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May 30, 2010

The past two days of Safari adventuring and extremely bumpy Kenyan roads put a whooping on all of us, which was evident in our stumbling around in the morning to mobilize.  Alot of the projects for the entire program had a big day today (elaborated below) and the day was spent at the CYEC.  As in the picture below, this included another day of fighting off little children for the camera and trying to work around all the distractions while going through a large volume of interviews.

Since the project I have gotten the nickname “Pig Pen” because of how magnetic my clothes are to the red Kenyan Clay.  However, this may be our cleanest day yet; our clothes and persons made it out without clay for once! Our team changed gears today, when about 80 students from a local university came to the CYEC to go through the Mashavu clinic, Wishvast surveys, and our own. The day got somewhat monotonous for our team; asking what animals and crops people owned turned out to be a very consistent answer, and by the end I could guess what they would say!  At least we have a very solid idea of the agriculture in the area, with great quantitative and economic measurements of their lifestyles, either rural or urban.

Poor Jeff was out of commission with a sickness, so Min had to handle things for them.  However, it turned out the the High Tunnel team is still waiting for materials from Nairobi, so he helped Kerri with Drip Irrigation.  Since the materials are being sought after by the CYEC staff, Kerri spent a good part of the morning trying to find someone to unlock the room storing the wood planks.  Once she found someone and got the wood, her and Min painted the wood with the old motor oil, to prevent rotting and termites.  We had a couple of grease monkeys by the end of it.

All in all, it was a crazy day of rapid fire waking up, interviews, eating, and fun times!  We winded down with another night of piling into the Matatus and heading to the Banana Leaf to hang out and dance with some local college kids we met!  I got some new Facebook friends, pictures, and alot of work done today, so once again, I’m satisfied with another day in Kenya.

Blog Posted by Liz Bell


Full Camo, AK, and Shower Sandals

May 30, 2010

Sorry for the short drought in blog entries. The past few days we have been on safari and without computers. So the E-Design team spent the last 2 days, May 27th and 28th, on a safari with the rest of the Penn State group. It was an incredible experience none of us will soon forget and a much needed break from our projects.
Day 1 started at 5:30 waking up for a 6:30 bus that boarded at 7:30. By now it should be clear…this is Kenya. We loaded two enormous buses that looked more like Soviet-era military trucks than anything else. A far cry from the beige Land Rovers that normally come to mind when thinking about an African safari, these monstrosities required the climb of a ladder to enter them.
Nevertheless, we left close to 8 am and began an 8 hour journey to Meru National Park. While this might have been a grueling drive had it been one down I-95, it was probably one of the most gorgeous drives any of us had ever taken. We rolled up and down winding mountain passes covered in lush green foliage and through vast plains of long golden grass. For the first half of the trip, the jagged snow-capped peak of Mt. Kenya loomed pale blue in the distance, completing the already breathtaking scenery.
Halfway through, we made a pit stop at a curio, a very common roadside shop in Kenya where visitors can purchase beautiful handmade carvings, jewelry, and traditional East African crafts. While the stop was intended to be a bathroom break, a few students tried their hand at bargaining for souvenirs. This is something that is commonly practiced in Africa, in fact, paying for an item at its given price is somewhat insulting to the vendor. Liz was able to argue down a souvenir to half its original price.
After this, our route took us through another 4 hours of picture perfect countryside and at long last, to our destination. We arrived sometime after midday for a well-deserved lunch at the entrance of the park. Some of us did a bit of exploring, making sure to first toss our bananas into the weeds so the roaming baboons wouldn’t venture too close.
An hour or so passed and we loaded the bus again to start the safari. Within the first 10 minutes we made our first encounter with the magnificent beasts of Africa. We rounded the top of a small hill when we spotted four zebras standing about 100 feet from the side of the road. The bus halted, shut off, and everyone swarmed the right side of it. After a couple minutes, we began to venture deeper into the park again. Another 15 minutes passed before our next sighting occurred. Driving along, someone saw something massive on the other side of the large bushes that lined the roadside. Seeing huge floppy ears on the side of a big grey head we immediately knew it was an African elephant. The entire bus was full of excitement, straining to keep from making any noise that would disturb the creature. Once cameras stopped clicking, we moved on, en route to our campsite located in the middle of the 1600 square km park. Over the next two hours we passed water bucks, water buffalo, gazelles, and even giraffes, hippos, and rhinos. As the sun set behind a mountain range to the west, the moon rose against a purple painted sky.
We arrived at camp around 7 pm with the sun completely set and pitched our tents. We spent the night enjoying each others company; many joined in song as students passed one of our professor’s, Dr. Butler, guitar around the camp fire. Many of us stayed up into the wee hours of the morning exploring the surrounding area around our site against the discretion of Andrew, who warned us animals were prowling and watching our activity. It wasn’t until he shined a flashlight in their direction to reveal a dozen pairs of eyes twinkling a hundred yards out that we were scared enough to return to the tents for the night.
Day 2 started at dawn, the time of day that the animals are most active.  The goal of the day: to see one of Africa’s most revered big cats, the lion. Although we were unsuccessful before we stopped for breakfast at 9, we did manage to experience many more close encounters with the animals of the previous day. Our goal for the day seemed to be growing evermore untouchable as we entered our final leg of the safari. We continued traversing the bush when, with a half hour left, the driver pulled off the road. Everyone was pretty confused because not only had we never done this before, but it was strictly against park rules to do so. We slowed to a stop when someone shouted “Lion!” There was a rush to the windows that we hadn’t seen since the first day when the wildlife was entirely new to us. It was a lioness and her cub sitting less then 50 feet from the bus. She calmly posed for us a few minutes before becoming interested in something and walking off. This couldn’t have worked out better; to achieve our goal within the last half hour of the safari. Like a grand finale, as we drove out of the park, we saw a group of 15 giraffes, a few elephants, and zebras all together like we had never seen before.
The rest of the day riding back to Nyeri lacked the excitement of the previous 36 hours, but it gave everyone a chance to catch up on rest. We got back to Ivory Hotel around 10, at which point we took some showers and called it a day.

