While inaccurate estimates, creeping costs, arguments with contractors, and incomplete jobs are a reality with any construction project, anywhere in the world, the challenge of working in a place where a shovel and a shovel handle are not necessarily found in the same store makes things a bit more complex. Add an established pattern of request for daily payments (which undermines any attempt at cash flow management) and the very real potential for a greedy government employee to make threat in full expectation of a bribe, and a simple water line becomes a frightening ordeal.

Independent of the challenges presented, the goals remain simple: desire for a quality project, under budget, and on time.

As the conduit for the monies donated by people who trust my intuition and choices, I have assumed a position of tight micro-management (fully expecting a sarcastic response to this from my employees :), as follows:

All materials are purchased directly by me to guarantee that no prices are marked-up from their already expensive (U.S. equivalent) sales tags. This means that instead of enjoying some physical labor along with the academy students and skilled laborers, most of my days are spent dashing around the local markets and into town to obtain supplies.

All labor quotes are to be reviewed against the Kenyan day-rate standards of 200KSh, 400KSh, and 600-750KSh for unskilled, skilled, and licensed labor accordingly, with a bonus for being on time and within 10% of the estimated materials cost. At the time of this writing, the U.S. dollar is equivalent to 63KSh (Kenyan Shilling).

Close of week payments are made against projects which extend for more than 5 working days.

Final payment is not made until the job is complete, inspected, and demonstrated to be satisfactory to myself, the directors of the school, and if required, the government inspectors.

Every receipt is tracked by a project spreadsheet, the summary of which is posted in public place (coming soon).

I recognize that I dropped into this place assuming a position of authority for these projects but a stranger by ethnicity, language, and tradition. But even in the short time I have been here there have been miscommunications and vital information lost between donating bodies, volunteers, and local laborers.

I therefore share with the sub-contractors, “My request for things to be done this way may not be your norm, and you won’t make as much money as you might with another project, but I am the ambassador for this money, donated by people who trust me to spend it wisely. If I cannot account for its use, or if it is used inappropriately and the children have not fully benefited by its use, my head is on the block. Your work is imperative to the success of the orphanage and academy. If we do well together, there will be more donations and more projects.”

Outside of frustration for having learned that some things purchased were to have been acquired through previous funds (roughly $100 total), I have been pleased with a solid, enthusiastic team which recognizes and upholds my goal to complete fairly intense projects with a limited budget and aggressive time frame.

Completion of the bath house.
To date, the students use an enclosed but outdoor shower facility and pit toilet configuration. Neither sanitary nor terribly functional for the 120 permanent residents, let alone the 400 when school starts up again, these facilities were recently condemned by the city, making illegal the removal of the waste and continued use.

In parallel, a funded project brought to near completion a new bath house capable of supporting the total student and faculty assembly. As is often the case in construction (not just in Kenya, but world wide), the project came to halt in May due to incorrect estimates or a mismanagement of funds (or both), very close to being completed.

It was determined that completion of this project was paramount, literally before the pit toilets filled and became completely unusable. Following my initial meeting with founder and Director Gladys Wakesa and her brother and Principal Leonard, I worked with the children to conduct a rapid survey of the land. We determined the slope from the well water holding tank across the compound to the bathhouse to be adequate to bring the water (through gravity feed) to a height at which an electric pump could carry the water to the roof of the bath house and into a second holding tank.

The supplies (6m x 3/4″ x 10 ea PVC pipe w/coupling flare and glue; PVC to galvanized (GI) couplers and various GI elbows, unions, and gate valves; shovel, spade-axes) were purchased that afternoon and the trench digging commenced immediately. The children worked fast and furious. The trench was completed the next (Wednesday) afternoon, the pipe laid, and by the close of Friday, the water flowing.

I used a relatively small portion of the donations to purchase those items required to complete the work internal to the bath house, the labor needing to come from prior funds. With electricity remaining for another project, the bath house will function well as the equatorial light is ample for daily use.

First floor electricity.
The three story (ground (zero), one, two by Kenyan terms) classroom building offers a dozen classrooms, library, and three sets of offices for teachers and Principal. This project was put in motion by Cameron Dunkin nearly two years ago (if I recall correctly), an immense undertaking well executed. But as is often the case with construction projects, for various reasons, it was not completed as originally slated.

electrical pull

To date, only the ground floor has power, the first and second floors without. I met with two young men (Peter, Weisman) to review the quote they had given Leonard a few months prior to complete the electrical wiring. Their bid was 50% that of a bid received by another electrician. Leonard was hoping to work with Peter and Weisman in order to save costs and also support two enterprising young men fresh from their trade school.

Peter, Weisman, and I walked through the entire building, classroom by classroom, to review their original bid. While the number of outlets (sockets), switches, and lamps were close to the final count (increased only by the decision to illuminate the library and future computer lab with better lighting), we discovered that the flexible ABS conduit put in place during construction of this volcanic block and concrete building was often blocked, mis-routed, or simply not present.

