As if semester finals in biochemistry and engineering hadn’t been enough, five University of Minnesota Duluth students then traveled 25 hours in December to a place where nothing is taken for granted.

“They go to get water five to six times each day,” said Yusuf Ahmed, one of the students. “It can take one to two hours (each time).”

The place was Nyansakia, Kenya, a village of 2,000 people. Ahmed, the other four students and a professional mentor were spending the first week of their semester break as a first step toward improving Nyansakia’s water access.

The students are members of UMD’s nascent chapter of Engineers Without Borders, which is similar to Doctors Without Borders except they address infrastructure rather than health.

Nyansakia, which is about 200 miles west of the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, is the chapter’s first project. The December trip was about assessment, the students said — determining what it would take to bring safe drinking water to the village more efficiently.

It was a diverse group of students, said Victor Lai, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at UMD, who is one of their faculty advisers. Emily Schabert, the chapter’s president, and Erin Scofield, a biochemistry student and fundraising director, are both native Minnesotans. But Euler Valdivieso is from Ecuador, and Nahir Hurtado is from Bolivia. Ahmed, although Somalian, spent the first three years of his life in Kenya. He remembers nothing of it, he said. His family immigrated to Detroit, then moved on to Nashville and finally St. Paul.

“I grew up in some relatively poor places in America,” Ahmed said. “But nothing like (Nyansakia).”

He quickly added a counterintuitive observation. “The people were so joyful.”

Several members of the UMD chapter of Engineers Without Borders: students Erin Scofield (from left), Nahir Hurtado, and Yusuf Ahmed, and assistant professor of chemical engineering Victor Lai. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)
Several members of the UMD chapter of Engineers Without Borders: students Erin Scofield (from left), Nahir Hurtado, and Yusuf Ahmed, and assistant professor of chemical engineering Victor Lai. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Three of the students — Scofield, Hurtado and Ahmed — met with a reporter recently, along with Lai, to report on their experiences. Their second faculty adviser is Abigail Clarke-Sather, an assistant professor in mechanical and industrial engineering. The mentor who went on the trip was Kelly Garrod, a retired engineer from Denver.

Scofield seconded Ahmed’s observation.

“We were welcomed with open arms completely,” she said. “We were invited into all of their homes.”

Usually, the impoverished villagers insisted on feeding them, she added.

The village’s children followed them everywhere, Hurtado said.

The students went to homes to find out what the villagers needed, ultimately completing 150 surveys.

What they learned was distressing. Nearly half of the population had suffered from waterborne illnesses. That wasn’t surprising. When they tested the four springs villagers go to for water, they found three of them were contaminated with E. coli. Villagers also collect rainwater, Ahmed said, but it becomes contaminated quickly.

Members of the UMD chapter of Engineers Without Borders collect water samples from one of the springs where people living in Nyansakia, Kenya, get their drinking water. (Photo courtesy of Engineers Without Borders)
Members of the UMD chapter of Engineers Without Borders collect water samples from one of the springs where people living in Nyansakia, Kenya, get their drinking water. (Photo courtesy of Engineers Without Borders)

The students also tested the soil to see if it could support the tanks and wells that would be needed for a water project (it could).

They had come with the impression that Nyansakia is on level land. It’s actually on a hill. That means gravity will help move the water, Ahmed said, reducing the project expense.

When the project is complete, residents of Nyansakia will be able to come to one of four or five water distribution points, located so that no one will have to walk more than 30 minutes to get water, Ahmed said. The water they gather will be safe and clean.

But the project, which the UMD chapter hopes to send a team for in December 2020, still will be costly. It’s estimated at $35,000. The students are seeking to raise that money this year, along with $15,000 to cover travel expenses. At the same time, they’re designing the project outside of their normal coursework.

They’re starting almost from nothing, Lai said, although the College of Science and Engineering has committed $5,000 to the project.

Of the students who were interviewed, only Ahmed will not have graduated and moved on by next December. He’s eager to return to Nyansakia, he said.

A path leading through Nyansakia, Kenya. (Photo courtesy of Engineers Without Borders)
A path leading through Nyansakia, Kenya. (Photo courtesy of Engineers Without Borders)

It was suggested to the students that they did all of this without any benefit to themselves.

They disagreed.

“I think we are getting a lot of stuff,” Hurtado said. “We are getting engineering experience. We are getting cultural experience. And we are getting their love.”

Added Scofield: “They got our hearts.”

Get involved

Learn more about the UMD chapter of Engineers Without Borders and donate to the Nyansakia project at ewbumd.org.

Euler Valdivieso (left) Emily Schabert collect information in Nyansakia, Kenya. (Photo courtesy of Engineers Without Borders)
Euler Valdivieso (left) Emily Schabert collect information in Nyansakia, Kenya. (Photo courtesy of Engineers Without Borders)