Faces of the Valley: Leechburg native goes global to advocate for clean water access in Africa

Sep. 10—Water is life.

That's the message Leechburg Area High School alum and University of Pittsburgh graduate student Ariana Scott heard loud and clear this summer while visiting Africa.

Scott, 23, is enrolled in Pitt's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, studying international development and public health.

She took a 13-hour flight from New York to Kenya and traveled across the country for seven weeks in June and July, working on various water-related social and academic internship duties.

The internship was made possible through Pitt's Center for African Studies and arranged by Pitt supervisor Anna-Maria Karnes.

The internship focused on learning about and studying community-managed borehole water projects, which are alternative sources of clean water for communities that do not have access to county provided water.

In Africa, one of the biggest struggles is the high cost of electricity to power water pumps that supply water to homes.

With an urge to travel internationally and a keen interest in water, Scott said she has had the desire to make the world a better place from a young age.

"I've always had a particular interest in the importance of water because we were taught about it since elementary school. Leechburg spent a lot of time teaching about water because of our river," Scott said. "My goal is to make the world a more livable place, and this trip is the start of that goal."

The trip was part of a 300-hour internship required to graduate.

Before going to Africa, Scott attended the UN 2023 Water Conference in New York City.

"I wanted to go to a developing nation to see firsthand the issues that I'm learning about," Scott said. "My goal is to work in development and public policy and to advocate for clean water access both at home and across the world."

While in Kenya, Scott observed that most African families had goats and livestock. Some had sustainable water connections, but others had to travel to water kiosks for their water.

While in Africa, Scott assisted her supervisor, Jacktone Akelo, a Kenyan Development Studies doctoral candidate at St. Paul's University, with community-managed borehole sustainability research.

They revisited borehole locations in the western Kenya city of Kisumu, where they discovered a borehole water tank, built in 1978, was badly eroded and needed to be replaced.

"Unfortunately, replacements for water committees is a huge financial stress that often they can't resolve on their own," Scott said.

Traveling throughout rural villages in Africa unnoticed by the locals was next to impossible.

"Adults were very normal and fine. The kids thought we were very distracting. They don't often see blonde girls," Scott said. "Once we went to a school and walked past it, and the kids pulled us in and were so excited to visit with us. That felt kind of nice."

Scott, who graduated from Leechburg Area in 2018, credits two of her high school teachers for inspiring her to pursue global adventures.

"Damian Davies' 11th grade world cultures class and Tricia Shank's Spanish classes taught me about different cultures and the issues within them," Scott said. "Mr. Davies' class in particular focused on development issues in Africa and, ever since, I've been inspired to be involved."

Scott's first international trip was to Costa Rica during a school trip led by Shank.

Scott earned degrees in sociology and political science from Seton Hill University.

Davies described Scott as a leader.

"Ari's sophistication as a student allowed her to enjoy and recognize her world citizenship," Davies said. "Not only how the world has unfolded and what are the most pertinent issues, but, most importantly, what can be done and people who are achieving it like Leyma Gbowee (a Nobel Peace Prize winner for her work in Liberia). Ari is walking in the footsteps of these world leaders and being the change."

Scott works part time as a marketing/events assistant at the Pittsburgh Zoo & Aquarium and coaches gymnastics.

"I had the chance to feed a baby giraffe at an animal sanctuary and see different types of monkeys in their natural habitat. I saw lions, zebras, buffalos, warthogs and wild giraffes on safari.

"Baboons and zebras just roam around like we see deer here in Pa.," Scott said.

Other highlights included hiking in the Kisumu Impala Sanctuary, feeding monkeys and meeting multiple CEOs of nonprofits that support rural communities in developing water systems, schools and economic revenue.

Culture shock

Life in Africa ushered in a slew of eye-opening experiences for Scott.

"One of the challenges was culture shock. My biggest experience with this has been polygamy. Many of the men in Kenya have multiple wives," Scott said. "This is tied to the tribal culture that's still upheld in Kenya."

Another challenge involved basic hygiene.

"Getting adjusted to and experiencing the water and sanitation that I'm studying, I was lucky to have a rented house with running water and showers. However, when we were in the field, we had to utilize resources that the community had. That often meant using pit latrines in outhouses and washing your hands in buckets of water," Scott said.

Scott's trip coincided with Africa's rainy season. The food choices were limited, but tasty, she said.

"You pretty much had fish. They would catch it fresh out of Lake Victoria, fry it and serve it to you," she said. "It was very good. You eat pretty much everything with your hands."

Some of the more exotic foods Scott sampled included ostrich, crocodile and ox testicles.

"They weren't that great," she said. "And they use the whole animal so, a lot of times, I was just served a whole chicken — the feet, head, all of it."

The emotional aspects of Scott's trip were varied.

"The most heartbreaking experience I had was going to a village on the coast of Lake Victoria where people had to abandon their houses because water took over their homes. Every day there, I saw something new that was inspiring, saddening or surprising," she said.

Homesickness kicked in a bit for Scott in the form of missing American food.

"When I got back, I went to Chick-fil-A immediately. I had like, three breakfast sandwiches," she said.

Scott said she hopes to one day visit Kenya again.

"That may not be next, but I would like to return there. I'm already searching plane fares," she said. "It was incredible. The Kenyan culture is so friendly, hospitable and they love visitors."

Joyce Hanz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joyce by email at jhanz@triblive.com or via Twitter .