Special to the Register
Ben Cheruiyot and Peter Sigilai were already famous in their native Kenya, thanks to their exploits as All-America runners at universities in the United States.
Today, they are heroes for a different reason.
Cheruiyot and Sigilai, now environmental health science students in Eastern Kentucky University’s master’s of public health program, joined EKU faculty member Dr. Jason Marion on a recent three-week visit to the African nation, where they helped residents of Kenya’s poorest region identify health risks posed by contaminated drinking water.
As one of the world’s poorest countries – never mind small pockets of affluence in Nairobi and other sizable cities – Kenya is ravaged by waterborne diseases, especially among children in poorer regions.
To identify risk factors associated with the lack of proper water treatment measures, the EKU team went door-to-door surveying adults and collecting water samples from approximately 160 households in western Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, where research has indicated significant morbidity from diarrheal diseases and associated environmental conditions.
“Our objectives were to compare gastrointestinal illness (GI) incidence among households with differing knowledge, attitudes and perceptions of water disinfection strategies, and identify the risk factors associated with GI incidence in these communities,” Marion said, adding that this study “may be sufficient for publication in a high-impact journal leading to an improved likelihood of obtaining significant external dollars for future studies.”
Marion said many of the Kenyans they visited assumed that that their water was perfectly safe to drink. “What’s scary is when they have confidence in a filter doing its job when it isn’t.”
The graduate students’ fame from athletics and their familiarity with the community, not to mention their ability to converse in multiple native dialects as well as English, were vital to the success of the project, which Marion said may have failed if the team was suspiciously viewed as outsiders.
“Even the four- and five-year-olds had heard about them,” Marion raved. “These two guys brought so much credibility to our project.”
It may have been their track and cross-country prowess – Cheruiyot starred at Auburn and Sigilai at Tennessee and, both, later at EKU – that made them household names back home, but it was their education, and more so how they were putting it to practical use, that earned the respect of children and adults alike.
“Most of the parents have not had access to the same level of education as the kids, but they value education,” Marion noted. “When it’s time to learn something, they gravitate to it. They don’t fear it. I have a lot of faith that the Kenyan people will be able to address these problems through education because they value it so highly.”
In fact, Sigilai noted, “People were asking, ‘How did you make this happen?’ They were amazed.”
“It helps the parents to know my son is doing this or that,” Cheruiyot added. “I felt like they were respecting us. It was a great honor.”
Sigilai and Cheruiyot were among those surprised at the results of the research. “Is this the water we used to drink?” Sigilai asked rhetorically.
The two graduate students took with them an assortment of EKU memorabilia and other items and, at every opportunity, talked with the children about the importance of education.
A few American universities have worked with Kenyan universities to conduct research in the east African nation but, as Marion noted, “the places we were going, I got the impression I was the first academic researcher they had seen.”
In fact, Marion was the first white person many had seen, at least in their home environment.
“They wanted to feel my skin to see if it was the same as theirs,” said Marion, who stayed in the modest homes of the students’ families, where there was no electricity or running water.
The Kenya project was funded by an $8,000 grant from the EKU Division of Sponsored Programs, $1,500 from the master’s degree public health program, as well as a $275 donation from Kathy Hall, director of Continuing Education and Development in EKU’s College of Health Sciences. Most of the funds went to the flights to and from Kenya and for purchasing microbiology supplies for evaluating the drinking water in each home.
When Hall met Cheruiyot and Sigilai before the trip, “they were absolutely determined to make a difference by what they would be doing. You could see it in the eagerness in their faces.”
Hall said her six years as the nurse epidemiologist at the University of Kentucky Hospital impressed upon her that “international health issues affect us all. Water quality is a significant issue internationally.
“When I worked at the UK hospital, there had also been a young Kenyan student who was mopping floors and in tears at the end of a long day,” Hall recalled. “When I asked what was wrong, he told me he had no way of contacting his family in Kenya, but was afraid for their safety and health and missing them very much. (It is) something most of us don’t even have to consider. His memory also stuck with me.”
Cheruiyot and Sigilai, both of whom are serving as graduate assistants this semester, each hope to continue their work on water-quality issues in their homeland after they graduate in May and December, respectively. Whatever career path the two graduate students choose, Marion predicts success.
“They’re very humble people,” Marion said, “and their personalities make them more approachable. They have a lot to be proud of, but they don’t let their previous accomplishments (which also include academic All-America honors) get in the way of the future. They keep moving forward.
“I look at them as peers, as colleagues.”
Fifty-eight students are currently enrolled in the Master’s of Public Health program at EKU, which also boasts the nation’s second largest undergraduate program in Environmental Health Science.