Supa? How are you? Were the friendly greetings in Maasai and English we kept hearing from the milling throng of Imurtot Primary School students as the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) DE Chapter team labored to install the rainwater catchment system. The students were all so excited to see what we were doing and to have a little contact with the strangers from the USA. It was the student’s enthusiasm and the little-but-meaningful connections we all made with all the people of the community that made the experience so rewarding.
Our small team of volunteers had only a few days in January 2020 to implement Phase 3 - Part II of the rainwater catchment system at the Imurtot School, giving the students an additional 30,000-liter of potable water. The impact the overall program has had on the community has been profound with improved student health and safety over the 3-year program. When the first team arrived, 30 students were too ill to attend school each month. Now there are only 10 cases per month. In the past, students had to roam far to collect and carrying water to school every morning, even risking beatings by guards at the Tanzania border. Now there is clean water available on site at the school.
We were traveling in a group of four - Kim, Kathleen, TJ and myself – from Delaware to JFK to the Nairobi airport. Tad, who had flown-out earlier to procure materials, and the Water Is Life Kenya (WILK) team of Joyce (the founder), Sadera and Musyoki all joined us at the NBO airport. Then an exhilarating 4-hr drive thru Kenya to Loitokitok, a city near the Tanzanian border. For TJ and I, this is the first time we have been to Africa, and our knowledge was limited to National Geographic and Discovery channel programs, but nothing could have prepared us for the natural beauty of Kenya. From the highway we saw giraffes and zebras roaming free, the landscape was so uniquely different than anything I’ve ever seen. I could barely believe that I was truly in Africa!
When we arrived at the Poa Guest House, the two more members of WILK joined us, Larasha and Moses, making us a team of 10. Our first dinner consisted of ‘mbuzi’ (goat meat), corn, potato, vegetables, and plenty of Tusker beer. It was devoured after our long journey, and for those of you wary of eating goat … you don’t know what you are missing! Delicious.
However, because of the rainy season we had other plans. During previous trip, Sadera’s superb driving skills were put to the test as he tried to negotiate the slippery, washed-out roads, which soon became impassible. This time we were forced to take the long route that crosses into Tanzania.
Not a problem, since we all got our Tanzanian transit visas in advance … or so we thought. Apparently just having the visa is insufficient … you had to have proof of yellow fever shot and have no fever. But believing we had it all sorted-out, we continued with our border entry … only to discover that the “other guy” got it all wrong, and we needed to buy different visas. Haha. Our diplomatic negotiation skills were continually put to the test as we deciphered the ever-changing regulations of border crossings, depending on which border official was in charge. In the end, a multiple-entry one-year visa seemed to satisfy all the officials. When travelling in Africa, it helps to bring extra money and a Zen outlook.
On our first day of work (Sunday) we found the previously installed water tanks overflowing from months of rain. True testimony that the design works! After safety orientation, we began work by clearing the dirt and leveling the ground. We had 58-ft of gutter on Building D classrooms to install this week, but the rainy season has made the ground unstable, so we were extra careful in securing the footings for the stepladder. Enoch, the resident school carpenter, worked closely with us. We were able to make significant progress of fabricating the gutter, installing the mounting brackets and installing the first leg of the gutter. Being Sunday, there were no classes in session, and the work went smoothly without any interruptions. For lunch, we had another round of ‘mbuzi’ … good thing I liked it, because we had ‘mbuzi’ almost every day! (but the variety of occasionally having ‘ngombe’ (beef) with rice and vegetables instead was a welcomed change).
The next morning we had spectacular views of Mount Kilimanjaro as we drove to the school, and then a more spectacular view of the school principle, head of the PTA, village leader, and students all gathered to thank us for our efforts and to convey their gratitude. We all received lovely pendants, but TJ was made an honorary Maasai and given a beautiful Maasai cloth! It seems that TJ was their favorite, making us all a little jealous.
After the ceremony, we worked hard and installed the second leg of the gutter and begin assembling the catchment system. Tuesday and Wednesday, we installed the tank fittings, the wall anchoring and completed the first flush system. Don’t call OSHA, but Kathleen courageously fit herself into the small tank opening to secure the tank taps from the inside in a very hot and humid tank while the rest of team members could only offer our encouragement from the outside. Thanks Kathleen for taking one for the team …. I sure didn’t want to go inside that tank! On Thursday, our last work day, Kathleen finished up installing the new chlorine port on all tanks using the new bulkhead system, while the rest of us finished installing the manifolds, mounting boards, assembling discharge port and building the tap enclosures. A lock was the last piece of hardware we installed, signalling the end of the mission!
It looked humble to us, just rice and beans, but the students were so happy they didn’t have to walk home for lunch (or go hungry) that day. It was so gratifying to see the students laughing and enjoying the fresh clean water to drink and to wash their plates with. Overall it has been a great experience. I’m proud to say that in only a week, we were able to improve the quality of life of ~500 students.
Now that the work was done, and a bit early too, we had the next two days to enjoy ourselves at Amboseli National Park. It was spectacular! We visited the Maasai village, went to Lemomo lookout, and saw wild elephants, zebras, and giraffes extremely up-close and personal … it was better than I ever imagined. We even saw a cheetah sitting on a tree! A real live wild cheetah! Amazing! That night we stayed at the lodge inside the park and were treated to a Maasai delicacy and health tonic … goat and bitter tree bark soup … known for its ability to ‘purify’. I guess it worked …. our intestines were getting ‘cleansed’ that night. Haha. But no harm, its all part of the adventure.
We spend our last day in Kitengala with a spectacular barbeque dinner, spend time at Joyce’s workshop, toured the Karen Blixen “Out of Africa” museum, and visited the giraffe center. We were all exhausted as we embarked on a 15-hr flight home, but thrilled to have been able to experience Africa. ‘Kwaheri’ (goodbye) Kenya! And ‘asante’ (thank you) for the experience and hospitality!