A team of North­eastern stu­dents is get­ting hands-​​on training as they work to improve con­di­tions in a poor Ugandan vil­lage. They’re also gaining eye-​​opening per­spec­tive on life in parts of this African nation.

In late April, stu­dents from Northeastern’s chapter of Engi­neers Without Bor­ders trav­eled to Bbanda, Uganda, about 72 miles west of the cap­ital, Kam­pala, to gather data for designing a clean-​​water dis­tri­b­u­tion system. The trip was funded by Friends of the Sick and Poor, a Dorch­ester, Mass.-based com­mu­nity orga­ni­za­tion working to repair the dev­as­ta­tion caused by Bbanda’s AIDS epidemic.

During their time in Uganda, the stu­dents eval­u­ated the water supply, con­ducted door-​​to-​​door sur­veys on local health prac­tices, mapped the town using a GPS tracking device, and met with hun­dreds of com­mu­nity leaders, par­ents, teachers, and chil­dren to better under­stand the needs of villagers.

Bbanda’s scarce, bacteria-​​infested water supply affects the health and quality of life of its 1,500 cit­i­zens, many of whom also suffer from malaria. Just how deep an affect it has on the social, as well as phys­ical, health of the Bbanda people sur­prised team members.

I went to Uganda thinking that if the vil­lagers had an edu­ca­tion, they could do their own projects and advance their vil­lage on their own,” explains civil engi­neering stu­dent Matt Walsh. “But that will be tough because kids spend so much time out of school either because of water-​​related ill­nesses or because they’re walking three, four, five miles a day, filling and car­rying 5-​​gallon, 40-​​pound jugs of water.”

Revi­tal­izing the vil­lage has to start with water, says Walsh. But for­mu­lating a plan to improve the community’s quality of life will not be easy. Its lim­ited water supply and the loca­tion of vil­lagers’ homes make it dif­fi­cult to build an effec­tive, effi­cient pipeline system.

In Africa, homes tend to be spread out,” explains team mentor and North­eastern alumnus Dan Saulnier. “If you pipe water to homes, you use a lot more than if you have water at a source that people come to and use. And if water runs out, people are in trouble.”

Back at North­eastern, stu­dents are exploring design options that include har­vesting rain­water, drilling wells, and installing com­mu­nity tap stands throughout the vil­lage. “We need to find out how to get water close enough so people don’t have to spend all their time car­rying it home, but not so close that they use it all and none is left,” says Saulnier.

The team is relying on expe­ri­ence they gained in El Cha­guite, Hon­duras, where Engi­neers Without Bor­ders has also trav­eled to build a clean-​​water pipeline. The Hon­duras project will be com­pleted in August when stu­dents return for the third time to install per­sonal taps in all homes and build a storage tank. A board of over­seers will sus­tain the project once it’s complete—a sus­tain­ability model that stu­dents hope the Bbandan vil­lagers will adapt when their system is in place.

The people we worked with are incred­ibly self-​​sufficient,” says chapter pres­i­dent Lucas Johnson of the Bbandan people. Johnson is a senior mechan­ical engi­neering stu­dent who also worked on the Hon­duran water project. “But they need the tech­nical exper­tise and the education.”

One thing Bban­dans seem to have in spades is opti­mism and a will to suc­ceed. Sev­eral team mem­bers note the upbeat per­son­al­i­ties and over­whelming hos­pi­tality of their hosts.

When the TV touches on the third world, you hear grim music and see sad chil­dren,” explains sopho­more engi­neering major Char­lotte Alger when com­paring her own expec­ta­tions of Uganda with the reality of her expe­ri­ence. “But when we got there, people were having fun and were really warm and wel­coming to com­plete strangers.”

Stu­dents describe their Engi­neers Without Bor­ders expe­ri­ences as not only eye-​​opening, but as life-​​changing. In fact, Johnson cites it as his most ful­filling expe­ri­ence as a stu­dent at North­eastern and one that has inspired him to explore a career in world devel­op­ment. “We’ve gained a lot of tech­nical knowl­edge and we’ve learned a lot about our­selves,” he says.