On the other side of the line stand six Mississippi State students in hardhats, safety glasses and earplugs. Their faces, grimy from a week of living in a village with no power or running water, show as much excitement as those in the crowd. After two years of planning, these students can finally see their Engineers Without Borders project in action.
The students were welcomed to this Simwatachela village with a thank-you meal of more food than a typical local family consumes in a day. Sitting in low wooden chairs under a tree, they were served bowls of nshima, a type of finely ground, white corn grits; rape, a leafy vegetable cooked with tomatoes; and slow-roasted goat.
Many in the group are disturbed that they saw the goat walking around prior to it being served, but Heather Cumming, our chiefdom host, explains that the dish is a delicacy and a luxury the villagers don’t often get to enjoy. Livestock is the livelihood of people in Simwatachela and sharing one of the herd with our group is their way of showing appreciation.
The Mississippi State group is in Siamabwe--one of more than 320 villages in the chiefdom--to work on the first of four sustainable, hand-pumped wells to be installed in different villages during a two-week stay in Zambia. After many setbacks at the beginning of the journey, the students are eager to get to work.
They make their way through waist-high, brown stalks to the drill rig that is set up beside a stand of trees. By Mississippi standards, this scrubby timber wouldn’t warrant a second look but here in southern Zambia it could indicate the presence of ground water, even in the six-month dry season.
It covers our clothes, our equipment and our lungs. Each puff of dry, ground rock seems to drain excitement from the atmosphere. The crowd starts to disperse as it becomes clear there’s no need to keep drilling at this site.
The students look tired and worried as they make their way back through the field, with the community’s hospitality and generosity weighing heavily on their minds. The people of this village killed and cooked a goat to thank us. We will give them clean drinking water.
The day’s disappointment is hardest for Laura Wilson. A junior in civil engineering and president of Engineers Without Borders, she was part of last summer’s small assessment team that first saw what passes for drinking water in many of the villages in the chiefdom—small, stagnant pools of milky-colored, algae-covered water. Shared, hand-dug pits used for drinking, bathing and watering livestock. The ones that don’t disappear during the dry season turn to mud pits with lines of women and young girls waiting to scoop the acrid sludge into bowls and buckets, desperate for any kind of moisture to get them through the day.
Wilson stood by a year ago when Leonard, head of the household in the Siamabwe Village, signed a contract that would allow the team to return and install a borehole. This type of hand-pumped well could provide potable water to thousands of people from miles around.
“When we came to assess the sites the villagers were so gracious,” the Diamondhead native recalled. “We were thanked a million times even though we hadn’t done anything for them yet. It was so touching, and for a year I’ve been looking forward to coming back and building these wells for them.”
The contract states that Mississippi State Engineers Without Borders will drill, test the water, and install a hand pump. In exchange, Leonard and other villagers agree to maintain the well site and hand pump. Without this kind of collaboration, they would have to continue living with an uncertain water supply or carrying their water containers for miles to and from the nearest hand pump.
On our way back to our campsite, the mood starts to brighten. We’re tired, dirty and hungry, but the trucks are full of talk about other possible dig sites around Leonard’s community. We bump, bang and thud down the roads, which are actually cow paths through fields or rutted routes of packed, rust-colored dust so worn that it’s usually better to drive in the ditch.
It’s dark by the time we reach our tents, but the team is excited to be home in the Subole-B Village. We’re staying with Cumming, director of the Simwatachela Sustainable Agricultural and Arts Program. Her work in the chiefdom is what alerted Engineers Without Borders to its need for clean water, and her mud-brick home serves as a base for our group.
We cook dinner over a fire pit the students constructed our first afternoon in the village. This meal consists of canned vegetables and rice we brought with us on the 3-hour drive from the nearest town. It’s not the meal most of us would choose but it’s what we have. We can’t help but laugh after the stress of the day and the trip so far.
The dry hole is just the latest in a series of setbacks, both big and small, that have plagued the trip. No amount of planning or preparation can overcome the fact that the team is performing engineering tasks in a remote village in sub-Saharan Africa, cut off from Internet, phones and repair shops. Broken equipment, missing tools and automotive trouble have already delayed the work and caused the group to switch from plan A to B to C.
“I think we might be on plan H at this point,” Dennis Truax said half jokingly. “Working in Africa means you have to be flexible. Equipment breaks and repairs take a long time, tools are missing and you have to MacGyver a solution, schedules are set and then changed suddenly. It’s just part of it, but that’s why it’s so important to do this work. Without groups like ours, these communities wouldn’t have the resources to improve their situation.”
Head of Mississippi State’s civil and environmental engineering department and faculty adviser to Engineers Without Borders, Truax explained that working in these conditions and having a shared appreciation for global service creates a sense of camaraderie among the team. Together they are seeing first-hand the differences between life in the United States and life in the developing world.
Despite a decades-long effort to improve access to drinking water and sanitation across the globe, the World Health Organization reports that 748 million people still live without access to improved sources of water. More than half of those are in sub-Saharan Africa.