– Jeff Manns

Dig, Dig, Dig

May 26, 2010

Already I, and I am sure the rest of the group as well, have learned so much being here in Kenya. It is hard to put the feelings into words, but seeing the way of life here offers a completely new persepective. Sometimes we have fun participating in new traditions, other times we witness heart-wrenching situations. This trip is challenging, both technically and personally. We sometimes have to make tough decisions that do not have a right or wrong answer. We must balance the feelings in our hearts with a practical decision in our minds and hope that what we do is best. The issues we face are complicated and deep, but we hope that our efforts will make a positive difference for the children at CYEC and the people of Kenya, however small it may be.  At the end of the day, we need to take what we have seen here to learn and grow from it.
The anaerobic digester team worked on putting together their machine at the CYEC today. They continued digging, improving the hole for the tanks that will constitute the digester and adding a notch for a pipe. They also modified these barrels, adding holes for influent and effluent flow. The innovative minds of the CYEC students again came up with creative solutions to continue the project without the power tools that we are used to. The team burned the holes into the tank when a drill was not available, and used a kitchen knife and a rock to make cuts. While the team was working on their large digester, children around them began to construct their own by cutting soda bottles into similar shapes.
The high tunnel team made progress on the structure, both in building and planning. They put the wooden hip boards together, which will act as bracing along the side of the tunnel. They also made some extra hoops and other PVC braces as well. They checked to be sure that each hoop was the same size and started getting ready to put them up. They are currently considering a few different options for the best solution to constructing such a tall structure with all of the proper supports and coming up with a plan of action. The students on their team managed to construct an A-frame ladder from scrapwood, which will be very helpful.
The drip irrigation team made a lot of progress in preparing the vegetable beds today. Our hired help amazed us with their hard work for a long day in the sun and high quality results without the need for our guidance. We finished digging all of the beds and just need to frame a few more after the rest of the wood comes in tonight. After working with these men all day and seeing how they drove themselves in this intense labor, paying the low (yet average for the area) wage recommended to us did not feel right. Today we gave them a raise and the three men were grateful for it. This presents the issue of creating expectations, as CYEC will not be offering more jobs and could not pay more than the average. However, we saw them work and could not pay them so little. I am going to mail them the team photo we took today and they invited us to visit them on Sunday. Hopefully we will be able to visit.
Tomorrow we leave for a two day safari and everyone is very excited about it! I am certainly looking forward to ending the day without a coating of dirt on my clothing and skin. We will camp outside in the park, which will be a first for me. We are all charging our batteries in the hopes of seeing lions, elephants, and other animals of the African savanna.

