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Spiders the size of your hand, flies in your eyes, nose and mouth, temperatures topping 100 degrees, sand as far as the eye can see... that is what some past and present area residents can look forward to this coming May.

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George Scherzer of Detroit Lakes, his daughter Lisa Scherzer Polito -- a 1985 graduate of Lake Park High School and current resident of Valparaiso, Ind. -- and Thomas Natwick of Twin Valley, a 2003 graduate of Norman County East, are a part of a team going to Nakor, Turkana, Kenya, this summer.

The three adventurers will be making the trip as part of Engineers Without Borders at Valparaiso University (EWB-VU). EWB-VU first began making annual trips to Nakor in 2004.

"This will be our third trip," said Polito in a telephone interview. "I was on the first two (trips) in 2004 and 2005, and I will be going again this year."

During the May 2004 trip, the EWB team installed a wellhead, made connections to a windmill, and used the windmill's power to begin pumping water to a storage tank located near the plot. They also installed three miles of irrigation tube. Villagers would gather around each day, listening to the promises of water and crops that could be grown but unsure if this would really happen.

When the EWB team returned in May 2005, they enjoyed the excitement of the villagers who had harvested several crops in the initial gardens. The team installed more windmills to pump water. The water would be used in the five gardens for which they cleared brush and punched and set-up drip irrigation lines.

Throughout the whole project, the team has worked together with Turkana men, women, and children. Also last year, part of the group went to the primary school in Nakor, which is the only school in the village. They made pinwheels with the children and explained to them (using posters) how a windmill works, how an auger works to drill wells, and how an irrigation system works.

"It really is fulfilling," Polito said. "When you get there, you step off the plane and there's nothing but sand surrounding you. The temperature is well over 100 degrees, and you ask yourself, 'Why am I doing this again?'

"But when you're helping out the Turkana people... seeing the difference we can make in their lives and how excited they are to see us come back every year, it makes it all worthwhile."

A Lutheran deaconess, Polito serves as the director of development and public relations for the Lutheran Deaconess Association in Valparaiso, Ind. Her husband, Carmine, a civil engineering professor, is the faculty advisor for EWB-VU.

Polito is the daughter of George and Carol Scherzer, who farmed north of Lake Park while she was growing up (they now live outside Detroit Lakes). Her father will be joining her on this year's trip to Kenya. Though he is not an engineer, his expertise in irrigation and gardening will be invaluable to the EWB team, Polito said.

"He used to work for the White Earth tribal government, doing their community gardens," Polito said. He worked as a gardening instructor on the reservation for about 10 years, and helped them with their trickle irrigation system.

A master gardener, Scherzer will also be using that training and his knowledge of plastic mulch for growing crops in dry areas.

"A lot of (Valparaiso) students don't have that much knowledge of irrigation and gardening," Polito noted. "It's going to be a lot of fun to have him along."

Though the annual trip is enjoyable, and fulfilling, it also involves hard work, Polito said.

People who live in the Turkana area have a life expectancy of 44 years. They live in huts of woven palm fronds. Most people have only the clothes that they wear, a "cooking" pot and a few goats. Their diet consists primarily of palm nuts and the occasional influx of United Nations subsidy corn or rice. Many people do not even know what they look like, as they have no clean water or shiny metal in which to see themselves.

"Most of the students have digital cameras," Polito said. "When we'd drive by and take pictures, the people would run to look in the rear view mirrors of the vehicles, or they'd want to see the (video) display in the cameras.

"The first time I realized that these were people who had never seen themselves... that really hit me," Polito said. "They have no idea what they look like... they have no mirrors."

When the EWB team first arrived in Nakor, potable drinking and irrigation water were in very short supply. The only sources of drinking water came from hand-dug wells that were located in the dry riverbed, where surface water only flows for a few weeks each year. These hand-dug wells often took weeks to dig, and quickly become fouled by the livestock that also drink from them.

The wells had to continually be deepened due to water usage, and often had to be dug again every few days. Even now, water is never wasted, Polito said.

"We have to take really short showers," she said. "The women (of the village) carry the water we use for our showers up from the wells, on their heads... the river is down at bottom of very steep hill from the missionaries' home."

The EWB group, which numbers approximately 17 people, will live in tents outside the missionaries' home. Even the hardiest among them often find the adjustment difficult.

"It's huge," Polito said of the change in climate. "The weather is 105 degrees outside... there's very little shade."

For most people in the U.S., refuge from the heat can be found by going into the basement of their homes, making a trip to the movies or the mall, or just cranking up the air conditioning.

"But there (in Turkana), you just can't escape the heat at all," Polito said. "One of biggest adjustments for the kids (from Valparaiso) was to make sure they had enough water. You also need to try to stay in the shade as much as possible."

This year's trip will focus on installing more windmills and drilling more wells. The eventual goal, Polito noted, is to teach the Turkana people to maintain the wells and irrigation systems themselves, and share that knowledge with neighboring villages.

"We pay for everything," she added. "They have no money, no stores... the only people with vehicles are the missionaries. There are no roads, just trails across the desert."

To raise the money to pay for the windmills, the irrigation tubing and other supplies, the EWB group holds a series of fund-raisers every year. Anyone who would like more information on how they can contribute is asked to contact Carmine Polito at 219-464-6985, or send an e-mail to Carmine.Polito@valpo.edu, Thomas.Natwick@valpo.edu or lisa.polito@valpo.edu.

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Vicki Gerdes
Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 14 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as obituaries. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.
(218) 844-1454
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