Surveying a World of Hope

A U.S. surveyor volunteers his time and skills to help design a hospital in Kenya for EMI.
By Stuart W. Spencer, PLS

The sky darkened during the last hours of our flight, the ground below infinitely black. There were no highways dotted with red and white lights, no glowing cities on the horizon, not even the glint of a porch light breaking through the night. The sheer size of the African continent below had become tangible and the terms “remote” and “underdeveloped” took on a whole new meaning.

Being a simple surveyor from Savannah, Georgia, I had no idea what to expect when I volunteered to do survey work halfway around the globe. To this point, my life had been like that of any U.S. surveyor working for a mid-sized engineering firm during the first decade of the 21st century: long hours at the office, meetings, plat reviews, proposals, more meetings, and all the challenges of the recession. For quite some time, however, there had been a nagging in my heart to do something more for people truly in need. 

That’s how I ended up on this trip, 6,000 miles from home. I had made it through customs, had a pocket full of unfamiliar Monopoly money, and was standing in the parking lot at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya. There I met seven strangers, watching a guy named Francis cram our bags into a safari van before driving us halfway across the country. I was to work in Migori, a small town in the Nyanza Province of Kenya, about 25 miles east of Lake Victoria in the eastern part of the continent.

Our group included three engineers, an architect, a project leader, two interns, and me, the surveyor. Although the personal reasons that brought us together were different, we now had a collective purpose—to design a hospital for a ministry called Kenya Relief through Engineering Ministries International (EMI).

EMI and Kenya Relief

The Christian organization EMI began nearly thirty years ago with a vision for ministry through the development of infrastructure and facilities. The idea of joining engineering and evangelism was born when a volunteer on a short-term mission trip in Saipan, the largest island of the Northern Mariana Islands in the western Pacific Ocean, recognized how much his skills as a structural engineer were needed. Today, EMI designs hospitals, orphanages, schools, bridges, and clean-water sources as a ministry to the physically and spiritually poor.

Their approach is to assemble volunteer teams of five to ten technical professionals who donate their time and travel expenses to provide design services where local resources are unavailable, unaffordable, or inadequate. With this simple tactic, EMI is able to deliver designs that have an average value of about $80,000 at a cost to EMI of only $8,000. That’s a 1,000% return!

Our assignment on this particular project was to master plan a 40-acre site and design a hospital as an expansion to an existing health clinic for Kenya Relief.

Kenya Relief was founded nine years ago as an outreach to the people of Migori by Steve James, a nurse anesthetist from Cullman, Alabama. When James returned home from his first trip to Kenya, he sent used medical equipment to the Kenyans he’d met. Today, Kenya Relief employs more than 30 full-time nationals who operate a health clinic, an orphanage, and numerous outreach programs in the community.

Few people in the area have access to healthcare, and those who do deal with facilities that would appall many in the western world. Unclean operating rooms, inadequate supplies, and hopelessly overcrowded patient wards are commonplace. It’s not unusual to see multiple patients sharing the same bed or family members sleeping on the floor under a gurney. 

We had come to help expand Kenya Relief’s reach into the community by designing a new facility that would provide inpatient services such as labor and delivery, pediatrics, and trauma that are not possible at the current center. 

Hospital Design

As the surveyor on the project, it was my role to prepare an existing-conditions and topographic survey of the entire 60-acre site (yes, I said 40 before, but apparently plus or minus 50% is pretty good in Africa). EMI interns, Melissa Owen and Sydney Flowers, had unknowingly been volunteered for the position. Fortunately, Melissa had instrument experience from a previous EMI trip, and both turned out to be fast learners and incredibly hard workers.

We had our work cut out for us with only six days on the ground to complete the survey. Just like at home, we were behind schedule as soon as we showed up. The land planner needed tree locations, the architect needed building dimensions, the civil engineer needed well locations—all before we even saw the site! Efficiency and diligence were essential. At our office we fuss about “go-backs” on a regular basis, but being on another continent brought a whole new meaning to the concept.

