A humanitarian project to provide clean drinking water to some of the world’s poorest people is showing UOW students what it takes to make a difference in the world.
“The poverty is gut-wrenching,” final year materials engineering student Andrew Vild says as he describes the confronting conditions in urban slums and poor rural villages in Uganda. It was just so different to anything I’ve ever seen before — the slums, the poor quality of life — it can be overwhelming at first.”
He leads four-week trips to Uganda where UOW students from engineering and biological sciences work on humanitarian missions to research and test drinking water sources. He can’t quite put a finger on when the transition from blast furnace technician at the local steelworks, and being paid to do his degree, to a humanitarian project leader in east Africa began, but he is certain of his choice.
“To be helping communities change the basic ways they live simply by having access to clean water means so much. It can make the difference in having job security because they aren’t getting sick, or it could help children to grow up strong and healthy.” The 23-year-old grew up in the Southern Highlands and took up a materials engineering degree at UOW as a Bluescope cadet, but he says he longed to do more than travel.
“I wanted to have a purpose to what I was learning,” Andrew says. “I worked as a volunteer on an engineering project in India and that opened up the world to me in terms of possibilities of how engineering could be applied outside the conventional means. I saw the contrast between what we have in Australia and how poorer communities overseas live but also the potential for helping create change. My first trip to Uganda, working with communities, confirmed to me that I was on the track.”
The trip was in his new role as a co-director of Project Everest, a social enterprise start-up that works on development projects to help improve the health and economic wellbeing of people in developing nations.
The first trip in February was made up of a small group of engineering undergraduates and one biological sciences student. It was no walk in the park for the young and enthusiastic bunch. Uganda is a country of 37 million people and it’s estimated that about one in five live below the poverty line. And despite masses of renewable water sources, the World Health Organization estimates that more than 8 million people do not have access to safe drinking water, due to contamination from poor drainage and unregulated waste disposal.
Mass migration to the capital Kampala is compounding the problem of providing clean drinking water and sanitation. Student Nicholas Kerr, who grew up on a farm in Deniliquin in regional NSW, was “looking for a challenge”, and left the farm to take up civil engineering at UOW. He jumped at the chance to be a part of Project Everest, despite having never been overseas in his life.
“I knew my passion wasn’t in the technical side of engineering, it was in the project side. And helping people is in my nature so I applied,” Nicholas says. “I didn’t know anything about Uganda. Andrew called me and asked, ‘what do you understand of the work we’ll be doing?’. Honestly, I had no idea. I just wanted to see if it would work out.
“When we got on the ground the realisation hit, I’m in Africa, I’m in Uganda. It dawned on me then that it was happening and I loved it from the moment we hit the ground.” Also dawning on Nicholas and fellow team members was the realisation of just how big their task was. “In a lot of the disadvantaged communities their water sources are very poor, so much stagnant water and rubbish. That was tough to see and stayed with me. It also made me determined to do what I could to help.”
Being a farmer and growing up in a rural area, I appreciate just how important clean water is.Nicholas Kerr
Global and personal impact
Fellow team member Maddison Steele said she had a desire to do aid work abroad and four-weeks in Uganda was a “life-changing” experience for the UOW medical biotechnology student. She says it afforded her the opportunity to develop skills beyond what she learned in a lecture theatre. “I learned how to hold a business meeting, I learned how to pitch a business idea to a board, better leadership skills and how to work as part of a team in intense circumstances,” she says.
“The slums were a huge shock. You see it on TV and read about it but you can’t possibly understand just how bad the living conditions are and the level of poverty these people suffer until you step into the communities.” After completing the first trip to Uganda and undertaking a leadership course with Project Everest’s partner organisation Lev5l, Maddison will lead a team in July on another project, in Uganda or possibly East Timor.
“This experience was life changing,” she said. “I know I’m a completely different person to the ‘Maddie’ that went over. I have this drive that’s even greater now to go and get other students to experience what I did and at the same time make a huge impact, learn about cultures, about people, and how the world actually works.”
Andrew says that rather than march into a community with good intentions and set about doing what he thought would help, the Project Everest philosophy is to identify a need for a good or service and work with the community to create a solution that will last long after the foreign help leaves. “Our role is just figuring out what the situation is are we doing more damage than good. We weren’t just giving handouts or telling them what they needed to do, we were going to work with them and it’s important we have people who get that process and understand the cultural sensitivity.”
That means dealing with local politicians, council members, local universities, and other influential people to help integration and acceptance into a community. The team and the community work together on the best solution with the aim that the community will pay off the costs of the project over an agreed period of time. Community buy-in ensures they understand, respect and own their solution.
“We want to implement something that is actually empowering the community to be working towards making something that will last. If it does break because there’s profits being generated there’ll be a fund there to repair it,” Andrew says. “An example of a social business in a community could be local women making slow sand filters and selling it back to the community providing employment for women and giving the community a means to filter their water to make it cleaner and safer to drink.”
Andrew will take another team to Uganda in July, with participation serving as professional experience credit, a requirement undergraduate engineering students have to complete to get their degree. He knows there are more willing, able and talented students like Nicholas and Maddison out there, so he’s putting out the call for more students to be part of the project. “The kind of students we’re looking for are those who want to make an impact, want to make a difference and are prepared to learn whatever it is they need to get the job done.”