Newswise — For close to four months of the year, when the rainy season has been more than generous, villagers in eight communities in a rural part of The Gambia can only get to the closest market town one way: by walking a dirt road that is waist deep with water.

It’s not a fun trip. It’s not a scenic trip. It’s not a safe trip.

But three students and one professor from the Engineers Without Borders-USA program at Rowan University will visit the impoverished African country in January to help make things at least a little bit better for the 1,000 or so people who call those villages home.

The students are Sean Coffey, a sophomore civil and environmental engineering major from West Long Branch; Steve Gardner, a senior civil and environmental engineering major from Middletown; and Laura Thrall, 21, a mechanical engineering major from Matawan who expects to graduate in 2012. The professor, who will be making his fourth EWB visit to his third continent in five years, is Dr. Jess Everett, of Pitman, a professor of civil and environmental engineering.

They will head to Africa’s smallest country January 3 and return on January 16, almost exactly a year after Everett took another group of students there. With support from Gambia Horse & Donkey Trust, a non-governmental organization, they will continue the assessment started by last year’s Rowan EWB team of the approximate two-mile long road. At the same time, work will start on the road.

“Basically, the Trust took the information we gave them from last year and hired contractors to do the road work and put in culverts,” Everett said. In essence, the contractors will start to raise the dirt road to a level that is less likely to be impacted by flooding.

The Rowan team will do more than assess the existing road, which is in a swampy area, according to Everett. “We’re going to work with the villagers to prepare them for their roles in the project. They will do much of the final grading of the road, with rakes and shovels. They’ll even do some of the compaction by hand. We also teach them to repair and maintain their road.” Their own government is currently unable to help very much, Everett said.

The improvement will mean a lot to the villagers, who live in a country with few paved roads outside of the capital. “The Gambia is basically a river with land on either side,” Everett said. “These people are living much like they lived 500 years ago.” They farm with hand tools, build their houses out of dried mud blocks and use pit latrines, said Everett, who noted in contrast there also are people there who own cell phones, charged by solar panels.

The people in the eight villages in the area earn a living by cultivating rice near the river, and they travel the dirt road to reach a ferry that takes them to the market town where they can buy and sell food and attend school and visit the doctor. “There’s a stretch along there that floods four months of they year,” the professor said. “They’re walking in water up to their waists at the worst part.”

None of the Rowan students have visited The Gambia before, but what they will experience will be much better than what Rowan teams encountered when they traveled to various developing countries in Africa, Asia and Central America in the past. They’ll be hosted by the Trust and sleep in a house with beds with toilets and cold running water, and even through they will not have any electricity their conditions will be a far cry from past teams’ experiences of sleeping on the ground and not having any plumbing. Local people will come in and cook for the latest team members, who can expect to eat rice, pumpkin, lentils and bread, with a little meat. The temperature should be in the low to mid 80s with low humidity — they’re traveling after the rainy season — and fairly bug free. They’ve had to have shots for yellow fever and hepatitis A and B, and they’ll wear jeans and tee shirts while there but no shorts in the conservative country. Sunscreen and hats will be musts.

“It’s a very friendly place. I mean really friendly,” Everett said. “You say ‘hello’ out in the countryside and if you know them at all you’ll spend five minutes talking.” Villagers in the area the Rowan team is visiting speak three languages, and though English is the official language, the EWB group members will have a translator with them.

Thrall, who is the project lead for the effort, is looking forward to the trip with just a little anxiety about being a woman in what she believes is a male-dominated culture. Her main goal is “to help them,” said Thrall, who traveled to Africa as a child to visit family friends living in Egypt. “I’m very excited.”

According to Everett, the Rowan EWB chapter will work on the project for another four years. (This year and in the future, they’ll also gather data on water wells and help the Gambians work on hand pumps they can install to obtain water. Today, the villagers dig their wells by hand. “If they’re lucky they have a mechanical pump that works, and if they’re not they throw a bucket in the well,” Everett said.)

“This is a phased project that will take years to get done,” he said of the road work, which in addition to helping the Gambians will provide Rowan students the opportunity to apply skills they learn in school to real-life situations.

“Partly I do this for the students,” Everett said, “because it is a great experience for them to work on real projects and work on something that really matters.”

EWB is a non-profit humanitarian organization that strives to improve the quality of life in developing countries through engineering projects that range from supplying water to building schools — self-sustaining projects locals can manage after EWB members leave the country.

For more information on the Rowan EWB student chapter, visit its website at