“The rats are crawling on my mosquito netting,” Emily McKeone told her father in Omaha, wondering how much longer she could last in Africa.
It was July 2012, and she was living in rural Zambia in a mud hut with a grass thatch roof and no running water or electricity, and the rodents were growing bold.
A year later, the 23-year-old Omaha woman, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate and Peace Corps volunteer, has come to love the Zambian people and is raising money to build three wells for three local schools.
She’s gotten pretty good at killing rats.
The road to McKeone’s mud hut began in Omaha, where this daughter of an Irish-Catholic father attended a private, Catholic high school. Her father, Phil, said his mother and daughter share the desire to help those in need.
“I think that goes back to strong, opinionated Irish women,” he said.
Emily attended Loyola University in Chicago briefly before transferring to UNL, breaking her family’s tradition of private education. Her father had always urged her to explore the world before settling down.
She majored in environmental studies and sociology at UNL, and spent the fall 2010 semester in Costa Rica working on a farm.
While still at UNL, McKeone worked with the city of Lincoln’s sustainability program, Cleaner Greener Lincoln. She spearheaded Lincoln Earth Day for three years and served on the mayor’s environmental task force. She also volunteered with Sen. Ken Haar’s re-election campaign and crusaded against the Keystone XL pipeline.
Even before she went to college, Emily knew she wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer.
After graduating in May 2011, she applied, earning a position in Zambia that month and leaving for Africa that July.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, she is expected to learn about Zambian culture while educating residents about American culture. That involves interacting with residents daily as well as experiencing living conditions similar to those of local villagers.
“Living in the community and interacting on a daily basis allows for a raw perspective of the life that is led by a rural Zambian,” she said.
She also teaches local farmers to generate income and improve nutrition through fish farming. The program involves educating farmers in basic business skills, such as record-keeping and budgeting.
She’s also found time to work at three local schools.
“I enjoy working with the schools because empowering and educating youth is essential for social change,” she said.
She realized quickly water was needed at the schools. Water towers and pumping equipment installed by a non-governmental organization two years earlier had broken down before she arrived.
Students, teachers and local residents must travel long distances to gather water, and they often use water from streams, exposing them to waterborne diseases.
“These illnesses ultimately result in less income for working families and often prevent students from completing their education,” she said.
McKeone has raised about half of the $5,000 she needs to build the three wells through an online donation site run by the Peace Corps.
She estimates the wells will benefit 2,000 students plus 2,000 others. The schools also will be able to complete construction projects delayed due to lack of water.
“Water is a basic human need and access to clean drinking water serves as a preventative to many avoidable diseases that lead to death,” she said.