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MIT student club Engineers Without Borders works with local village in Tanzania

Skills learned in the classroom are applied toward health and sanitation projects.
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Four students wearing MIT T-shirts pose together with grasslands in the background. Half a dozen villagers of Mkutani, Tanzania, stand in the background.
Caption:
Left to right: MIT undergraduates Hung Huynh, Lai Wa Chu, Fiona Duong, and Vivian Cheng in the village of Mkutani, Tanzania
Credits:
Photo courtesy of Engineers Without Borders.

Four students from the MIT club Engineers Without Borders (EWB) spent part of their summer in Tanzania to begin assessment work for a health and sanitation project that will benefit the entire village, and an irrigated garden for the Mkutani Primary School.

The club has been working with the Boston Professional Chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB-BPC) since 2019. The Boston chapter finds projects in underserved communities in the developing world and helped connect the MIT students with local government and school officials.

Juniors Fiona Duong, female health and sanitation team lead, and Lai Wa Chu, irrigation team lead, spent two weeks over the summer in Mkutani conducting research for their projects. Chu was faced with finding more water supplies and a way to get water from the nearby river to the school to use in the gardens they were planting. Duong was charged with assessing the needs of the people who visit The Mkutani Dispensary, which serves as a local medical clinic. Juniors Hung Huynh, club president, and Vivian Cheng, student advisor, also made the trip to work on the projects.

Health and sanitation project

Duong looked into ways to help pregnant women with privacy issues as the facility they give birth in — The Mkutani Dispensary — is very small, with just two beds, and is in need of repairs and upgrades. Before leaving Cambridge, Duong led FaceTime meetings with government officials and facilities managers in the village. Once on the ground, she began collecting information and conducted focus groups with the local women and other constituents. She learned that one in three women were not giving birth in the dispensary due to privacy concerns and the lack of modern equipment needed for high-risk pregnancies.

“The women said that the most pressing need there was water. The women were expected to bring their own water to their deliveries. The rain-catching system there was not enough to fulfill their needs and the river water wasn’t clean. When in labor, they relied on others to gather it and bring it to the dispensary by bike,” Duong says. “With broken windows, the dispensary did not allow for privacy or sanitary conditions.”

Duong will also analyze the data she collected and share it with others before more MIT students head to Mkutani next summer.

Farming, sustainability, and irrigation project

Before heading to Mkutani, Chu conducted research regarding irrigation methods and water collection methods. She confirmed that the river water still contained E.coli and advised the teachers that it would need to be boiled or placed in the sun for a few hours before it could be used. Her technical background in fluid dynamics was helpful for the project.

“We also found that there was a need for supplemental food for the school, as many children lived too far away to walk home for lunch. The headmaster reached out to us about building the garden, as the garden provides supplemental fruit and vegetables for many of the 600 students to eat. They needed water from the river that was quite far away from the school. We looked at ways to get the water to the garden,” Chu says.

The group is considering conducting an ecological survey of the area to see if there is another source of water so they could drill another borehole. They will complete their analysis and then decide the best solution to implement.

“Watching the whole team’s hard work pay off when the travel team got to Mkutani was so amazing,” says second-year student Maria Hernandez, club internal relations chair. “Now, we're ready to get to work again so we can go back next year. I love being a part of Engineers Without Borders because it's such a unique way to apply technical skills outside of the classroom and see the impact you make on the community. It’s a beautiful project that truly impacts so many people, and I can’t wait to go back to Mkutani next year."

Both Duong and Chu hope they’ll return to the school and the dispensary in summer 2023 to work on the implementation phase of their projects. “This project is one of the reasons I came to MIT. I wanted to work on a social impact project to help improve the world,” Chu says.

“I hope to go back next summer and implement the project,” adds Duong. “If I do, we’ll go during the two most crucial weeks of the project — after the contractors have started the repair work on the dispensary, so we can see how things are going and then help with anything else related to the project.”

Duong and Chu said students don’t have to be engineers to help with the EWB’s work — any MIT student interested in joining the club may do so. Both agree that fundraising is a priority, but there are numerous other roles students can help with.

“MIT students shouldn’t be afraid to just dive right in. There’s a lot that needs to be done there, and even if you don’t have experience in a certain area, don’t let that be a barrier. It’s very rewarding work and it’s also great to get international work experience,” Duong says.

Chu added, “The project may not seem flashy now, but the rewards are great. Students will get new technical skills and get to experience a new culture as well.”

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