The Journey for Leadership: by Scott Ochander

Valpo’s Engineers Without Borders Continues Work on Tanzanian Water Canal


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It’s 9 p.m. in Valparaiso on a hot June evening, yet, just as most of Indiana is heading for bed, a world  away in Tanzania a cool and cloudless morning is beginning. As the sun’s rays touch Mount Kilimanjaro, the opportunity to glimpse this spectacular mountain signals the beginning of a new day.

For five years now, the Valparaiso University chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) has been leading and serving in this remote region, changing the lives of Masaera villagers by improving the precious supply of water. Valpo’s EWB chapter was the first one established outside of the state of Colorado back in 2003. While engineering students are heavily involved, Valpo’s EWB chapter is uniquely interdisciplinary, including students from all over campus with majors such as nursing, business, and geography, just to name a few.  To emphasize this point, students have in recent years debated about changing the name to “Everyone Without Borders.”

“Students are transformed by this experience every year,” said Michael Hagenberger, chair of civil engineering and faculty advisor to EWBValpo, “This year’s trip was exciting, frustrating, challenging, and gratifying all at the same time. When you mix the dynamics of local village politics, the engineering of a 75-year-old water canal, and the risk of village survival if something goes wrong, it creates the ultimate environment for students to learn to lead.”

The opportunity for leadership was driven home for Andrew Schrader, a sophomore mechanical engineering major, when he was made project oversight leader for canal repair Site 5 on his second day in Tanzania.

“The language barrier was difficult, but nothing like trying to advise fundis (professional construction leaders) who have many years of experience doing things their way,” Schrader said. “Trying to find a delicate balance between sharing our engineering knowledge and the local professionals’ traditions and wisdom was challenging. I learned so much about leading a project in 24 hours; this experience has been invaluable.”

This year’s trip had a heavy focus on assessing what the village has learned from EWB-Valpo trips during the past few years. Instead of directing the work as had been done in the past, this year’s EWB-Valpo team took an oversight role, advising and documenting techniques used by the villagers.

“Ultimately we want to see the village assuming full responsibility for the canal,” Hagenberger said. “While there are always challenges, there were definitely signs that our time here will have lasting impact on the quality of the engineering in the village.” As much as improving water quantity through the water canal could be an every-year project for EWB-Valpo, the travel team for this year’s trip was made up of nearly 50 percent nursing students. This became an extraordinary opportunity to assess village health as it relates to water.  As part of this effort, one of the key priorities was to better understand the challenges of collecting and purifying water for consumption.

“I’ll never forget collecting water at the river,” said Caitlin Cocker, nursing student, as she described the difficulty and sore muscles that resulted from the arduous climb up a mile-long mountainside trail with a 45-pound bucket of water on her head. The villagers were awestruck that the EWB-Valpo team wanted to take on this task, but many members considered it essential to understanding what village life is like at times. 

“It’s amazing to me to see even fairly small children carrying water like this,” Cocker said. “It really highlights the importance and quality of life that comes from a reliable water supply in the canal.”

Yet, as difficult as the water supply issues are in the community, improving the water quality may have an equally positive effect on the overall village health. The EWB-Valpo team collected water samples along the canal and did extensive testing on the samples to identify potential issues. 

“The water quality is poor in many areas of the canal, but when you are deciding between having enough water or having clean water, the decision can literally become muddy,” said Ellen Guisfriedi, presidentelect for EWB-Valpo. “Our goal is to share this data with the village so they can be better informed about the resources they allocate to the canal projects in the coming years.”

Each year, the village becomes more of a home away from home for returning students and advisors, many of whom are now considered members of the village. As the EWB-Valpo team packs up and returns to Indiana from another successful trip, memories collect, tears are shed and goodbyes and well wishes abound.

In the distance, Mount Kilimanjaro appears as an everyday reality for the villagers, who don’t place much meaning on the inspiring mountain. Yet, for those in EWB-Valpo who have witnessed the struggles and the rich beauty of the people in Masaera, the mountain calls them to return to lead and serve again someday soon.