Physician, husband address water scarcity in Kenya

Water is essential to maintaining life on earth. Roughly 70 percent of the earth’s surface is made of water. However, many countries lack access to safe drinking water, which often takes a devastating humanitarian toll and leads to numerous health crises.

Dr. Sherri Onyiego, assistant professor of family and community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, and her husband, Leonid, are working to alleviate this issue in Kenya through their nonprofit, MAJI 4 Life. Sherri tells us what inspired them to organize MAJI 4 Life and how they envision its progress.

Q: What inspired you to organize MAJI 4 Life?
A: Maji (pronounced “ma–jee”) is Kiswahili for “water.” While growing up in Kenya, Leonid faced many challenges accessing clean water sources. In our trips back to Kenya, we realized that the people in rural villages face the same problems Leonid faced many years ago. We also wanted to support a community that was instrumental in his upbringing and success.

Q: How big is the problem of water scarcity in Kenya?

Dr. Sherri Onyiego
Dr. Sherri Onyiego

A: With a population of 40 million people, about 17 million lack access to clean drinking water. Rural communities suffer the most because of pervasive poverty and subsistence economies. Since water and sanitation go hand in hand, waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid and dysentery are rampant.

Also, there is an economic impact as a result of spending time looking for water sources. Ethnic strife is prevalent as communities compete for existing sources of water for various activities such as livestock, irrigation or domestic use.

Q: How does your experience as a physician and Leonid’s experience as a financial advisor inform how you both approach MAJI 4 Life?
A: When we would visit Kenya, I could see the impact that various diseases played because of hygiene issues caused by poor access to clean water.

For example, the conventional sanitary napkins we use for menstrual cycles are not accessible to many rural communities, so they use cloths. If they don’t have access to water to clean them, they basically miss school.

The fact that Leonid grew up there and could explain the full impact of water sanitation issues helped me better understand the situation. Because he understood the economic impact, he was able to put the business sense and education impact in perspective for me.

Community members helping to maintain a well in Kisii, Kenya.

Q: What are some of the projects you’ve worked on so far at MAJI 4 Life?
A: We are completing phase one of our first project, which was to form local partnerships, and to educate and empower villages in Kisii, Kenya. We have a project manager who identified this community and the community members got very involved in the design phase of the well and dug the well themselves.

We are focused on enabling local teams to build, design and maintain their wells. We manually dig our wells unless they reach depths that are deemed unsafe for man. At that point machinery is utilized.

Q: What is the most gratifying aspect of your experience?
A: This first project served 1,000 people, who now have a sustainable source of water. They don’t have to go to water sources that may be several kilometers from their homes. It cuts down on time that kids have to go retrieve water for families. It’s more time for kids to spend focusing on schoolwork.

Q: What are the ultimate goals of MAJI 4 Life?
A: We envision trying to utilize existing resources. A lot of the houses are made of grass materials, so there is a lot of leakage of rainwater into the home. We would like to bring roofing in along with a gutter system and collection tank to collect rainwater.

We would also like to reduce the days that children, especially girls, miss school and partner with manufacturers already in Kenya to reduce cost and make sanitary napkins accessible to these remote areas.

MAJI 4 Life is about more than water – education is a big component of it and anything we can do to advance that is great.

Q: What is the most valuable lesson you’ve learned in your experience with MAJI 4 Life?
A: Patience and flexibility in the implementation of our projects. Initially, we faced some resistance by skeptical communities. As the saying goes, “Teaching people how to fish is better than handing them fish.”

Q: How can those interested in MAJI 4 Life learn more?
A: We are always looking for partnerships with individuals or organizations that share our vision. Visit our website to learn more.

-By Nicole Blanton

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