August 13, 2013

Magic happened when water started flowing in Kenya’s Hillside community this summer.

For the people 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 process of changing the lives in an entire community was nothing short of a miracle.

UW College of Education faculty members John Kambutu and Lydiah Nganga organized and led the 20-person project that took team members to the well project site; 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.

Led by Terri and Bob Narotzky of Casper, the UW/Casper College Center Hillside Water Project Task Force raised more than $50,000 to build the well and to help fund students’ travel-abroad scholarships. UW’s Dick and Lynne Cheney Study Abroad grant program supported some scholarships. Other donors contributed to scholarships and to general program expenses.

Community members were astonished by the completed project.

“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 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.”

An early -- and significant -- challenge was tied to that disbelief. While the UW team raised money for the project, local residents were responsible for obtaining permits, rounding up equipment and other essential preparatory tasks. However, when Kambutu and Nganga arrived ahead of the group, they found that much of the local work had not been done.The UW-led group poses by the water well drilling equipment during the summer project in Kenya.

“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 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, Hillside Community Water Project leader 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 volunteers 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 many as 20 miles to the nearest fresh-water source.

“It’s hard work -- especially when you have to walk 20 miles,” Nganga says. “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, there is a potential for significant cultural shifts.

“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,” Nganga 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,” Nganga adds. “They also have more economic opportunities, in regard 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.”

Preparation for the trip was a yearlong 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 Kambutu.

“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, Kambutu and Nganga 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.

University of Wyoming student Sydney Moller of Laramie hams it up for a photo with Kenyan students. 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.”

When visiting the schools, the group 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 that she committed to raising money to construct 500 desks, using local resources and local labor, so that every child would have a place to work. That project is ongoing.

For more information on future international service learning projects to Kenya or the UW/Casper College Center Hillside Water Project, contact Kambutu (307-268-2584 or kambutu@uwyo.edu) or Nganga (307-268-3042 or Lnganga@uwyo.edu).

UW students who were part of this summer’s project, listed by hometown, are:

Basin -- Jeannette M. Many Horses.

Casper -- Ashley Saulcy.

Colorado Springs, Colo. --  Kayson Cooper.

Fort Collins, Colo. -- Julia Bailey.

Green River -- Justin Lamb.

Laramie -- Catherine Bailey, Robert Nueske, Christine Mock, Sydney Moller.

Sheridan -- Susan Wells.

Riverton -- Hailey Reiter.

Torrington -- Kayla Matlock.

A young woman fills a bucket with water from a well constructed this summer by a group led by University of Wyoming College of Education faculty members at Hillside community of Kenya.

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