Surveying and Fitting Together

May 25, 2010

25 May 2010

Today, the three essential design teams continued to work hard on their projects. Kerri, Graham, Jeff, and Min headed to the CYEC early this morning to do some manual labor, while Chris, Liz, and Mike split off to do some more community surveying. Contrary to the past five mornings, the weather early today was overcast and dense with humidity. Fortunately, the sun broke through the clouds around noon,burning off some of the mugginess and making for another heat intensive work day. Despite the long hours and air of exhaustion, everyone made good progress.

Yesterday, the majority of the materials were gathered from Nyeri and Nairobi for each team. The Anaerobic Digester team finally received the 1500 and 2000 liter tanks needed for prototype construction. Due to their size, it was no surprise that they attracted the attention of most of the CYEC kids. The Drip Irrigation and High Tunnel teams laughed when they saw swarms of kids climbing into the tanks and frantically struggling to get back out. Because the tanks were upright, the kids had to make chains and pull each other out of the opening. During surveying, Liz, Chris, and Mike got another opportunity to take some funny pictures with the animals of the families being interviewed; Liz and Chris got one with a woman holding an outstretched baby goat, while Mike got one with a chicken.

At the CYEC, the Drip Irrigation team started out preparations for the day by hiring three local workers using the integrative Wishvast system. They sent messages for laborers, and got good luck with those who responded to the call. Using the Wishvast rating system, Graham rated each of the workers a 9 on a scale of 10. Graham, Kerri, and the workers were able to complete digging for three beds on the drip field. Also, the team used the rest of the waste oil from the first container to coat the wood for protection from termites and the elements. These wooden pieces will be used to guard against soil erosion. Lastly, the team cut the black polyethylene piping from the previous year’s high tunnel into end pieces for the beds. Overall, the team made great progress today.

The High Tunnel team had an equally as fulfuilling day. Although no workers were hired for the physical labor, Jeff and Min had a good handle on things. They started by cutting the thick green PVC they purchased yestereday into 1 foot sections. These were cut to equal heights, and were used as couplers to connect the structural hoops to the bottom frame of the high tunnel. Even though the old hoops were sawed off, the posts of the foundation were left intact; the new hoops were attached to these base posts using the new green PVC couplers. The biggest accomplishment of the day was construction of the hoop supports. Each hoop was 27 feet in length, and bent into shape using three separate 9 foot pieces. The team made a fire in order to use the heat to fit the three 9 foot sections together, melding them together with a smaller piece of PVC pipe. All in all, the team built 8 of the 9 hoops – a pretty successful day.

The Anaerobic Digester team ventured through the town of Nyeri with their three CYEC champions – Paul, Joseph, and Jackson. The village visited was home to Joseph and Jackson, who are cousins. As they told the team, it is nearly impossible to interview community members without some prior knowledge or introduction. As a result, the team was grateful to have the boys on board. Liz and Chris split off with Jackson, while Mike went with with Paul and Joseph. Each group took a different route to survey village members. It was very helpful to have the translational abilities of the CYEC boys when explaining concepts about biogas technology to rural households. Additionally, the boys have an amazing understanding of the science behind biogas, as well as its environmental, financial, ans social implications. This was another great benefit reaped by the Anaerobic Digester team. Liz, Chris, and Jackson went to three households to talk to families about the feasibility of investing in a digester. Also, they encountered a few interested people in the street. The most promising visit involved chatting with a local group focusing on managing the national forests. The group talked to a couple of very influential people, in addition to meeting a bunch of others. One was a school teacher interested in a digester for his school, and the other was a member concerned with the capital cost affordability of digesters. Both contacts were recorded, and the group will, after doing some fianancial analysis and consulting with professors, meet with these folks to discuss things further. Mike’s group got about five interviews, including one really important encounter. The group met with a moderately well off farmer who kept a variety of animals, and even had electricity on his farm. Despite this technological advancement, the farmer still expressed interest in using animal waste to feed a digester. Maybe a subsidy or local sponsorship for biogas systems is a solution to the financial problem?

Overall, a lot was learned and done today by each team; everyone is really looking forward to the safari!


