Engineers Without Borders Returns to Togo

Following successful crowd-funding campaign, team advances infrastructure project

Dr. Bob Holt (left) explains to Paige Lohman and Vera Gardner how to classify soil cuttings from the drilling operation. A worker places a sample of soil cuttings on the ground for Holt to log.

Bob Holt (left) explains to UM students Paige Lohman and Vera Gardner how to classify soil cuttings from the drilling operation. A worker places a sample of soil cuttings on the ground for Holt to log.

Entering its fourth year of helping the people of a few villages in the West African nation of Togo build a sound infrastructure, members of the Ole Miss chapter of Engineers Without Borders recently returned there to assist in the planning stages for a deep-water well installation.

The group left for the impoverished country Jan. 12, a month after launching a highly successful crowd-fundraising campaign through With help from more than 100 donors, the amount raised easily surpassed the $20,000 goal.

The contributions received enabled members of EWB and School of Engineering faculty members to spend seven days there planning how to provide clean water to a children’s hospital in the rural village of Akoumape. They also made a followup visit to the school building built by EWB in 2014.

“One good thing we didn’t expect to happen is that we had time and an available rig to drill a shallow irrigation well,” said Cris Surbeck, associate professor of civil engineering and faculty adviser of Ole Miss-EWB. “Due to equipment issues, we weren’t able to complete the project, but Dr. (Bob) Holt (geology and geological engineering professor) taught the people there how to finish it after our departure.”

Other team members included Paul Scovazzo, chemical engineering professor and construction guru; Vera Gardner, junior mechanical engineering major; Timothy Steenwyk, junior mechanical engineering major and chapter vice president for outreach; Zach Lepchitz, graduate student in geological engineering; Paige Lohman, sophomore mechanical engineering major and team health and safety officer; and Dillon Hall, sophomore mechanical engineering major, with expertise in building and manufacturing.

Two of the most enjoyable aspects of the trip were meetings UM team members had with the geology faculty and students at the University of Lomė, as well as the governor of the Vo prefecture (similar to a county).

“The Lomė university group provided very helpful information that proved useful to us as our own project got underway,” Surbeck said. “Our students enjoyed fellowshipping with the Lomé students as well.”

The UM team met with the governor, who went with them to the school. He introduced them to the Togo students and gave them his overwhelming support. More than 100 children attend the school Mondays through Fridays.

“My most memorable experience on this trip would have to be when we visited the school that the UM-EWB team completed in January 2014,” said Gardner, a Memphis, Tennessee native who originally visited the country as a freshman two years ago. “When we saw the students attending classes and learning in their new schoolhouse, it showed that the community’s efforts and the UM-EWB chapter’s work was being used for its intended use and a good cause. Everyone’s hard work paid off.”

Steenwyk has been involved in the organization for three years, but this was his first time to visit Togo.

Workers drill a borehole with a rig and drilling mud as Zack Lepchitz and Dillon Hall examine soil cuttings.

Workers drill a borehole with a rig and drilling mud as Zack Lepchitz and Dillon Hall examine soil cuttings.

“The most memorable part of the trip for me would be our visit to the school that we had built,” the Ocean Springs native said. “It was amazing to see how the engineering drawings that we worked on in Oxford became a usable facility for children on the other side of the world. I hope we will see the same results for the well we are planning.”

First-time travelers to Togo found it an amazing, eye-opening seven days.

“My most memorable experience was spending time with the local children,” said Lohman of Moline, Illinois. “I befriended a 12-year-old boy named Voku, and we played catch and talked about his school. When I was at the local church, a little girl walked up to me and waited until I picked her up and set her on my lap, where she stayed the rest of the church service. It was very difficult for me to imagine growing up with a lifestyle similar to theirs. Seeing the poverty firsthand really made me thank my lucky stars to have the life I live.”

Hall said attending the service opened his eyes to the real needs of the people and also how much the children of the area aspire to great things.

“It was baffling to hear from these kids that they wanted to aspire to be doctors, lawyers, engineers and congressmen when it seemed like they hardly had the resources to finish grade school,” the Saltillo native said. “Their will to achieve something greater in their lives convinced me to not take for granted the opportunities that I have to achieve my career goals.”

During the service, Hall also had an opportunity to translate Ewe readings from Scripture to English.

“I had thought to bring a pocket-sized New Testament along, so it was pretty cool to be able to connect with the members of the church despite a significant language barrier,” he said.

As on previous excursions to Togo, there were unexpected challenges as well. One such case involved the temporary incapacitation of one of the motor vehicles the group used.

“The roads are so rough that they often cause cars to break down,” Surbeck said.

However, by the end of the trip, the mission of planning the digging of a deep water later this year was completed. The well will provide drinking water to a children’s hospital, which is being built by a nonprofit organization. EWB-Ole Miss is committed to drill a well and install a distribution pipe and a public tap stand.

“It’s going to be an expensive effort requiring professional construction crews and electricians,” Surbeck said. “Several Rotary Clubs in Mississippi and Tennessee are raising $100,000 for this particular project’s expenses.”

 The EWB-Ole Miss team made a long-term commitment in 2012 to work with rural villages in Togo to improve community infrastructure and health care. With four productive trips completed since that time, the EWB-Ole Miss team has built a school that provides a safe setting for dozens of children to benefit from educational opportunities.

“All of these travelers, and countless other chapter members, have invested time, money and deeply committed efforts to this project through to completion,” Surbeck said. “Faculty members donate all of their travel time without compensation. Participants are passionate about seeing this children’s hospital have clean water, which, in turn, will help health care workers care for sick children.”

All the students said if they have the opportunity to return with EWB to Togo for future trips, they would do so without a second thought.

“There is so much information and resources that America can provide for these people that I would hate to see go to waste,” Dillon said.