Michael Day, Interim Dean
1000 E. University Ave.
Laramie, WY 82071
Phone: (307) 766-3145
Magic happened when water started flowing in the Hillside community, Kenya in the summer of 2013.
For the residents used to traveling many miles to retrieve water to drink (and more than a few broken promises of assistance), disbelief was so strong that many required proof that they were, indeed, seeing water. For the University of Wyoming students, faculty and friends who constructed the well, the miracle came in the process of changing the lives in an entire community.
University of Wyoming College of Education faculty members, John Kambutu and Lydiah Nganga, organized and led the 20-person project that took team members to the site of the well project, to Karati and Mburu Gichua elementary schools to meet with students and teachers, and to Viwandani slum in Nairobi to get involved in cleanup efforts. Participants included UW students from various majors (including undergraduate education programs) and community volunteers interested in international aid.
Under Casper residents Terri and Bob Narotzky’s leadership, the UW/Casper College Center Hillside Water Project Task Force raised more than $50,000 to build the well and to fund partially students’ travel abroad scholarships (the Dick and Lynne Cheney Study Abroad Grant Program provided additional scholarships….thank you and thanks to all donors.)
To many community members, the completed project was a miracle.
“Old people – men and women – have lived their whole lives in this community and have always talked about water,” Kambutu says. “They have watched their animals die whenever there is/was a drought. They have lived in hope and expectation that one day the community will have a reliable water source. They said people would come and promise to help them with water, but no water was provided. They got to a point where they lost hope of ever getting water in the village. They simply stopped talking about water because they thought that water in the village would never, never, never happen.”
But it did happen, to the sheer amazement of those skeptical residents.
“They see it as a miracle,” Nganga says of the working well. “In fact, when one person saw the water come out, he said ‘This is evidence that Jesus is going to come back.’ That’s the impact. It’s a miracle.”
An early – and significant – challenge was tied to that disbelief. While the UW team raised funds for the project, local residents were responsible for obtaining permits, rounding up equipment, and other essential preparatory tasks. However, when John and Lydiah arrived ahead of the group, they found that not a lot of the local work had been done.
“They did not do their part until we showed up in Kenya,” Kambutu says. “They did not believe that the water well project was going to happen. They thought it was just more talk.”
Once on site, the UW team faced long days filled with the hard, physical work associated with constructing a working well. To say that its completion carried major impact would be a distinct understatement.
“Through this project, a village’s life was changed in a positive way,” Kambutu says. “But our students, and other people who came along, also were transformed.”
Community leaders affirmed that impact in a recent note thanking UW team members for their efforts. In the note, the Hillside Community Water Project chairperson P. Kamonde acknowledged that “everybody could not believe the reality of water in the borehole which you (the team) worked so hard with your own hands until the time you witnessed women and men drinking water.”
“Today I want to assure you that 18,000 people will not travel the long distances to get water for the rest of their lives,” Kamonde wrote. “You really changed the lives of children, mothers and even animals for better health.”
Students and other volunteers reflected on the lack of a precious resource – water – that they take for granted. “They are asking questions related to human happiness: what causes happiness?” Kambutu says. “So far, they always have associated happiness with material possessions. Yet now, they find a people who don’t even have water, but they are happy. They are kind. They are welcoming. They are personal. They are human beings.”
They also learned that the water well has the potential to cause economic and cultural changes. Gathering water traditionally has been women’s work. Before the well’s completion, women and girls living in the area regularly traveled as much as 20 miles to the nearest fresh water source.
“It’s hard work – especially when you have to walk 20 miles,” Lydiah says of women’s traditional role in fetching water. “It’s a very big deal, especially for girls, who have to miss school to go find water.”
With the life-sustaining resource now available locally, the potential for significant cultural shifts exists.
“By having water, that would help allow young girls to stay in school who would otherwise be pulled out to go fetch water for their families,” Lydiah says.