“My chiefdom is not connected to the national grid,” explained Chief Simwatachela Boghwell Sialeka. “We want water that is not polluted, water that is safe for people to drink. Without it, life here is pathetic.”
Contaminated water, like that contained in hand-dug, open-air wells, can spread diseases such as cholera, diarrhea, dysentery, hepatitis A, typhoid and polio, according to WHO. The organization estimates that across the globe more than 840,000 people die each year just from diarrhea brought on by unsafe drinking water.
Sialeka, who teaches at an English-language primary school, said these diseases, particularly diarrheal illnesses, wreak havoc on villages in his chiefdom. But, he said he has seen how a borehole can help a once struggling village, thrive.
“That community where they have a borehole, their lives have completely changed,” Sialeka said. “They are disease free. The productivity among the people has changed.”
Improving people’s health is just the first of the changes a secure water supply can bring to an area. Reliable access to clean water also helps these villages become eligible for more government and humanitarian assistance, since aid workers, teachers and medical personnel can then be stationed in the those areas.
Bill Mitchell, a 1975 civil engineering alumnus and Engineers Without Borders’ professional adviser, said the group hopes the reliable wells will help the communities turn their focus to irrigation for crops and a more secure food supply.
“While the water they are drinking now is not suitable for human consumption, it could very well be used for agricultural irrigation,” the Gulfport native explained. “Right now their crops are sparse, but the additional water could help them better serve their domestic animals and extend their growing season to give them additional food sources.”
The group relied on Cumming and her experiences living in Simwatachela to identify the areas of the chiefdom with the most urgent water needs. This evaluation formed the basis of the five-year project. Year one the team visited possible sites to assess the viability of installing wells, years two through four are focused on further assessments and the instillation of wells, and the final year will allow the group to evaluate the success of the wells and perform any necessary maintenance.
“In many ways, Africa has become a borehole graveyard. So many are put in with no follow-up, maintenance or upkeep,” Cumming explained. “That’s why Engineers Without Borders’ strategy of teaching the villagers how to maintain the wells and promising to come check-up on the sites is so promising.”
To perform the equipment-heavy task of well development, Engineers Without Borders partnered with Overland Missions to install the wells in Simwatachela this summer. Charging $6,500 per well, the global humanitarian organization was the most cost effective drilling operation in southern Zambia.
The cost covers the use of the drill rig and an operation team, as well as the materials necessary to complete the well and hand pump. Truax explained that Overland was able to keep the price low because the Mississippi State team completed the site assessments to identify possible well locations and agreed to work with local residents to provide on-site labor to finish the well. He said working with a reputable organization with a base in Zambia helps ensure that the wells will be maintained even after the Engineers Without Borders group returns home.
“Boreholes are commonly done but in a very, very bad way,” Truax explained. “We have come across wells that failed within a matter of months because the company was here to make a couple of bucks and installed cheap materials. Overland Missions is local, so they have a vested interest in making sure the job is done right.”
Joe Colucci who oversees Overland’s drilling operation in Zambia, said his group has more success in Simwatachela than in other regions, but still the success rate in the chiefdom is only approximately 50 percent. His group had hoped the Engineers Without Borders projects would snap a string of bad luck that saw the drillers embark on several ultimately unsuccessful digs.
“Finding adequate water here can be quite difficult. Sometimes you get a small amount of water that’s not worth dropping the pipe in the ground,” Colucci explained. “It’s extremely difficult to drill for a week and find that it’s not a great water source. You’re sitting there, measuring droplets of water that are almost enough, but not enough to support a borehole. That’s when it’s a difficult call to make.”
The team returns to Siamabwe the next morning. Overnight, Colucci and his team have moved the rig to a site several miles from the original location. Eager to change their luck, the Overland workers, who spent the night in the village, have already started drilling. The mood is hopeful, but the crowd of onlookers grows more slowly than it did the first day.
Clouds of dust drift around the drill, but they’re different than the previous day—darker, heavier. Truax looks at the ground rock being produced by the drill. It’s less mica-based than before. It’s more like sandy gravel, a good indicator that water could be present at this site.
It’s about mid-day when the first cries of excitement erupt around the site. A gush of water is pouring from the hole. Having been let down the day before we watch closely for signs of disappointment on the faces of the drillers, but they are all smiles. We’ve hit substantial ground water.
“It’s amazing to see how people react,” said Matthew Blair, a senior in civil engineering from Clear Springs, Maryland. “When we didn’t hit water the first day you could see the sadness in everyone’s eyes. It was pretty heartbreaking. Then to be able to, the very next day, hit water and see everyone jumping, yelling and going crazy that their lives are about to change is really awesome.”
Leonard picks up handfuls of mud and throws them into the air. His excitement catches among the crowd and everyone is full of laughter and cries of “twalumba,” which is Tongan for thank you.
The students pick up shovels to begin clearing mud and creating trenches so the water can drain away from the site. There’s still lots of work to do—hand mixing concrete, cutting trees to create a fence that will protect the well, and finding solutions to the problems that will arise as drilling continues—but for now we all breathe easier knowing these people, who are watching us so hopefully, will live healthier lives.