venice, which I read several years ago and was not expecting to field questions about outside of the classroom. I hope I represented my education well. [Editor's Note: Thomas is an English major.]


That’s all I really have for now, I need to go fall into a food coma after stuffing myself with chapatti.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

A Chimney for Nellie

Jeff Moss, EWB-MSU President

There are five of us, crouched in the dirt on the side of a dusty road in rural Kenya. The sun sits perfectly overhead, baking the rusty red dirt we’re drawing in. A few clouds hang overhead, but none venture close enough to block the sun's rays.

We’re in the middle of a row of shops patched together from corrugated tin roofs and hand cut wood, working with our John, one of our Fellows and the owner of a metal shop, to design a chimney for our host families’ cooking hut. Chad, Jonah and I (Jeff) are scratching in the dirt with sticks, trying to communicate our design with a man who speaks no English. Without John's help, there’s no way we could get this figured out. Even with him, I’m not sure if we’re all on the same page.

We’re hoping to fabricate a chimney to ventilate Nellie’s cooking hut so that she can cook each day without inhaling a great deal of smoke. All the cooking here, and in many other parts of the world, is done with fires, which cloud the cooking huts with a thick haze of smoke. Nellie and millions of other women breathe this smoke for hours each day, which leads to many respiratory problems. We’ve been helping with the cooking a bit, but we must step outside often to give out lungs some fresh air.

As a gift for hosting us, we’ve decided to build a chimney for the cooking area, which we hope will ventilate the cook hut and provide Nellie with cleaner air to breathe. It’s not as easy as a trip to Home Depot, but I think we’ve managed to communicate the design pretty well. We’re waiting now, doing some journaling and other work in our office in Khwisero market, and we’ll see in a few hours what the final product looks like.

Tomorrow or the next day, we’ll install the system and find out how well it works. All this will cost us around 25 US Dollars and a day’s worth of work, and we hope it will make a small but noticeable difference in the lives of the family that has been so gracious to us over the last two weeks.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Carrying Water

Dolan Personke

Yesterday, I carried water. On my head.

Yesterday, about an hour or so before dinner, five of us headed down to the spring to get water with Jaquelline, a friend Nellie, our host mother. It was about a three-quarter of a mile walk downhill from the compound. About half-way down the trail, I realized I'd forgotten my camera, and ran back up to the hut where all of us guys were sleeping in to grab it. I dug my Canon out of my luggage, and headed back down the hill, not entirely sure where I was going.

As I ran down the trail to the spring, I realized that this was the first time in the four days I had that I had been completely alone in Kenya. It was a pretty exciting thought—I couldn’t help thinking, ‘Well shoot, if I can walk down this path with my camera all by myself, I could dang near do anything on my own!’

When I got down to the spring most of our barrels had been filled with water already. I took a couple shots of a few young local guys, (who were quite excited to see themselves on the camera screen) and then we started hauling the water back uphill. I started taking some photos of the other EWB-ers with the water on their heads, and started to think that I was in the clear on carrying water until, a mere 100 yards into the journey back up the hill, Jaquilline ordered me to give her the camera and take one of the jugs of water. It was clear I had no choice.

I started up the hill at a pretty solid clip. Partially because I wanted to show that I wasn’t a whimpy Mzungu (Swahili for a white person), but also because I wanted to spend as little time possible with the water jug on my head.

It’s one thing to hurry up a hill, it’s another thing entirely to hurry up a hill with a five-gallon barrel of water on your head, sloshing weight back and forth across you skull, dripping alarming amounts of water onto your shirt. I spent the first third of the hike thinking, “this is tough, but I can totally handle it.” The next third felt more an endurance test, as I had to constantly reassure myself: ‘Alright Dolan, you can do this. You’ve got to keep charging, buddy.’ By the last third of the journey I was pretty sure my head was going to fall off, my spine was going to collapse and my face was going to be pulled into the dirt by the weight of the barrel as I spilled water everywhere.

But I made it, and strode triumpantly into the Jackson’s compound. All of the kids started clapping and yelling, ‘Mzungu! Mzungu!’ I could not help but smile with pride. I walked confidently to the cooking hut and finally, finally, FINALLY was able to take the water off of my head.

I had made it.

I felt such a sense of relief and accomplishment. I wanted to throw my arms up to the sky like Rocky after climbing the steps to the Philidelphia Art Museum. Then I realized that this is what Kenyan women, young Kenyan girls do every day. Even now I’m a little unsure if I want to attempt that carry again, but this is their daily reality. It was a pretty sobering reminder about why we're involved here in Khwisero.