“Water is an important ingredient that is necessary for the empowerment of women, and an indispensable component for the economic development of entire communities and nations. Economically, for women, it does help them have more time to work in the farm, and also to have more time to take care of the young kids,” she adds. “They also have more economic opportunities, in regards to what they can grow, especially vegetables, with a little bit of water. That would mean more time to take care of related duties, more time to go to the market to sell the vegetables that they have, more income to take care of not only their educational needs, but also their health needs.”
While there are no guarantees, Nganga notes that similar cultural shifts have occurred in areas where water has become available.
Preparation for the trip was a year-long process. Once team members were recruited, Kambutu and Nganga engaged them in an extended process of distance-delivered assignments and discussions to acquaint them with Kenyan culture and geography.
But nothing could completely prepare anyone in the party for the full experience – including John.
“What I saw was confusing,” Kambutu says of his visit to the Nairobi slum, his first. “I was disoriented. I could not believe what I was seeing. No human being – no animal – should experience, or should live, in the conditions that we saw.”
Given the appalling conditions in the slum they visited, John and Lydiah are exploring possible strategies to change the lives of the school children they saw there. To that end, they are planning an exploratory program that will be implemented in the summer of 2014. The program is open to students, faculty and community members. All interested participants may contact either Lydiah (307-268-3042 orLnganga@uwyo.edu) or John (307-268-2584) or email@example.com).
The horrific conditions they saw in the slum didn’t stop the team from digging in, literally. Members were so enthusiastic about getting started with the cleanup, some had to be prompted to put on breathing masks, gloves and other protective gear.
“They were not concerned about the use of protective gear,” John says. “Instead, they were concerned with making a positive difference in other people’s lives.”
That can-do spirit was a defining characteristic of team members, regardless of age. Kambutu asked team members: What drives your intense desire to get involved?
"They said ‘This is who I am.’…," Kambutu says. "They were not coming in with a spirit of judgment. Almost without fail, they were coming to work together with other human beings.”
During the group’s visit to the schools, they distributed supplies and interacted with students and teachers. While conditions were not as horrifying as what they found in the slum, the conditions under which students were expected to learn at Kararti school were stark. One team member, was so disturbed by the lack of desks for students to write that she committed to raising funds to construct 500 desks, using local resources and local labor, so that every child would have a place to work. That project is ongoing. One teacher team member offered this reflection in response to the school conditions:
Kenya taught me how great Americans have it. I am a teacher and it was sickening to think of some of the school conditions I saw such as kids sitting on split boards. I have textbook galore in my classroom… so many that I can't even use them all. They have none. I have unlimited paper, pencils and school supplies and they don't. I have 14 kids in my class when they have 30-70 kids in their classes. My students get three hot meals a day and a snack, while Kenyans do not. We have it so good in America that we should not complain, but be very grateful and thankful.
The learning process continued after returning to the U.S., as team members reflected on their experiences and deepened their understanding of those experiences in a larger global context. To that end one student wrote:
“I had many lessons from the trip, but ultimately I found that there is no time to be wasted on things that don't attend to a person's well-being. Hate, prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness are a few examples. This idea came to me while at the slums - specifically when I saw a mural on one of the walls that had three people of different races/ethnicities who were holding their hands in the air intertwined. Below the three people was the following quote, 'We chose love, because hate is too big a burden to bear.'"
For more information on future international service learning projects to Kenya or the UW/Casper College Center Hillside Water Project, please contact Kambutu,firstname.lastname@example.org, or Nganga, Lnganga@uwyo.edu.
Members of the UW/CC Hillside water project team pause during a break in construction.
Village children enjoy the taste of fresh water flowing from the well constructed by UW's team.
Women and girls no longer need to walk for miles every day to retrieve fresh water for their families.
Confronting the harsh realities of slum conditions was among the bigger challenges for team members.
UW College of Education faculty member Lydiah Nganga prepares to join project team members in slum clean-up efforts.
Children in the slum welcomed their Wyoming visitors.