Video of OSU Kenya trip now available

A new documentary featuring a group of OSU engineering students in Kenya is now available on the web. (photo: Justin Smith)

A new documentary featuring a group of OSU engineering students in Kenya is now available on the web. (photo: Justin Smith)

Community members of Lela, Kenya, spent hours every day fetching water, which was so contaminated it often sickened young children. Now, thanks to a partnership with Engineers Without Borders-USA (EWB-USA) and its Oregon State University chapter (EWB-OSU), the 2,000 residents of the remote, rural community can access safe water.

A team of five Oregon State students, plus a technical mentor, traveled in July 2012 to the Kenyan village near Lake Victoria. The team oversaw drilling of a well and construction of a rainwater catchment system, culminating three years of work and planning.

The mission of EWB-OSU is to work with developing communities around the world to provide basic human needs, said Nicholas Kusanto, a chemical engineering student and current president of the group.

“At the same time, ” Kusanto said, “we strive to promote an environment for our members to use the skills they learn in the classroom to gain experiences, build résumés, and feel as if they can make an impact on the world.”

The project was such a success that the team has been invited to return this June to drill a second well. The partnership is slated to continue through 2014.

In 2008, Lela submitted an application to EWB-USA for help developing a sustainable source of potable water. EWB-OSU adopted the project the following year. After two assessment trips to Lela to conduct a community health survey, technical water source assessment, and GPS mapping, the team determined that the best implementation options were to drill a community well fitted with an Afridev hand pump, which can pump water from 100 meters below the surface, and to construct a rainwater catchment system at the village’s primary school.

The OSU team spearheaded fundraisers and sought grants to realize its goals. Emirates Airline donated airplane tickets. The team’s mentor, Jeff Randall, a retired groundwater hydrologist at CH2M HILL, volunteered his experience and expertise.

“We owe a great deal to our donors, the Corvallis community, and OSU,” said Zachary Dunn, project coordinator and public policy graduate student. “We are thrilled with the way it turned out.”

Students from all engineering disciplines, as well as other departments, are encouraged to take part in the efforts of EWB-OSU. The Kenya Project team members agreed that a wide skill set came in handy, especially as the team encountered challenges.  For example, civil engineering student Jessy Cawly, was able to bring more to bear than just engineering know-how.   As a speaker of Swahili, she was able to speak to those in the community who did not speak English, typically older women.

“Trips like these require defined responsibilities yet flexible roles,” said Jordan Machtelinckx, a civil engineering student on the team. “Working in developing communities, and eastern Africa in particular, always has unexpected challenges. The main one was scheduling according to ‘Africa time’ because we were obviously on a time crunch. This created some unexpected and unfamiliar stress for our team to work through.”

Despite delays in the arrival of materials and equipment, including the drilling rig, the team was able to complete the project on time. “One of the bigger challenges the team faced was getting used to a pit latrine that was home to several bats, which the team eventually termed the ‘bat cave,’” said Dunn.

The team members found themselves comfortable yet cozy living in a small stick and mud hut, with mosquito nets to hang above their mattresses.  Despite having to adjust to conditions, students were embraced by the people, who reached out to invite them into their homes for lunch or dinner.

“We learned a new meaning of generosity and welcome,” said Machtelinckx. “Even though many of us may have joined EWB because we liked the idea of drilling a well or constructing a catchment, we stay involved because we know we now have family in Lela.”

“The best moments from the trip were when we hit water during drilling, and when the entire community threw us a going away party before we left,” Dunn added. “They are much better dancers than us, but we gave it our best.”

The university created a video documentary about the endeavor titled “Kel Wer,” which means “to bring song” in the local Dholuo language. The film has been screened in Portland and Corvallis.

“I saw the opportunity to tell a compelling story about our engineering students applying what they’ve learned toward the common good via the documentary film format,” said Thuy Tran, director of marketing communications for the College of Engineering.

Documentary film maker Justin Smith and two new friends. (contributed photo)

Documentary film maker Justin Smith and two new friends. (contributed photo)

Justin Smith, Oregon State’s multimedia production manager, traveled with the team to document their efforts.

Smith encountered his own logistical challenges in Lela.  “Shooting in a remote location has endless challenges [such as heat, bugs, and limited power],” he said, “but ultimately it became very motivating to reflect on the fact that I had an opportunity to tell this story.”

Before traveling to Kenya, Smith envisioned shooting a climactic scene of a well gushing with water, similar to an oil well.  “It wasn’t exactly how I imagined it,” Smith said. “The water just kind of dribbled out. And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s it?’”

The documentary evolved over the time he spent in Kenya.   The story wasn’t just about drilling a well. “I realized,” Smith said, “that the story was primarily about the people—what they were about, and what this meant to them, and what it meant to the team.”

“Kel Wer” has been released online at

Comments are closed.