African Project

Electrical engineer Fr. Bert Otten, SJ, designed solar panels for a Jesuit Refugee Service office in Angola, far from his usual Seattle haunts.

In July 1997 I was in Africa,
a place I first visited a few years ago on sabbatical from my duties as professor of electrical engineering at Seattle University. When the opportunity for the sabbatical came, I had to decide how to use it. Was I going to continue some astronomy work I had been involved with at the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT), or should I follow a dream I had had for many years: using my training to develop solar energy technology in a foreign mission setting?

I had entered the Society of Jesus back in '53, intending to major in sociology or serve in foreign missions. That part of my vocation was inspired by working at summer camps for inner-city children. But early in my studies I did well in electrical engineering and enjoyed it, and I followed the invitation of Fr. Victor Blum, SJ, engineering dean at St. Louis University, to continue in it.

During most of my Jesuit life I have been involved in teaching electrical engineering at St. Louis University, Missouri University in Columbia, Rockhurst College in Kansas City, and now Seattle University. I have enjoyed the hundreds of EE students with whom I have worked in class and on projects. It is rewarding to help them develop an understanding of nature, learn to design something useful, simulate it on a computer, and then build it.

Engineering has also gotten me involved with interesting projects. I have journeyed with seismologists to the bottom of a lead mine in Missouri to set up a strain extensometer that would measure earthquakes in the New Madrid fault. I have worked on a Jesuit shortwave radio network that linked remote mission stations in Honduras. I have collaborated with Vatican Observatory astronomers in Tucson and at Castel Gandolfo near Rome on the design of telescopes and instrumentation. I have even gathered data for asteroid light curves at an observatory at Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

After a bit of prayer and the realization that I was in my early 60s, I decided that I might not be able to walk by the time my next sabbatical opportunity came. If I wanted to do solar work and appropriate technology in a developing country, it was now or never.

I teach at Seattle University in the Jesuits' Oregon Province; it works closely with the Jesuits' Zambia-Malawi Province in Africa, which operates the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre (KATC) in Zambia. KATC's technology workshop was a natural place for me to head.

In Zambia, as all over Africa, deforestation and desertification are big problems. Most people use wood for cooking, butting up five-inch-diameter logs in a "star" fashion. As the fire burns, the cooks push the logs toward the burning center. In addition, many people make their living turning trees into charcoal for sale in the cities. Wood is being used up rapidly; in Katondwe, Fr. Joseph Olewski, a Jesuit I was visiting, had to haul it from three miles distant.

KATC teaches sustainable agricultural techniques to make life in the villages more full and satisfying. We introduced five designs of solar box cookers (we even cooked cornbread in demonstrations) in the hope of eventually taking some stress off the supply of trees. The heat these cookers generate is also enough to pasteurize water, and this helps attack intestinal diseases, which contribute to the high infant mortality rate in Africa.

The solar cooker was just one of our projects. Using a large cylindrical parabolic mirror, we were able to use sunlight to produce steam to power a small irrigation pump. We worked with photovoltaic solar panels to produce electricity for homes and a hospital. We repaired radios, cassettes, and TVs. For a few folks fortunate enough to have electricity in their homes I repaired stoves and refrigerators, and I also became adept at fixing the electrical systems of tractors and water pumps.

After the sabbatical was over, I returned to Seattle University, wondering how to connect the talents of students in a sophisticated First World engineering program to the needs of people in the developing world. With financing from my Francis P. Wood, SJ/Boeing Chair in electrical engineering, I sponsored a year-long senior design project exploring ways of bringing electricity to a thatched-roof village home. Electrical engineering student Cynthia Gilbert came up with a way of shorting out bad cells of old auto batteries so that the remaining cells are useable. Phil Stewart, another EE student, designed a mechanism for rotating solar panels to follow the sun, while his classmate Mohammed Al-Jassar worked up a regulator circuit for use with the panels. Mechanical engineering students Stephan Olsen and Chris Brown worked on ways to drive an alternator to charge a battery via pedal power from a stationary bike and also by steam created by solar energy. Thanks to these and other students, my dream of transferring technology was taking shape.

