Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

DU faculty and students work to improve Kenyan slum

DU graduate students are providing essential research to help provide potable water to one of the largest slums in the world — Kibera, located on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya.

With nearly 1 million people living in one square mile, Kibera is the picture of extreme poverty. Finding water in the cramped, overpopulated slum is a daily challenge. And, finding clean water in an area where trash and raw sewage fills every dirt path is nearly impossible.

The Rotary-initiated Kibera Project has installed more than a dozen 20-by-30-foot water stations in one of Kibera’s 13 “neighborhoods.” Each station is equipped with water basins, toilets and showers.

Peter Van Arsdale, a member of the Rotary Club of Denver Southeast and a senior lecturer in DU’s Korbel School of International Studies, was asked to help engage the DU community in the project.

Last summer, four graduate students spent nine weeks in Kenya, gathering data about the needs of Kibera residents and also information about the water stations, moving forward the goal of creating a program that will be successful and self-sustaining.

Van Arsdale says the Kibera Project has given graduate students an opportunity to impact lives around the globe and gain essential, real-world experiences in field research. The four research positions were funded jointly by the Rotary Club and Patterson Funding.

Renee Lord, a master’s student at Korbel, traveled to Kenya as part of the Kibera Project.

“Before we left Denver, we started talking about the types of data we wanted to gather and began a really rough outline of interview questions,” says Lord, noting the research parameters had to be revised several times once they arrived.

Kenya’s drought had led to water rationing, so even though water facilities were in place, they were not always operational. And, complications with city water and sewer lines had also interfered with the water stations’ operability.

These types of obstacles are important to learning the realities of field work, says Renee Botta, an associate professor and chair of DU’s Department of Media, Film and Journalism Studies, who was in Nariobi to advise the students.

“We try to remind students that it’s hard to do a perfect research project,” Botta says. “You have to be more flexible than you realize, especially in a developing world. They get frustrated, but they learn how they have to adapt culturally and in a number in other ways.”

Originally hoping to gather information about the usage of the stations, Lord explains that they revised their research to focus on attitudes towards the facilities and community health issues involving water and sanitation.

Lord says they conducted interviews around the facilities, especially targeting women, who are responsible for water collection. Students from Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta University helped serve as guides and translators.

“For the most part, the main health concerns were malaria, diarrhea and flu (upper respiratory infection),” Lord says. “We narrowed in on the diarrhea concern, which is often associated with polluted water. Yet, many of the women associated the cause of illness to the ‘dirt.’”

The dirt in Kibera is filthy, to be sure. Lord recalls watching children running barefoot and putting things in their mouths that they found in the trenches, which were full of trash and human excrement. Pit latrines, where they exist, are often clogged and overflowing, and the use of “flying toilets”— human waste in plastic bags and thrown out into the street — create raw sewage that runs through and around homes.

“It’s hard to imagine living like that,” Lord says. “As Americans, we have never seen anything like that before.”

Lord says education needs to take place to communicate the risks of infection from water and unsanitary disposal of waste. Even water that “looks” clean must be treated, she adds.

Kibera’s above-ground water lines are constantly running through unsanitary conditions, increasing contamination.

“There are legal and illegal pipes that run through this raw sewage,” says Lord, explaining how vendors tap (often crudely) into the city lines and charge residents for usage. “In fact, even in the city limits of Nairobi, you would first purify the water before drinking it. The contamination just happens to be worse in Kibera.”

According to Lord, DU students who return to Kibera next year will continue to refine and gather research and embark on a behavior-change campaign to prevent illness through clean water, hand washing and other preventative measures.

“I see how much we take for granted our infrastructure in the U.S. — the fact that we have water and sanitation in our homes,” Lord says. “These women spend a good portion of the day wondering if what they give to their families will make them ill.”

Van Arsdale and Botta aren’t the only DU faculty members involved in the Kibera Project. The list of DU faculty joining the project is growing more interdisciplinary, and includes Korbel, the Daniels College of Business, the Department of Media, Film and Journalism Studies and the Department of Geography. A “Kibera Working Group” has been formed to help organize DU’s involvement in the Nairobi slum.

Van Arsdale and Botta both hope that, with additional funding, more summer research positions will be added to the project, allowing more graduate students the unique opportunity to do work in Africa — work that is already impacting and influencing change.


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