May 24, 2010

It’s another evening at CYEC.  Skies are mostly blue, a few cumulus clouds forming.  Maybe tonight it might rain, maybe it won’t.  It hasn’t rained since we got here.  A cool tropical breeze is over the Nyeri plains, birds chirping, happy laughter of kids in the field playing (as they should always), a few “muthungus” getting their hair braided, and all in all, a good day for both CYEC and the Penn State delegation.

I wander over to a group of kids, who curiously instead of crowding around the Penn State students like they usually do seem to be around a Kenyan boy aged around 9 or 10.  It’s mostly girls around him, and one of them seems to be translating for the rest of the group.  They seem to pepper him with a lot of questions.  I get from the conversation that he just arrived today at the center, a stranger apparently dropped him off.  The circumstances around his arrival at the center are so heart-wrenching.  I’m fighting back to hold it together, soon enough I can’t hold it much longer. I pull the hood on my sweatshirt over my head, slowly retreat, and find a corner and let it all out.

I won’t repeat the boy’s circumstances.  Nor do I want to tell the world another sad story from Africa – actually let me be specific and call it Kenya since the continent is big.  Rather, it is stories like his that truly give us the opportunity to reflect and get grounded.  The problems people face come in all forms and it’s no use trying to decide who has the biggest one.  Our focus is and should be on doing something about it (directly or indirectly).  As Penn State students and citizens of the world, a trip like this affords us that opportunity to do something and I’m thankful to each and every person that has in one way or another contributed to our presence here.   Long after we leave, I hope that what we have done here offers that kid who arrived here today a platform for a new start full of hope and great promise.  So go out there and just do something, “pay it forward.”

And now what the essential design teams were up to today:

Drip Irrigation
All today was geared toward getting the first raised bed completed.  The tropical sun on you as you work the fields definitely gives a heavy workout – move over P90x, Tony you couldn’t handle this! We had a great collaboration with WishVast as we officially hired two people from the local community through the system. Tomorrow we hope to finalize the first bed, and move on to the second.  There will be nine in total.

The first raised bed, Kerri busy adding manure on top of banna leaves.

Anaerobic Digester
This team today spent the day digging.  Heavily soiled, gallons of sweat, and a few blisters later the team had a 5 ft deep hole, and 3.5 feet in diameter.  This is the most critical part of the system as it will be used to hold the digester tank, which by the way arrived today.  Tomorrow the plan is to return to the same local community as yesterday and conduct many more surveys as the final materials arive from Nairobi and Nyeri.  Wednesday building will commence.

All in a day's work

High Tunnel
Good day for the high tunnel.  Jeff spent the day as a hands-on project manager, primarily working with all the other essential design teams procuring wood from an old structure, and later spending the rest of the day treating the wood with used car oil.  Min split off to take his turn tracking down the supplies in town for all the essential design projects.  Ofcourse we didn’t let him wander off alone into Nyeri town, could you imagine all the autograph requests with people thinking he’s Jet Li?  He was accompanied by Andrew, who has been a ton of help to all the teams.  I’m amazed at how much he does, from logistical issues, to having a firm grasp on the technical details of all the projects….and BTW, he’s got one of those accents that make you want him to keep talking.  The high tunnel team will spend their Tuesday trying to set up the skeletal structure of the tunnel using manual drills.

Jeff and his project team, treated wood in the foreground


Rabbit, No Hat

May 23, 2010

Today was planned to be a day of rest.  However, there was much work to be done and, aside from sleeping in, it was busy as usual for most of the essential design team.  Also, today was not a CYEC day.  The majority of work was done “in the field” in the form of surveys and data collection.  Members from the Essential Design, Wishvast, and Mashavu teams all conducted surveys today to supplement our implementation efforts.  Today was also a day of planning for the week ahead and, for some, a day of worship.

For those who went out into various communities for surveys, this was the most intimate experience of Kenya to date.  Within Essential Design, the Anaerobic Digestion (biogas) team has the most stake in collecting data from surveys.  The data will allow the team to adjust their existing design in order to ensure that the technology is appropriate in terms of affordability, useability, and desirability.  The team also wishes to ensure that the digester is designed to utilize the most readily available organic waste materials.  Data is also being collected on current cooking practices and costs.

The best Essential Design story of the day stems from the biogas team’s surveying adventure.  After a lengthy travel by foot, to just beyond Nyeri, the surveyors reached a rural Kenyan community.  Surveyors included Michael Shreve, Liz Bell, and Chris Ferdik.  Two intertrepters from the CYEC and one observer (Kerri Smith of Drip Irrigation).

