This article is part of Summer Stories, a special, online issue of Dukengineer Magazine, in which students wrote about their experiences in the Summer of 2007 during their time away from Duke.
by Patrick Ye, BME ‘10
This past summer, I was one of six students on a Duke Engineers Without Borders team that traveled to Uganda. Our goal was to build a rainwater harvesting system to supply a community with a clean and reliable source of water.
Preparing for this trip was no easy task. During the school year and the summer, we designed the tank, prototyped some concrete sections, and planned the logistics of our four-week long trip. We were lucky to have the data our site assessment team gathered last summer as the report helped make the project possible.
After a 30-hour journey, we finally landed in Uganda. It was not long after we arrived that I realized many things I had never given a second thought to in America were now huge obstacles, specifically water. There was no running water anywhere nearby. Toilets were pit latrines, and there was no place to wash our hands. “Showers” consisted of splashing oneself from a basin of water or waiting for rain. If you wanted water for all these things and more, the nearest source of water was at a borehole (well) one mile away. Carrying the water back to Henry Hall was a back-breaking task and after all that work, the water was still not safe to drink; we had to depend heavily on bottled and boiled water.
Construction on the tank was a lot of hard work too. To construct our tank, we had shipped wooden forms with us that we made at Duke for pouring the concrete walls of the cistern. Mixing the concrete was a very labor-intensive task as we had no concrete mixers--only our man-powered shovels. Once the concrete had cured, removing the forms for pouring the next higher section of the walls was nearly impossible because the concrete had expanded. While we waited for the concrete to cure, we installed the gutter system on the roof to direct the rain off the roof into the tank. When it rained, we were filled with joy and hope to see a steady stream of water that would have been wasted flowing off the end of the gutters.
Like every engineering project, we hit some bumps in the road. We had dug several inches to level the ground for our foundation, set up the rebar, and had already started pouring in the concrete when the elders of the village said we had to stop. Apparently, the foundation of our tank was built on excavated soil, and in order to ensure a stable foundation for the immense weight of the tank, we had to dig 60 cm deeper and fill it with large, hard-cored rocks. At first, we were reluctant to undo all the work we had already started, but in the end, we realized that this would be the right decision for the community.
We also had time off to get to know the community. Matt, another student, and I played soccer on the village team for the Sunday match when a visiting team came. We visited an orphanage that a reverend set up that provides a home and an education for orphans. We had long conversations with Kenneth, one of our hosts, about how he mixed concrete for a year to earn the money to pay for his secondary school education. I listened to a primary school teacher who shared with me his own ambitions to become an engineer. All these stories about their lives, from their past struggles to their better futures, really touched me.
By the end of our time in Uganda, we had finished our rainwater harvesting project. I am grateful that I was able to go on the trip as I have learned a lot from my project in Uganda. The summer I spent with Engineers Without Borders in Uganda was a unique part of my experience at Duke that could never be replaced.