The magazine for Western Washington University

A journey for water

A recent alumna joins a Seattle family on their quest to bring clean water to their former village in Ethiopia

Story by Mary Gallagher

Print this story
Stephanie Grow overlooks a waterfall in Ethiopia's Semien Mountains. "Just about everywhere I went, it was green," she says. "It's a very diverse climate." | Photo by
Stephanie Grow, front-right, joined farmers from a rural Ethiopian village, a friend from Seattle and several others for lunch to discuss a clean water project for the village. | Photo by
A woman and a girl collect water from Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia. Stephanie Grow and Ruth Assefa met the pair on a walk along the lake. "This is how most people get water," Grow says. | Photo by

Sitting in a café in rural Ethiopia, Stephanie Grow (’10, International Sustainable Development) struggled to keep up with the conversation in Amharic among three farmers, a construction manager, NGO workers and an Ethiopian-American Seattle resident.

Over a lunch of spongy injera bread and soda pop, the group heatedly discussed a plan to build a water well for the farmers’ mountaintop village, also the former home of the Seattle-area family.

But then the farmers said they already had a well and didn’t need a new one; they wanted a system to pump water miles up the mountain to their village. Understandable, Grow thought, but impossible without electricity.

She turned to her Seattle friend, Ruth Assefa. “We can’t build this,” Grow said. “If they’re not behind it, no one will use it.”

Then someone started talking about leeches, and the conversation sped up again.

Grow’s trip to Ethiopia had really begun months before around another table, at Western’s Bellingham Business Forum. Grow sat with Margaret Curtis, a partner at Wilson Engineering, which had sponsored Grow’s scholarship to study international development in Washington, D.C., as a Ford Global Scholar. Small talk soon turned to Grow’s passion about global health and clean water.

The summer after her sophomore year at Western, the Spokane resident had volunteered at a secondary school in Tanzania, teaching HIV/AIDS prevention. She was shocked to find classrooms full of boys: Where were all the girls? She learned that for many families in Tanzania, and in much of Africa, the daily task of collecting water falls to girls and women, who often have to walk for miles to get it. Time collecting water takes time away from going to school or earning money – and the water itself often makes people sick.

“The more I learned about water, the more I learned it’s tied to everything,” Grow says. “There are a lot of obstacles for girls that there aren’t for boys, and in a lot of places, that’s water. Think of the time that could be afforded if people weren’t spending so many hours of the day getting water.”

Curtis, the past president of the Western Foundation, was fascinated, and days later wondered if Grow could help her tackle a problem she had also been thinking about: How could her company, with its expertise in water systems, get more involved in international development? She offered Grow an internship with an intriguingly vague assignment to learn all she could about the best way to build water projects in developing nations.

Armed with a business card, curiosity and an outgoing nature, Grow read and wrote, attended conferences, and met many leaders in the field – as well as Ruth Assefa and her father Assefa Teferi, Seattle residents who were learning about water issues in hopes of improving the well at their old village in Ethiopia.

Learn more

Wogen Seattle partners with Seattle's Ethiopian community and others to provide financial and technical support to projects addressing safe water, nutrition, basic health care, sustainable livelihoods and a meaningful education in Ethiopia. Learn more by contacting Stephanie Grow:

One of the most important things Grow learned is it’s not enough to swoop in with a checkbook, get a well built and leave. Half of all clean water projects break in the first year, she says, and are never fixed. Which is why Grow was so worried when the farmers, who are elders from the Ethiopian village, insisted they didn’t need a new well.

But Grow kept asking questions, with Ruth translating for her and relaying the gist of the conversation.

“They didn’t know this was going to purify the water, make it cleaner,” Grow says. “They got really excited about leeches not being in the water for the cows. Your cow is your wealth. If you lose everything, you sell your cow (and start over).”

And then it became clear that the people drinking the cleaner water wouldn’t get sick, either. The farmers signed on.

With a locally elected water board in the village raising funds for maintaining the well, Grow and the Teferi family established a nonprofit in Seattle, affiliated with a group in Ethiopia, to raise funds to build it. The water station will have a place for bathing and laundry, a trough where cattle can drink and a source for safe drinking water. They hope the nonprofit, Wogen Seattle, can eventually help other Ethiopians in Seattle fund projects to improve quality of life in their native country.

Now back in Seattle, Grow is now working at PATH, an international nonprofit that helps communities around the world break longstanding cycles of poor health with the help of sustainable, culturally relevant solutions. Grow first met people at PATH through her work with Curtis at Wilson Engineering, and a six-month internship at PATH became a permanent job earlier this year. Now, some of her work involves an initiative to help companies develop meaningful partnerships with global health nonprofits.

Curtis continues to keep in touch with Grow, who recently encouraged her mentor to get more involved with International Business students at Western.

“I do feel like I’m a mentor (to Stephanie), but I learn a lot from her, too,” Curtis says. “She is teeing up opportunities for us on a regular basis.”