IIHR students have the opportunity to participate in a number of service projects. One recent example took a team of students to Ghana under the supervision of IIHR Associate Research Scientist Craig Just.
Engineers Without Borders
Adiza, a 15-year-old girl living in a small rural village in Ghana, had stepped on a nail.
“Her foot was beyond swollen,” says Sara Rourke, a University of Iowa medical student. “I’ve never seen a foot that swollen before.”
Sara and her husband, Nathan Rourke, are members of the university’s student chapter of Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB). In June 2010, the couple traveled to Kobreti, Ghana, with a team of UI students and faculty advisor Craig Just to begin a five-year EWB service project there. Adiza was just one of the many children they got to know in Kobreti.
“Her skin had started to peel away, and she just looked really sick,” Sara says. Adiza also had a fungal infection on her head that had caused her hair to fall out.
“Every 15-year-old should have hair,” Sara says firmly.
Sara convinced Adiza’s family that the girl needed care at the district hospital in Ejura, about 10 miles away. “We got her a tetanus shot,” Sara recalls. “We got her some antibiotic, and I dressed her wounds at the hospital.”
And then it was time for lunch. Adiza was shy at first, but once she abandoned the unfamiliar silverware and ate with her hands, her appetite took over. “She must have eaten three times as much as I did,” Sara laughs.
A Multidisciplinary Team
It was a good day, one of many for the UI students in Ghana. The team included a medical student (Sara) and an international studies major (Kali Feiereisel), two engineering students (Nathan and Thomas Bang), and Just. The team spent five weeks in Ghana last summer.
Just, who is also an adjunct associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, thinks the student diversity enhances the group’s effectiveness. “I’m convinced it’s the perfect arrangement,” he says.
Engineering projects for the village take time, Just explains, but the medical student can hit the ground running. “When you announce there’s a med student around, people will bring their sick children,” he says.
The students surveyed the village to learn about demographics, employment, water sources and storage, and health concerns. Water turned out to be a major concern. “That’s all they would say, over and over,” Just says. “‘We need better access to water.’”
Do No Harm
Future engineering projects for Kobreti will likely address water quantity and storage first, perhaps followed by sanitation, Nathan says. The Ghanaians will be involved at every stage. “EWB has had a lot of success that way, in keeping projects sustainable by keeping the communities involved, so they have the ownership in the project,” Nathan says.
The community’s water supply comes from two bore holes. “The wells tested bacteria-free,” Nathan says, but water quantity is a problem, and water storage raises new issues. The stored water likely would not be safe to drink untreated. “We’ve got to be very careful,” Nathan says.“It’s the issue of ‘do no harm.’
“If we feel like they’re going to be drinking it straight out of the tank, it’s probably really important to look into point-of-use sanitation,” he adds. The chapter will weigh issues like these as it considers upcoming engineering projects for Kobriti — but the final decisions will be made with the villagers.
“That’s the most important thing,” Just says. “They’re ultimately their projects, and we’re there to assist.”
Rock Star Treatment
Sara often spent half-days working at the hospital in Ejura, work that sometimes left her feeling overwhelmed. “I knew I could help if I had the right equipment and diagnostic tools and medications,” she says. “They have so little. That was the frustrating part.”
Returning to the village after a shift at the hospital was like coming home, she says. “The people there were amazing,” Sara says. She and Nathan became especially attached to the children. “They don’t really speak your language, but they would try,” she says. “They would call us ‘Obruni’ because that means white person. They would say, ‘Obruni, Obruni, how are you?’ They only understand one response, which is, ‘I am fine. How are you?’ Then they’d giggle and run away.”
Children in Ghana work hard. “These kids, they’re tough as nails,” Sara says. “After a trip like this, you come back and you don’t whine about anything.”
Nathan and Sara say they felt like celebrities in Kobreti. Children and adults alike would greet them with huge smiles and waves. “‘You are my friend,’ they would tell you,” Sara recalls. “’You are my friend.’”
Nathan says it was hard to return to the United States and give up that special status. “It was a reality check to get back here and nobody cared,” he laughs.
Sara agrees. “We were used to being able to say hi and get a response like we were rock stars.”
Sara and Nathan will both graduate in May 2011. But that doesn’t mean they’ve forgotten Kobreti. They hope to return to Ghana, and they want to make service projects like this a part of their professional careers.
Sara gets regular e-mail updates from Ghana courtesy of Benjamin Kusi of Self-Help International, an Iowa-based NGO partnering with the UI EWB chapter.
“Last week he sent me an e-mail with a couple pictures of some little girls I was really worried about,” Sara says. “They’re doing a lot better. I haven’t quite let go yet.”
She adds, “I don’t think I’m going to.”