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Into Africa: Journey of 5 students with a desire to help

 “It’s hard to watch. When there’s no rain for a long time, how do you choose? Drink water we know will make us sick,

or don’t drink water and die?”

—Maasai elder

text by Mary Ann Reese

photos by Brad Beckman

They took their shots, applied for passports, wrote research plans, raised money, and packed their bags. Finally, on February 23, five University of Idaho undergraduates and one alum filed past inspectors at Nairobi International Airport in Kenya, East Africa, into the greatest adventure of their lives.

During the next 10 days the students would conduct business in one of Africa’s biggest slums, work with Kenyan geologists and Maasai tribes people to address life-threatening water ills, collect water and dirt samples for analysis back in Moscow labs, measure flows of water through earth in several locations, and give their hearts to 177 young orphans crammed into a tin-roofed courtyard dancing and singing, “I’m so happy,” at the top of their lungs. Most of the students vow to go back, some as early as November 2007.

Two teams, two solutions for Maasai water needs

Problems for the semi-nomadic Maasai people living a two-hour drive via lumpy dirt road south of Nairobi at about a 6,000-foot elevation near the Rift Valley are simple, common, and deadly. A recent 5-year drought—2001 to 2006—resulted in their cattle, sheep, and goat herds dying. Think of losing your job and all your retirement savings. In addition, many of them got sick. Many died.

 “It’s hard to watch,” a Maasai elder admitted to his Idaho visitors. “When there’s no rain for a long time, how do you choose? Drink water we know will make us sick, or don’t drink water and die?”

“One in five people in the world does not have safe drinking water, and about five million people, mostly children and infants, die each year of diseases from contaminated water,” says Don Elger, UI professor of mechanical engineering and Africa water project advisor.

University students and faculty got involved after one alum introduced them to her uncle, retired Seattle Boeing employee Eric Morris. Morris and his wife, Faye, both Christians, spend their retirement time and funds helping the poorest people in East Africa. During their visits, one lesson became clear:

“How can you tell people about Christ when their children haven’t eaten for three days?” asks Morris. Now they work with SIMOO (Simba Maasai Outreach Organization), an NGO addressing education, water, and food shortage issues of Rift Valley people.

While raising funds from stateside to provide high school educations for Maasai children, Morris became aware of the dire water problems and asked University of Idaho professors if they could help. Elger, mechanical engineer, and Tom Hess, biological and agricultural engineer, suggested the problems to senior students as options for their required capstone projects.

Before graduating, all UI engineering seniors join an interdisciplinary team to tackle a tough problem. Teams have one year to come up with a solution to be presented during Engineering Expo each spring. Ten students chose two Africa water projects. Half of them stayed home analyzing data in labs while teammates collected data in Africa.

Clearwater-Aid filter team wins award,

hopes to deliver solution to new Maasai friends this fall

“To be able to get away from the laboratory, and to apply

what I’ve learned out here where it really matters ... It’s a

whole other ballgame.”

—Mark Rogers, biological and

agricultural engineering student

Throughout Maasai country, livestock, wildlife, and people share water—in rivers, in reservoirs, and in dry years, even in potholes. Livestock drink first, then humans.

UI administrator Linda Morris shakes hands with Maasai elder in Idaho t-shirt.
Senior Whitney Menzel drains water from a barrel containing a slow sand filter.
Designed by one University of Idaho team, the filter will soon drain
into the bucket clear water pure enough to drink

The Clearwater-Aid filter team’s solution is simple. Create a filter to make even muddy water in a pothole safe for humans to drink. Kenyans must be able to make it themselves from cheap local materials. Filters popular with hikers in the U.S. are far too expensive, and they’d quickly clog up in Kenya’s muddy water.

In 2006 Morris helped fund the first Idaho student team’s Africa trip. Their biggest success was raising awareness among the Maasai of the moringa seed—tiny, abundant especially in coastal Africa, nutritious, and brilliant at clarifying the muddiest water—a giant step toward filtering water to safe drinking levels. Already several Maasai schools are growing the plant.

Student Mark Rogers shows water samples
before and after they are filtered.

Back on campus, the 2007 Clearwater-Aid team built new prototypes based on their field research. Whitney Menzel ’07, Boise, Nick Mendenhall ’07, Lebanon, Ore., Mark Rogers ’07, Kailua, Oahu, and alum Nathan Cropper ’06, Boise, (Cropper was so excited by last year’s effort that he traveled this year on his own dime) arrived in Kenya with a satchel of ideas involving solar-powered ultraviolet lights, ceramic filters, and one of the oldest filtering systems of all—the slow sand model.

 “It’s simple, it’s elegant, it works,” says Menzel of the slow-sand filter. “All you need is a container filled with fine grain sand and some PVC pipe.” The dirty water does the rest. First the moringa seeds do preliminary filtering. Remaining water trickles through the sand. Within three weeks a surface microbial scum grows called schmutzdecke, a complex biological layer formed from filth or grime. Combined, the scum and sand remove 99.9 percent of bacteria and viruses out of contaminated water, making it safe to drink.

Because the scum layer is disrupted if it is moved, and because each filter weighs 500 pounds when full of water, filters will be assembled near the Maasai’s most stable water sources or near their villages. One 50-gallon filter can produce enough drinking water for 75 people a day.

