Home > Our Stories > Students Complete Well in Sangmélima, Cameroon

Students Complete Well in Sangmélima, Cameroon

Written by: Marijke Wijnen

Every time Claire Nauman fills her water bottle, she thinks of Sangmélima and the connections she made there. Until December, her thoughts were bittersweet. She watched abundant, clean water fill her nalgene and thought of all the residents of Sangmélima, Cameroon and the black dots of coliform colonies that appeared on the easy gels she and her classmates ran on the community’s drinking water the previous March.

George kept the EWB students smiling throughout their trip.
Their host's grandson George kept the EWB students smiling throughout their trip.

But since January she has reason to celebrate while filling her water bottle, because the residents of Sangmélima now have access to clean drinking water. She smiles and thinks of little George, a boy who kept her and her classmates laughing with his jokes throughout their two weeks in Sangmélima, or Ma Hannah, their kind-hearted host, who thanks to the clean water feels healthy for the first time in five years, or Isaac, a history teacher, who would stop and lend a hand in constructing the well on his way to work, despite wearing a dapper suit. 

Claire is co-president of Notre Dame’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), which successfully finished its first international project of installing a well at the Alfred and Sarah Bilingual Academy in Sangmélima, Cameroon.

Notre Dame students designed the well working alongside local residents to ensure that the well met the needs of the local community. They then hired a contractor to dig the well and install a pump. Over winter break six Notre Dame students, along with their faculty adviser Melissa Berke and their EWB engineering mentor Rod Beadle travelled to Cameroon to work alongside the local contractor and his crew to put the finishing touches on the well, including a cement pad and wall.

Maggie James, a junior mechanical engineering student explained: “It’s like the saying: 'give a man a fish you’ll feed him for a day, teach a man to fish you’ll feed him for a lifetime.' But even more than that it was like we were learning how to fish together because it wasn’t like one person was teaching the other person, we were all teaching each other different things.”

Students worked alongside local contractors to construct the well.
Students worked alongside local contractors to construct the well.

The Notre Dame engineering students provided technical expertise. But they also laughed that they slowed down the local contractors because they had so much to learn. A lot of that came from how differently things are constructed in Sangmélima. “Even to mix the concrete you have to do it differently.” Maggie explained. “Because you literally have a shovel and a wheelbarrow, so it’s very different from just putting it into a mixer.”

Greg Dement, a junior civil engineering major, was struck by how eager the local community was to lend a hand, “We couldn’t do any work without people offering to help.” Students on their way to class would stop and help shovel gravel. Everyone wanted to be a part of the project.

This trip was not just about finishing construction. The students also wanted to ensure social systems were in place, so that the well would be successfully maintained. The community formed a committee with leadership roles to make sure the well was taken care of. Students taught community members how to test the water to ensure that it was not contaminated and left behind easy gel supplies, so that they could continue to monitor the safety of their drinking water.

The students worked six hours a day on constructing the well, but despite being sweaty, tired and covered in grime, they spent the late afternoons planning for future projects to undertake in Sangmélima. Their next goal, slated for the summer of 2018, is to install an electrical pump and a water tower for the well that would feed multiple taps. After that they hope to build more latrines for the school, which currently only has one latrine for over three hundred students and teachers. Many female students refuse to use the current latrine because they complain that the male students do not clean up after themselves.

Ma Hannah, who played an instrumental role in making this project a reality, fills a water bottle at the newly constructed well.
Ma Hannah, who played an instrumental role in making this project a reality, fills a water bottle at the newly constructed well.

The EWB students hope that they can build on their current momentum to tackle these and other projects in Sangmélima. But they have started to look beyond Sangmélima too. Recently the club has formed a local team, which will tackle an engineering project in the South Bend community. They are considering addressing growing concerns over lead contamination in the area.

In order to make all their dreams a reality, they need more people to lend a hand. Sarah Drumm, a junior computer science major and co-president of EWB with Claire, emphasized that you do not need to be an engineering major to become a part of Engineers Without Borders. Everyone has something that they could contribute to the endeavor. Sarah started her time with the club as the Fundraising Lead, selling bracelets outside the elevators in LaFortune.

For Claire and Sarah, they knew that they wanted to be a part of Engineers Without Borders before they even arrived at Notre Dame. Claire joked that as a little girl she wanted to become the Mother Theresa of Engineering. Sarah, who is a Catholic Social Traditions Minor, explained that for her it is important that whatever she does in engineering is people centric.

One of the most impactful moments for Claire on the entire trip was going to Mass in Cameroon. One line in particular stood out to her, which encapsulates much of what she felt from the trip. Father Albert said: “To be Christian is to be joyful and to be joyful is to be holy.”

Claire has pondered that phrase multiple times since returning from Cameroon, for the joyfulness and gratitude in the Sangmélima community in the face of many hardships struck her deeply.

Claire, Sarah and the other EWB club members have put an incredible amount of work into making this project a reality. Seeing the well successfully completed, they feel certain that the effort was worth it.

Sarah explained, “Once you get a taste of EWB and the community we are working with and the kind of work that we are doing, you can’t stop. I mean it’s incredible that we are able to do this as undergrads.”