News / Kitchener

University of Waterloo dean giving back to village that was part of her research

WATERLOO — Like most academics, the dean of applied health sciences at the University of Waterloo spends hours engrossed in her research.

But Susan Elliott is taking her work to a whole other level. As a medical geographer, Elliott has turned her work on health and the environment into a personal project.

Elliott has kick-started the building of a water and sanitation facility in the rural village of Usoma in Kenya.

Elliott said it’s her way, and that of her graduate students, of “giving back” to a community that has been part of her academic research.

“As researchers in general, we like to know that our research has had an impact,” she said.

Through her family and colleagues, Elliott raised $5,000 in about six weeks over the Christmas holidays by asking people to participate in her buy-a-brick-for-$10 campaign.

But she needs to raise more — about $5,000 — to finish erecting the building.

“$10,000 can change hundreds of lives,” she said.

Elliott, who came to UW just over two years ago, was a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton where she worked in the United Nations University Institute for Water, Environment and Health on campus.

Elliott worked on issues of water sanitation and visited Kenya at least seven times, working with members of the Kenyan Medical Research Institute.

That’s when she met the people of Usoma, who live on the shores of Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world. The lake is heavily contaminated, she said.

“The real irony is that there is lots of water there but no access to safe water,” she said.

The contaminated lake is a source of income for the villagers because fish is eaten from the lake and sand is harvested to make concrete.

Elliott said the women of the village fetch dirty water at least 15 times a day, carrying 20-litre pails on their heads.

Elliott said the water source is continuously contaminated, because people don’t have proper washrooms and outdoor defecation is common. Many people walk barefoot.

“There is a perception that children’s feces aren’t harmful,” she said. “It’s a vicious cycle.”

While at McMaster, Elliott and others working on the water project received $10,000 from the Rotary Club in Hamilton to conduct a hydrologic survey and to begin drilling a well in the village.

Last fall, Elliott and graduate students visited Usoma and a water committee of community volunteers was established. They will build the water and sanitation facility and ensure it functions.

Villagers will pay a minimal amount to access the clean water — the equivalent of pennies to collect drinking water, wash clothes and use vented latrines, Elliott said.

“People have to realize it’s an investment,” she said.

Elliott said she’s driven to help because she sees a determination in the Kenyan people to change their lives.

“They have so much capacity. They are smart people. They work at all odds to have basic human rights,” she said.

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