Refinements for this project, which won an award at the 2007 Engineering Expo, are underway in Moscow, and printed instructions will be translated into Swahili and the Maasai’s language. Cost to assemble one filter in Kenya is still too pricy for the Maasai ($15), so SIMOO will seek funding. University teams returning to Kenya in November hope to be able to  provide the Maasai with at least 30 filters—enough for 2,500 people.

It’s a start.

H2Oasis: Building catchments for water storage to prolong water availability during drought years

“It’s been so hectic. We’ve spent Monday and Tuesday in

the rural Maasai village ... The place is beautiful.

Everyone is so excited about our projects.

We’ve been getting a lot done. The time in Nairobi is so different.

It’s so crowded, noisy, and dirty. The air smells of

diesel fumes one second, flowers the next.”

—Jake Gano, biological systems engineering student

A bigger challenge is making water last through long dry spells. The university’s second 2007 team designed a catchment to capture rainwater during rainy seasons to sustain herds and Maasai during dry years. “They should look natural, and be surrounded by plants—for food, firewood, barriers to livestock and wildlife, and to limit evaporation,” suggests client Eric Morris.

Jake Gano ’07, Charleston, Ill., and Kristina Beaulieu, Eagle River, Alaska, both biological systems students with environmental engineering interests, pioneered this effort with Elger and teammates who stayed in Moscow. Aided by the Maasai, students got a quick overview of volcanic Rift Valley geology from a Kenya hydrologist who helped them think through catchment location issues.

Students studied a pond that’s dry half the year, a constructed dam that collapsed twice during heavy rains, and other sites with erosion problems. They recorded hydraulic conductivity of soil data and considered plant communities. Ideal catchments would protect some of the water for human use, but funnel out additional water for livestock and wildlife.

Thorny acacia trees could serve as fencing and moringa trees as firewood, a flocculant for water filters, and nutrition—leaves contain four times the calcium of milk and       seven times the vitamin C in oranges. Another African plant, artemisia, greatly reduces malaria symptoms. It might be planted, too.

Catchments are expensive enough to require significant outside help—$290,000 for a pond to sustain two families, $460,000 for 10 families. 

During Engineering Expo, Beaulieu and Gano expressed hope future UI teams will continue their efforts, but admitted more realistic “next steps” for their Maasai friends may be to repair a collapsed dam on an existing reservoir.              

Turning out engineers with a heart and vision

“This whole trip is about a vision of making the world a better place. Universities can do this ... Engineering students can add a lot of value ... Students can do extraordinary things with their lives.”

—Don Elger, mechanical engineering professor

Idaho’s H2Oasis team learns from Kenya hydrologist
about geology in surrounding Rift Valley.

Elger is much more interested in developing students who want to make a difference in the world than simply preparing students for engineering careers. For him, the Kenya projects were no-brainers. “What can engage students more then turning them loose in a place like Africa, actually putting what they know to the real-world test?”

Hess agrees. All his students have heard him say, “If you  really want to save lives, become a water engineer rather than a doctor.” Both Hess and Elger are convinced engineers can and should step up to find solutions to  global problems.

Client Eric Morris took the Idaho teams where few tourists go—Kibera, one of Africa’s biggest slums. In a Nairobi area about the size of New York’s Central Park, some one million people live without electricity, sanitation, or running water. Maybe 60 percent of them are orphans, “the poor helping the poorest,” as Morris puts it.

Idaho team members were both appalled and impressed. “Today I saw hope, leadership, and the human spirit in the midst of the worst imaginable human conditions,” Elger wrote in his blog.  “Imagine the worst living conditions—the smells, the sights, the trash,” wrote UI alum Cropper in his blog, “and this place is 1,000 times worse.”


Yet here the entire Idaho team fell in love.

Amid the squalor is Magoso, a school and orphanage for 177 children, started in 2000 by Lilian Wagala, an orphan who now serves orphans. With few funds for salaries, most teachers volunteer their time.


Faces scrubbed, clothes clean, young orphans filled a courtyard with song, dance, and poetry for their visitors. “I’ll never forget the faces and the voices of the children singing ‘I’m so happy,’ their astonishing spirit,” said Cropper.

Maasai village youth seated next to entry of their dung hut, are proud of their
family garden.  Each child “owns” a plant. Young Nairobi girl poses for photographer.

Soon all the team members including professors joined in a celebration that went on for hours.

The orphans’ drinking water comes from a 20-foot-deep well precariously close to two pit toilets. Water is treated with cups of chlorine. Inevitably the Idaho students noticed and can’t wait to try some healthier solutions.  “We could definitely help with solar powered UV filters,” said Menzel and Gano. Both hope to return to Africa in November to test UV filters.

Linda Morris, vice provost of academic affairs, accompanied the teams thinking the university might sell sand filters throughout Africa. “Instead, now that we see how bright and inventive and motivated the Kenya people are, and how poor, our focus is more on helping them assemble their own filters,” said Morris. “We’ve come home with 10 to 20 ideas for helping them improve their lives.”

Beaulieu agrees. “You see all these potential projects, and you want to go back. No one can go there and stay the same.” Eric Morris (no relation to Linda) believes his investment in Idaho student visits to Africa is worth it. “It is my hope that this is just the beginning of University of Idaho engagement in East Africa. These students are making an impact on Africa. I know it.”

Contact Don Elger at or Tom Hess at