The picture at the end of this bloc shows one of the most interesting experiences of the day.  At the second household, upon asking tho take pictures, we were urged to “come see the rabbit.”  This actually meant come hold the rabbit by the ears, as you can see.  We took turns holding the rabbit the “Kenyan way” and there was much laughter, mostly at us.  It was all in good fun though – a moment that helped to bridge the gap between our culture and theirs.

In the end only two surveys were conducted by the biogas team.  However, those two surveys allowed for the careful omission of questions that were deemed unnecessary.  Many observations of the Kenyan countryside were also made, and Penn State’s presence in the community was announced.  The team intends to return to the same community (hopefully Tuesday) to continue surveying.

The drip irrigation and high tunnel teams spent the day at the Ivory Hotel (our home base), but still made progress.  The Drip Irrigation team was excited to find hired labor to help with their ground preparation (constructing raised beds).  This labor was coordinated using the Wishvast system, a huge step for both teams, which highlights the interdisciplinary nature of our efforts here.  Negotiations were intense between Graham Gaya of Drip Irrigation and Chanakya Mehta of Wishvast.  In the end, Wishvast’s budget covered 70% of the labor costs in return for the opportunity to use their system in coordination with Essential Design.  The Drip Irrigation team also prepared instructions for the hired workers and planned out the rest of the week (stay tuned).

The High Tunnel team first met with Andrew, the CYEC’s materials and logistics guru, and subsequently planned out the up coming week.  Min Pack conducted some research and found a very promising rate of return using the current price of tomatoes (the most profitable cash crop right now in the area).  Finally, a chance meeting with local farmer led to the arrangement of a site survey visit the his farm and an informal focus group with other farmers in the same social network.

Overall, it was a productive day, for a Sunday, and all of Essential Design is beginning the new week feeling confident in the pr0ject and proud of the accomplishments to date.  From Africa, Kwaheri.

Engineering and Culture

May 23, 2010

Like every day at CYEC, we exchanged ideas and culture with the students there. We are getting to know each other more daily, building relationships with both the students on our team and, during our free time, with the other kids as well. Today, Min, Jeff, and some of the students on their team constructed a football with a cucumber, foam, and duct tape. The students actually have several homemade balls of scraps like plastic bags. The football turned out to be pretty good and we had fun having a catch with the students. Despite the lack of American football in Kenya, Simon already throws a better spiral than I do.

The anaerobic digestion team started out their day by calculating the water, manure, and gas needs of the digester for different sized families. This took them a significant amount of time. Next, they worked with the CYEC students on their team to prepare for surveying the community tomorrow. They hope to determine the market for anaerobic digesters. They taught the students about their survey until they understood enough to be able to translate if necessary. They continue to exchange more anaerobic digestion information and culture with their students. The team is really excited about their students’ enthusiasm for biogas and the digester. They already learned and understand so much and are eager for more.

The high tunnel team make progress in figuring out structural issues with PVC. One problem they faced was how to connect the pieces of PVC without couplers. They decided that they would purchase two different sizes and fit one into the other. They realized that the tendency of PVC to get brittle under the sun should not be too problematic because it only snaps with considerable force bending it, which it should not experience in the high tunnel. The high tunnel team also continued teaching their students, who can now explain why certain parts are necessary in a high tunnel and the benefits of the structure. They are really excited that their students are opening up and sharing everyday conversations.

On the drip irrigation team, we are also working on educating the students partnering with us about the system. Today we reviewed the concepts we presented yesterday and had professors Jesinta and Denis teach us about field preparation and the drip irrigation system. Our goal is to have them explain what work we need done to the people we will hire through Wishvast. The workers will come on Monday to prepare the raised beds. We also removed the stump in the field and filled in the hole. They CYEC kids had a good laugh at my attempts to help dig. Next, we placed stakes to mark the corners of each bed. The students mostly took charge of this- we love seeing when they can make progress without us.

In the evening, we went to the Banana Leaf for a delicious buffet dinner. They even had a DJ and we enjoyed dancing and taking an enjoyable break. We are all looking forward to the arrival of our supplies next week and the construction of our designs.

CYEC kids playing with the homemade football

Graham working with CYEC students to layout the raised beds