'Africans have less, but share more'

Architect Stefanie Tseggai went to Kenya for a study project and found echoes of her own life at home. Five years later, the TU Delft alumna is returning with two partners to build a health centre.

Stefanie Tseggai: "Investing in Pokot enables people to make more of their lives." (Photos: Sam Rentmeester)
Stefanie Tseggai: "Investing in Pokot enables people to make more of their lives." (Photos: Sam Rentmeester)

'Africans often have less, but they share more', Stefanie Tseggai noticed when she arrived in Pokot, Western Kenya in 2011. Architecture students Stefanie Tseggai, Carlijn Kingma and Niek van Laere worked with people from the East Pokot Medical Project on the design of a medical information centre in the Pokot region. It marked the start of the Pokot Resource Centre project, which recently acquired the support of Wilde Ganzen, an organisation that combats poverty worldwide. Having graduated, the three architects are now preparing to complete the project. "Investing in Pokot enables people to make more of their lives", believes Tseggai.


You were all set to leave for Kenya to start building, but something got in the way. What was it?

"The project was delayed because of extreme drought. You need water just to be there and also for building."

Four of your people were already there. What were they able to do?

"From early November, they did research to locate water sources. They were there during the short rainy season. But there was so little rain, they had to return to the city a week early and could not stay in Barpello."

What impact is the drought having on the people?

"About 10,000 people live in and around the two villages of Barpello and Kositei, where we're building the centre. Approximately 750,000 people live in the East Pokot region as a whole. For them, water is a matter of survival. Women and girls often walk for hours to the remaining wells to return laden with water for their family. Many wells are shared with livestock, which means that the water becomes polluted and a source of infection."

With your partners Carlijn Kingma and Niek van Laere, you designed an outpatient clinic and an information centre there. What is happening with that?

"It will happen eventually, it's a question of when. Having consulted the students who were there and our Kenyan partner East Pokot Medical Project, we decided to develop a water system for the centre first. We are having geologists investigate whether a well is an option and are installing dams to collect rainwater. We will start construction after that."

You originally planned to build between April and the summer; I assume that will shift a little?

"It might. If the drought continues, we will not be able to start on time before the elections in August. It is advisable not to be in Kenya during the elections because of the chance of unrest. In 2007, there were many riots between different tribes and there were even some fatalities.

How did the idea to build there come about?

"Through the TPM faculty's minor in international entrepreneurship and development, Carlijn, Niek and I came into contact with sister Esther. She manages the East Pokot Medical Project and explained that many health problems are due to ignorance – about HIV/AIDS and FGM, for example. FGM may be a ritual part of traditional culture, but it entails numerous health risks. We went there to see what the organisation needed to provide information about these issues. We concluded that a new centre was needed, because not everyone felt welcome in the places currently used for this, such as a church."

Will there be a clinic in that centre?

"Yes, the organisation already has a clinic, but it is in a sorry state and too small. A new clinic will be built next to the information centre. Niek, Carlijn and I are designing the information centre and the Kenyan architect we work with is designing the clinic."

How long have you been working on this?

"In 2011 and 2012, we spent six months working on the project and raising some of the funding. We decided that we had too little experience to do the actual building. We then agreed with the people there that we would do the building after our Master's."

How did you remain in contact over the years?

"Things were put on hold. We congratulated each other on birthdays, etc. When there was something to report, we did so. Or just asked how things were going, mostly via Whatsapp or Skype. Whatsapp is used for nearly everything there."

Did the choice of Africa have something to do with your roots?

"I feel an affinity with East Africa because my father is Eritrean. My mother is from the Netherlands. I feel at home in Kenya because of the way people treat each other."

Did Africa play a role in your upbringing, in shaping who you are?

"In my family and the Eritrean community, respect for others is very important. You treat other people as you would like to be treated. That's how we see things. Also: other people have just as much right to food, drink and shelter as you have. Sharing and helping others are therefore important values for us. I notice that, although they have very little, people in East Africa still share a lot. In a community like that, I often feel more at ease than in a more individualistic society. But I grew up in Amsterdam, so I guess I'm a product of both."

Projects like this can often go wrong just at the point that the building is complete and is being handed over. How do you intend to prevent that?

"I am fully behind this project because it is the result of collaboration rather than one-sided development work. It is the initiative of the local community and the local NGO, the East Pokot Medical Project that has been active for 36 years. They have the greatest stake in it because they raised funds and commissioned the building. We see ourselves as advisers and facilitators. We conduct research and provide drawings, but rely on the skills of the local population. During construction, we will be working with the Kenyan contractor to train builders, and they will tell us which type of clay is most suitable."

What materials will you use for construction?

"We want to take existing local techniques and materials as a basis, but the Pokot see a grass roof and clay as old-fashioned, so we will be combining clay blocks for the walls and floors with a steel roof structure. We hope they will see the building as modern and accept it. We are also using steel-reinforced concrete for the foundations."

How do you see your future as an architect?

"After this project in Kenya, I intend to qualify under the supervision of a registered architect. It is a two-year process. I want to specialise in the efficient use of materials in production and design. I intend to use that knowledge to work on projects in East Africa for an NGO, an architects firm or UN Habitat (the United Nations construction programme). I can do that based here or by heading off again."

pokotresourcecentre.nl

POSTSCRIPT

After the interview, the drought continued relentlessly. 'The drought has descended into a mad cycle of violence and retaliation', wrote Koert Lindijer in the NRC (21 Feb 2017) about disagreements between nomads travelling with their livestock. The Red Cross predicts that three million people in Kenya will need urgent food aid. If the surrounding countries are included, more than 16 million people face famine.

CV

Ir. Stefanie Tseggai (Amsterdam, 1987) has an Eritrean father and a Dutch mother. She began studying medicine at the University of Amsterdam. Unable to express her creativity studying medicine, she had a year out in 2008 and switched to Architecture at TU Delft, "because, for me, it combines art and science". During her Master's degree, she spent an exchange year at the Art Academy in Copenhagen, becoming proficient in furniture making and interiors. She graduated in 2016, specialising in the development of construction materials from the by-products of water treatment in her thesis 'Infinite Mining for Structural Composites'.