July 15, 2016

Connecting the dots: Access to clean water for an HIV-free future

Written by Kara Poppe, Johnson & Johnson Princeton in Africa Fellow

Villagers using water tap

When will the rains come? This is a common discussion topic in Nyumbani Village, Kenya, but one that until recently, was very new to me.

In 2006, I was a young adolescent in the United States who had little knowledge of the trials others experienced throughout the world, especially with water. I lived in an area with abundant, year-round precipitation, and the thought of anything different never crossed my mind. Clean water was second nature and flowed freely from the tap wherever I went. It never occurred to me that it might not be there when I needed it.

Fast forward 10 years; I’m now a Princeton in Africa Fellow, supported by Johnson & Johnson and a resident here in Nyumbani Village. And water is at the forefront of my mind. With shades of brown as far as the eye can see and a light wind blowing reddish earth around, rain is ever welcome. Located in a semi-arid region near the equator, weeks, and often months, can pass without a drop of rain. These harsh, dry conditions are the biannual reality for Nyumbani Village.

Up until Nyumbani Village opened in 2006, this area was primarily used as a grazing area for cattle and goats. Then, in response to the growing number of orphaned children left behind by the HIV/AIDS pandemic, 1,000 acres of this semi-arid landscape was transformed into a home for 1000 orphaned children and 100 grandparents who lost adult chidren to AIDS. Today, there are now 100 homes for families, three schools, an outpatient clinic, a commercial farm, and more.

From the beginning, sustainability has been a key component of Nyumbani Village. Whether it is pressing bricks on-site or growing thousands of tomatoes in greenhouses, it is important to prioritize and conserve locally available resources. While drilling boreholes and constructing shallow wells provided water for construction and domestic washing purposes, it was quickly discovered that the water beneath Nyumbani Village is saline and not suitable for drinking. Fresh water was sometimes scarce. This caused a great deal of worry, especially during the dry spells.

Where could Nyumbani Village source that water? Taking full advantage of the brief biannual rains was one solution. With more than 140 buildings, the surface area of the sheet metal roofs offered an obvious solution.

Since 2010, Johnson and Johnson has partnered with Princeton in Africa and Nyumbani Village to support a fellow and the rainwater harvesting project because providing easy access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene is a major driver toward a life of health and well-being. For those infected and affected by HIV, access to water means staying safe and in school, and may play a major role in curbing the spead of HIV.

Kara Poppe

As the Princeton in Africa Fellow, I work alongside Nyumbani Village staff and local contractors and suppliers to install and maintain 10,000 liter rainwater tanks that can capture and contain rainwater for use well into the dry seasons. I get to talk to the villagers, and one morning, one of the grandmothers told me how much the tanks mean to her. She told me stories of how, as a child and as a younger woman, she collected water from the nearby river, first with a gourd on her back, then later with jerry cans and a donkey.

“I am less tired these days, because I do not have to fetch water. I now invest my time in others things, like working a lot in my garden,” she says gratefully. Having fetched water for most of her life, she knows the importance of water conservation and regularly educates the children under her care on this. “If we are careful, most years, we have some water remaining in the tank when the rains come again in October.”

Presently, each family’s home and most administrative buildings are outfitted with gutters and a tank. The village-wide system is capable of storing more than 1,400,000 liters of fresh, clean water. If conserved carefully, one 10,000 liter tank can supply a family with daily freshwater throughout the dry season.

Prior to living in Nyumbani Village, many children and elderly walked several kilometers per day to source freshwater for their families. Now in Nyumbani Village, with freshwater access at every home through the rainwater tank, it increases time for other activities, such as studying, farming, and playing sports.

Before Nyumbani Village, life for children who lost parents to AIDS was bleak. Thankfully, increased access to medicines means that today, more of Nyumbani Village’s children arrive HIV-free. By providing access to water, sanitation, hygiene and much more, Nyumbani Village is helping them to stay healthy, and live the empowered lives they deserve.


Kara PoppeKara graduated with an Honors B.A. in Environmental Geography, a minor in French Studies, and certificates in Sustainability and Global Health. While at UNI, Kara worked as an Office of Sustainability program assistant spreading awareness on environmental issues, a STEM ambassador promoting STEM careers to K-12 students, and a World Geography teaching assistant mentoring first-year students in academic skills. Her Midwestern agricultural roots led her to guide a team to create an on-campus student vegetable garden and to complete a 100-day real food challenge. Kara sees the world as her classroom and enjoys building meaningful relationships in each place that her travels bring her. Her international experiences are diverse and include teaching English in China, facilitating a design team in Kenya, researching hand washing in South Africa, and studying business culture in Nicaragua. Through these experiences, Kara has developed a passion for combining the environment, education, people, and technology in international development practices. Kara enjoys giving back to communities, spending time with her friends and family, and doing many outdoor activities, such as backpacking, canoeing, and skiing. At Nyumbani Village, she looks forward to sharing cultural experiences with her new colleagues and learning more about global health and sustainability.