The main panel

To my surprise, the masons had little concern for the electrical pathways as the majority of the conduit ends were simply buried in concrete, forcing the electricians to use hammer and chisel to open entire sections of wall to find the pipe and then connect the electrical boxes.

What’s worse, it appears the second (top of three) floor is without any electrical conduit whatsoever, meaning all new conduit will need to be purchased and run. This is likely why the first bid was so high as Peter and Weisman admit to having overlooked this.

So, we decided to tackle the first floor (middle of three) only at an estimate a little less than their original bid for the middle and top floors. Only the lighting over the stairway and in the offices at the end of the floor remain unfinished with completion slated for this Tuesday, the 28th.

A walkway well drained is mud well trained.
In my first few days here I could not help but notice that when the afternoon rains came, the primary walkway from the compound center, at the edge of the boys dormitory and basketball court slab to the three story classroom building would quickly become a small river, the mud thick and slippery.

walkway 1 walkway 2 walkway 3 walkway 4 walkway 5

With jembas and shovel, the boys and I dug a ditch on the lower side, then broke and raked the surface smooth with a gradual drop from one side to the other. Roughly twenty wheel barrows of gravel now line the surface, the ditch needing to be widened, lined on both sides with placed stones, then the bottom filled with concrete in order to provide proper drainage.

Even incomplete, the new path worked when late Saturday afternoon a major storm hit and the walkway remained passable, the rock keeping the mud at bay and the ditch providing conduit for the water.

Hope to have this completed by the week’s end, before an additional 250 students arrive.

Fresh water for the kitchen.
Clean, fresh water is not easy to come by here in Kenya. At Pistis, there are two current sources. The first is the well (referred to as a “bole hole”) which is pumped into a black plastic storage tank on a concrete pad. This water is heavy in natural fluoride (from what I have been told) and not only not good to drink, but hard on seedlings in the garden. Therefore, it is used for washing dishes and with the completion of the first pipe line, in the bath house.

The second is municipal water, either purchased directly from the government or via an intermediary which resells the water via a flat fee or meter. While the well water runs perpetually, the municipal source is active two or three days a week (Tue, Thr, Sat). This water is deemed potable without boiling, greatly reducing the energy and expense required to feed the children.

While there is now a small storage tank placed in a concrete bunker below ground, a pump feeding two smaller storage tanks placed on the rafters of the kitchen, it will benefit the kitchen to have a larger, more reliable source of fresh water to feed the existing system.

Headed by Steven (architect and project manager) and Charles (plumber) who worked with us on the prior plumbing project and to complete the bath house, this project started with the pouring of a concrete slab a good half meter thick, strong and high enough to hold a large (2m diameter, 2.5m tall) storage tank which will feed the below grade tank already in place. A float valve will auto control the input from the pressurized municipal line and then again from the new tank to the existing tank.

Seemingly complex, this multiple tank water storage system actually works quite well with one system acting as reserve to another, the final rafter assembly providing a gravity feed to the kitchen which will not fail even with a power outage, which occur often.

It is possible that we will some day in the future use the solar panels donated by my former physics professor Dan Heim to operate critical water movement systems on campus, as these panels were once used at his home in New River, Arizona for the same purpose (before being replaced by an upgrade).

water tank rolling water tank cleaning water tank washing

The ‘new’ tank was recycled from its former position on the back side of the kitchen and required a serious cleaning, Ibraham and Isaac dove in without reservation to the muck and goo that had built up in the bottom.

Slated for completion this week (pending the City’s willingness to replace the pipe destroyed), the kitchen will have two municipal water sources coming from opposite corners of the campus on two unique lines, ensuring both quality and quantity.

Food storage
I hate to say it, but the current food storage environment should not pass inspection, by any standards. Bags of bulk grains, rice, corn (maize), beans, and a kind of wheat mullet, up to one hundred and 9000Kg at a time are stored in a room adjacent to the kitchen along with a television, bicycle, spare clothing, blankets, pillows, and of course, mice and rats.

I have designed two heavy-duty shelves which will touch the ground only along the front (loading) side with metal pipe (galvanized pipe with flanges). The other three sides fitting neatly against the wall, using concrete anchors to secure rough cut 2×6 beams for support of the 5/8″ 6-ply.

Last week Friday we procured the plywood, hammer, wood saw, wrench and socket, drill and bit set; concrete expansion bolts and wood screws. Today John (the steadfast, been here since the start do-all of Pistis; a carpenter by trade who gardens, and cooks) and I purchased the raw lumber, transported it to a one room saw mill where it was quickly dimensioned and then brought to Pistis by hand cart.

A few kids broke down the old storage system as mice scurried beneath their feet, swept, mopped, and cleaned the room in preparation for our work tomorrow.

I expect to have this completed with the close of Wednesday. Eager to get started tomorrow!