As is typical on an EMI project, we were not expected to survey the boundary, but we needed an accurate depiction to ensure our design would fit. Kenya Relief had recently had a boundary survey done, so the resident missionary, Michael Boultinghouse, was able to quickly point out the markers. Lucky for us, the Sisal plants that clearly marked the property lines were easy to identify, thanks to their deathly sharp leaves.

When Michael shared the story of the recent survey, our tensions began to ease. We realized that it might be possible for an office jockey and two interns to complete the assignment in the allotted time. Michael recounted, after picking up the local surveyor and his crew in town (of course, they didn’t have a vehicle of their own), that at the site they completed the entire 60-acre boundary, including 3,000 feet of right of way that splits the property, in slightly less than four hours using nothing but a cloth tape and a compass. We had just needed a little local knowledge to help modify our frame of reference. 

Local Interest

As we surveyed throughout the week, two things quickly became clear: the main mode of transportation was by foot (which carried people directly through the property where we worked), and Kenyans never pass up the opportunity to stop and chat. Although it didn’t speed the survey, taking breaks to visit and learn from the local people was partly why we were there. Those breaks turned out to be some of the most memorable experiences of our trip. 

In the face of their poverty, Kenyans are proud and generous people. Numerous times we were invited into their homes, made mostly of mud and with dirt floors. They delighted in sharing what they had and were offended if you didn’t accept a gift of thanks, often a chicken or a goat.

They often asked if we knew or had ever met President Obama. As it turns out, the President’s father, Barack Obama Sr., was born a member of the Luo Tribe in Kendu Bay about 50 miles north of where we stood, and most Migoris are of the same tribe.

The children were, without a doubt, the highlight of everyone’s visit, always laughing, playing, and singing. Whenever they saw us they were eager for a hug and a little of our time. If we had had 14 arms, there would have been a kid attached to every hand. Despite the unbearable tragedies that stand in their past, their smiles and joyful spirit were overwhelmingly contagious, a testament to the work of Kenya Relief. And, if you ever need somebody to pull a tape or hold a rod, they make the greatest survey crew on the planet.

Despite the distractions, we finished the survey in time, but not without the help of a few 12-year-old future soccer stars and a made-on-the-fly, 15-foot prism pole.

Every EMI project ends with a “closing time,” which typically takes place at a comfortable hotel or lodge in the nearest city. We had one more special perk. Because we were in the heart of the animal kingdom, our closing time was scheduled at Lake Nakuru where we would spend our final day seeking out lions, rhinos, and giraffes on a safari.

Once Home …

Back in the United States, the real commitment begins. A typical EMI project takes about three to four months to complete after returning home. Most team members have to return to their regular full-time jobs while working after hours to complete their portion of the design. The team leader shoulders the effort of coordination between disciplines, and interns provide drafting and technical support. No matter how the load is shared, it takes many late nights and long weekends to complete the project. The real payoff comes when the finished plans are finally delivered and the clients see, for the first time, their dream become reality.

If you have a heart for missions or a desire to help people in need, there is no better way to get involved as a surveyor or designer than to take your specialized skills to the people who need them most. You will come back with new perspectives and a fire in your heart. (Just be prepared to get well-acquainted with the guys at TSA when you show up carrying that big orange box.)

If you want to know more about EMI or Kenya Relief or if you would like to support an organization that is making an impact on the lives of others, please check out these websites: www.emi and
Stuart W. Spencer, PLS is a licensed surveyor in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina and holds an Associate’s Degree in Civil Engineering Technology.  He manages a variety of projects and directs training initiatives for a private civil/survey firm in Savannah, Georgia.  He has also taught geomatics courses at the Georgia Institute of Technology and spent time consulting with leading software developers.

*See our September 2009 issue cover story about an EMI survey mission to Kazakhstan.

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