So in July 1997 I found myself back in Africa, drawn by many attachments: the desire to see friends, a fascination with the continent, wanting to see a dam I had designed (see related story) filled with water and being used by people, and, most important, exploring ways to involve more engineering students in this experience. The latter was my "justification" for going. Part of my ongoing, developing dream is to locate a couple of students for a few months at sites where they can use their skills to benefit people and in turn learn about their cultures.

Parabolic reflector

Sunlight collected by this parabolic mirror turns water into steam that drives irrigation pumps. Fr. Otten's electrical engineering students in Seattle work on such solutions to needs in Africa.

One potential site is a Jesuit Refugee Service facility in Angola, where I helped install the solar power supply for lighting and computers last year. There will be additional solar projects for volunteers, and they could also help establish a water system (at present water is carried to the site over a distance of one kilometer), teach English or arithmetic, or lend a hand to any number of other projects.

A Jesuit parish in Kabwe, a small Zambian town, presents another opportunity. There are some old buildings in the back of the parish house that the pastor would like to use to teach skills such as blacksmithing and carpentry. He needs electricity for lighting and running power tools.

Another remote parish in Chisgombe is powered by a water-driven generator badly in need of repair. The electrical distribution system is in need of redesign.

Students who go will experience a culture that is in sharp contrast to the one they know in the United States. They will get some idea of how most of the people on the planet live. They will learn some of the beauty of African culture and will make friends different from any they have met before. Perhaps they will see the horror that war can do to a society and the effects of colonization. They will be offered a new perspective on their privileges and responsibilities as members of a First World society. And they will find satisfaction and enjoyment in working with fine people.

This fall I am once again back at Seattle University teaching electrical engineering courses, encouraging international projects especially in the developing world, and trying to organize the African Project. In September I made my annual eight-day retreat; it was a great opportunity to look back over my 65 years and give thanks for the texture and richness that God has put into my life as a Jesuit, a priest, and a human being.


To Make a Lake

by Fr. Bert Otten, SJ

Commercial wheat farmers up-stream from Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre (KATC) in Zambia were using all the water from the Ngwerere River for irrigation and were turning the river into dust for a month at a crack, twice a year. You can imagine how this affected morale at an agricultural training center. After fruitless negotiations with the water association, Br. Paul Desmarais, a Canadian Jesuit who is director of KATC, decided to build a dam. I taught myself surveying. We picked the best site for the project, and a retired British agricultural advisor, John Williams, taught me how to design earth dams. We started construction with tractor-drawn dam scoops provided by donations from MISEREOR and the American embassy. The Zambian National Service (ZNS) was enlisted to do a little over half of the work after we calculated that it would take us about two and a half years to complete it with just our resources. FACSI, a Jesuit source, and the Diocese of Stuttgart also donated funds.

There were many frustrations: one of the banks holding our funds failed, and our heavy equipment went on the fritz repeatedly. I had extended my sabbatical by a year for this project, but I finally had to leave. Once the rainy season started, Br. Desmarais, his crew, and the ZNS worked even on weekends until the 365-yard-wide dam and spillways were complete enough to handle the rest of the rainy season. If the rising water, which rose to only an inch or so from the top of the dam, had breached it, the whole thing would have been washed away.

The resulting lake is spectacular. It backs up about two and a half miles from the dam and is 30 feet deep at its deepest. People now have an assured source of water during the entire year. They also have fish to eat --adding protein to their diet --and to sell in town.

Otten and Crew
Fr. Otten and crew survey the site for an earthen dam
that stabilized the water supply for wheat farmers in Zambia.

Author Fr. Bert Otten, SJ, had the opportunity to introduce his solar cookers to women's groups in Tijuana this summer before returning to Seattle University to teach electrical engineering.


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