Engineering Students Extend Helping Hand to Kenyan Village
Posted: 24/Aug/2015

Before a handful of Montana college kids showed up, youngsters in a Western Kenyan village walked 30 minutes one way to a spring to haul fresh water in jerrycans. The daily routine made the children late for school, but potable water is a necessity.Enter the Montana students. Using skills learned in their engineering studies at Montana State University Bozeman, the college students designed and installed a rainwater catchment system at a school  which ultimately helped the kids avoid waterborne diseases. The Engineers Without Borders team included Jacob Senecal of Avon, a 2012 Powell County High School graduate. Senecal gained more than academic knowledge from the project. “The experience makes me consider poverty and the need to help people. Over here it’s easy to forget. But when you see it, it is immediate and personal.”


The year-long project began last year when the team, which included Senecal, Spencer Dahl of Great Falls, and Dane Hoskins of Indiana, researched filtration methods, talked to MSU faculty, and ultimately designed the project that received approval from the national Engineers Without Borders organization. The team, accompanied by Professor Otto Stein, left Bozeman May 25 flying to Minneapolis, Paris and Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.

It was dark when they arrived in the city of 4 million people, but the first thing Senecal noticed was the 80 percent humidity. The most memorable experience, he said, was riding through Nairobi in a taxi. “The traffic is chaotic bumper to bumper. Drivers don’t pay attention to stop lights, and there is a lot of honking. There were even vendors walking down the traffic lanes selling their wares. I couldn’t figure out the traffic rules.” From Nairobi they rode by bus for seven hours to a village in the county of Khwisero. It was the rainy season, and outside major cities most roads are dirt.


“It is a rural area, but there are more people in the county than you might expect because vegetation hides many of the homes,” Senecal said. “There are 58 primary schools with an enrollment of about 17,500 kids.” EWB-MSU paid travel costs, and the community provided lodging and meals. Their host family, more affluent than many, lived on a 4-acre farm in a modest home built of concrete but without running water or indoor plumbing. Like most families there, they grew a small field of corn (maize), a vegetable garden and chickens but also had two cows, one for milk and the other for beef.


The father was the county engineer responsible for road infrastructure, and the mother owned a bookstore providing textbooks to schools. The family consisted of five children, two of whom are grown. Senecal said the food tasted good, but there wasn’t a lot of variety, although he really enjoyed the fresh mangos and oranges. The staple is ugali, corn flour and water cooked to a dough-like consistency and then used to dip into other dishes like sukuma wiki, a kale-like vegetable typically mixed with other ingredients to create a stew- or salad-like mixture. “The people are incredibly friendly,” he said. “The kids are a lot of fun; they are energetic and curious. We had fun playing soccer with them.’’ Senecal said the school is barebones with blackboards and eraser, but no computers.

“The kids are very eager to learn. I was impressed that they learn English when they start school, and by the time they finish eighth grade they are fluent in three languages  Swahili, English and Luhya, a local dialect.”

UnmutThe people of Khwisero get around by walking or on motorcycles. Senecal said they often rode on the back of a motorcycle taxi, called a Piki.
WATER SYSTEM For the rainwater catchment system, the EWB-MSU team hired an area contractor to provide the materials and locals to help with the labor. Khwisero is near the equator. Temperatures range between 70 and 90 degrees year-round where day and night are equal  daylight from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. During the rainy season, it rains almost every afternoon about 4 p.m. for a couple of hours, often with a downpour for 45 minutes, so they tried to get work done before the rain started.

The rainwater catchment system included installation of two 10,000-liter (2,642-gallon) and a 5,000-liter (1,320-gallon) catch tanks that provided filtered water to a 3,000-liter (790-gallon) storage tank near the kitchen area to use for drinking, cooking and washing. The rainwater is captured by a series of pipes attached to rain gutters along the roofs then goes through a bio-sand filtration system comprised of gravel, pebbles and fine sand that remove the particulates. A biological growth barrier on top of the sand removes viruses and bacteria.

Senecal said the residents were grateful for the water system. Though primitive, Senecal said he is impressed with how fast Kenya infrastructure  roads and electricity are improving. Still, most people do not have electricity. Televisions are uncommon. Cell phones are popular, but people go to a central location to charge them. Sanitation has a ways to go. They don't have running water so use unlined pit latrines (outhouses) that have a high risk of contaminating water sources. Senecal, a senior in mechanical engineering, said he liked doing the aid work, “but what’s important is that all they need is a start. If you have water and sanitation, it leads to a lot of improvements.”

By: Pat Hansen