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October 10, 2002 Engineering students go from Concordia to Kenya



by Melanie Takefman

Mark Matunga left his island village of Mauta, Kenya, when he was a boy and was educated in the West. Because he was so privileged, he has dedicated himself to improving the standard of living in his native village. Thanks to e-mail and a non-profit organization called Engineers Without Borders (EWB), a group of Concordia students are helping Matunga fulfil his mission.

This summer, Concordia EWB co-founders Hany Sarhan, Mark Vukadin Seidah and Patrice Desdunes will travel to Kenya to install a biosand purification system in Mauta.

They are designing the apparatus with the help of Concordia EWB members. Both Sarhan and Vukadin Seidah will receive credit for the design as part of their capstone project, a graduation requirement for all engineering students.

Mauta, located on Mfangano Island on Lake Victoria, is a village of 600 residents, who for generations survived on fish and local crops like green peas and maize. However, in recent years, large European fishing corporations have infused the lake with Nile perch, a foreign species that now almost exclusively populates the waters near Mauta.

Despite the presence of modern industry, Mauta remains “as basic as you get,” according to Sarhan. There is no electricity and the corporate ships have damaged the subsistence lifestyle. Villagers carry water in large jugs on their heads from the lake to the village and boil it for purification as they cook.

For several years, engineers from around the world, under the auspices of EWB, have been undertaking projects like the one in Mauta in the spirit of humanitarian aid and sustainable development.

Founded last year at Concordia, the chapter’s executives and members began working at the beginning of the fall semester, recruiting new students and dividing into teams responsible for projects such as soil and water testing, technologies and a training program for operation of the purification system.

From Jan. 29 to Feb. 1, six members of EWB attended the national conference in Waterloo, where they met with professionals like former Minister of Foreign Affairs Flora MacDonald as well as engineering students who shared their experiences in development projects and budgeting charitable activities.

Though EWB members talked intently on the technicalities of the biosand structure, their priority is on promoting long-term usability.

“As a whole, a lot of people are interested [in new technologies], but traditions are hard to break,” said Chantal Gauvreau, EWB’s vice-president (resources).

Vukadin Seidah said that they want to make sure that residents don’t just discard the innovations.

Members of EWB are actively seeking students from other faculties to contribute to the social and educational aspects of their projects. Eventually, they would like to see a high school and vocational centre built in Mauta.

They are also researching international development theory to learn how to best introduce technologies into other cultures. For example, Sarhan said that it is essential to use materials that are found on the island so that the villagers can be self-sufficient.

While they continue to design the water purification system and raise funds to build it in Mauta, EWB members are already planning other endeavours, like a biogas purification system in Cuba and a solar-powered computer.

Just back from a second meeting with Matunga, Sarhan said, “It’s unbelievable how much we’ve learned from him.” He hopes that their “excellent” rapport with Matunga will mirror their rapport with the residents of Mauta.

The learning process is two-way. Building the water purification system will be strongly influenced by what they see in Mauta, Sarhan said.

We want to “feel how people live” and understand their daily needs, he added, and “achieve a certain humility when we go there.”