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Students Bring Improved Sanitation, Better Health to Ghanaian Village

Monday, October 05, 2015
Engineers Without Borders students with children in African village.

Work and Play: Rose-Hulman students entertained children in Gomoa Gyaman, Ghana during Engineers Without Borders' trip in August to West Africa. (Photo by Sanders Park)

Flushing a toilet is something you take for granted if you live in a developed country. But for about one-third of the world's people, "improved sanitation," with at least a sturdy latrine, is unavailable.

Thanks in part to Rose-Hulman's chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), that statistic is slowly improving. Six students spent two weeks, from August 17 to 31, working in Gomoa Gyaman, a small village in Ghana, in August supervising the construction of a 10-stall, concrete latrine for use by local villagers.

"These kinds of experiences make our students better citizens of the world," says Gustavo Garcia, associate professor of Spanish and EWB's faculty advisor on the trip.

Currently, the still-unfinished latrine includes four concrete walls lining a deep pit of approximately 11 feet. A 364-square-foot concrete slab, which will serve as the latrine's floor, sits over the pit. Permanent interior and exterior walls and a roof will be added during EWB's next visit, scheduled for late February 2016. Rain collected on the roof will provide water to service two handwashing stations.

At their insistence, local residents provided much of the manual labor for the project. About two dozen villagers worked until after dark each evening, recalls Amanda Sparks, a senior civil engineering major, and EWB chapter co-president. The students supervised the construction, provided construction advice and helped whenever they could.

"Any little task we could help with, we did," Sparks says.

As with all EWB projects, of which there are hundreds worldwide, local involvement is critical. Because of sometimes very different native building materials and local customs, the latrine underwent some design changes, Garcia notes.

Near the end of their stay, the young engineering students offered to erect temporary walls so the villagers could start to use the latrine immediately, Sparks states. However, the locals declined the offer, saying they would rather wait until the latrine is completely finished to allow for a proper ceremony marking its opening.

Ceremony and tradition are huge parts of the village culture, says Jordan Kamp, a senior mechanical engineering major who acted as a liaison between the students and the villagers. At the end of the two weeks, Kamp was named an honorary chief of the village and was paraded around on the shoulders of the locals for 45 minutes.

Engineers Without Borderswa Student Child

Team Work: Villagers of Gomoa Gyaman, Ghana, joined Rose-Hulman students in working together to make the West African community a better, safer place. (Photo by Sanders Park)

"You can't go back to normal life after something like that," says Kamp, laughing while recalling the event.

Other students on the trip included Camille Blaisdell, a sophomore biomedical engineering major, Rachel Broughton, a sophomore engineering physics major, Sanders Park, a civil engineering major, and Andy Roan, a junior electrical engineering major. Rose-Hulman alumnus Jed Holt served as an engineering advisor on the trip.

Only about 14 percent of Ghana's population of 25.5 million has access to improved sanitation, according to the World Health Organization. Improved sanitation greatly reduces the spread of several infectious diseases, including many that are often fatal for children.

This is the third overseas project for the Rose-Hulman chapter of EWB and the second to Ghana. The club allows its members to directly improve the lives of people around the world, according to Park, co-president of the Rose-Hulman chapter. He says that often college students don't believe they can make a difference, but, "the opposite is true. Engineers Without Borders gives students that opportunity."