By Petty Officer 3rd Class John Hulle
SANKURI, Kenya -- Driving into Mississippi on any one of its major interstate expressways, you might notice one of the innocuous welcome signs common on our Nation's road system. "Mississippi... feels like coming home," the sign warmly reads, a line from a Raphael Semmes' song.
Several thousand miles and seven time zones away, Seabees assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74, deployed from Gulfport, Miss., labor away in Kenya. The crew is in the process of digging water wells in the district of Garissa.
This close to the equator - less than one degree south latitude, the sun beats down ferociously from the sky and scorches the earth. The heat, combined with living in a tent camp while fending off camel spiders, scorpions and the occasional angry camel, makes coming home all that more appealing for many of these sailors.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Jack Ndaiga may not know who Raphael Semmes is, or have noticed greetings on the roadway signs, but there is a certain bit of irony in the unofficial state motto based off Semmes's song. Until Ndagia moved to the United States four years ago and settled in Gulfport, he lived only a three-hour drive down the road in Nairobi.
"Actually, my family is jealous because I get to visit where I am from for two months," Ndaiga laughs. "When my family goes back it's only for a few weeks at a time."
Ndaiga moved to the United States in 2004 with his mother, father and three brothers. He said since he was a child, he has always had a fascination with the Navy. Now as a resident in the United States, he said being a Seabee opened up a world of opportunities, least of which was the ability to travel the globe.
"I have had a lot more experiences being in the United States," Ndaiga said, whose last deployment with NMCB 74 was in Guam. "In Kenya, it's hard to get a job, to even have your own home. I never thought I would have this chance."
His fellow Seabees, deployed to Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, are helping make a difference for the locals here. They are providing one of the most essential elements for life: clean drinking water. And they're sharing their drilling expertise with Kenyan Department of Defense water well drillers, as well.
In the district of Garissa, the closest water source is often the Tara River. The crew is digging three wells in the area, to give locals a better alternative.
"A lot of people don't have water and have to walk several miles to get it. This is good for the people," Ndaiga said.
"The river is primarily only good for livestock. It's not good drinking water," said Construction Mechanic 2nd Class Peter Welch, a derrick operator assigned to NMCB 74. "For the individuals who do decide to go to the river to get drinking water, there are crocodiles and hippos, which can be very dangerous. We have heard reports of people, especially small children, being killed by crocodiles."
Welch went on to add, "to give clean drinking water is definitely extremely helpful for them. We are going to be doing the wells in the villages so they won't have to walk several kilometers."
Growing-up in Kenya, Ndaiga said he knew if he was ever able to leave the country, he wanted to come back to help.
"This is what I was dreaming about. That one day I could come to a place like this and act as a representative," he said.
As an utilitiesman in the Seabees, Ndaiga's main job is camp maintenance. With the drilling crew running their rig around-the-clock, camp maintence is essential for daily routine of the camp.
"I make sure all the air conditioning is running well, help-out with any electrical issues and keeping the camp clean," he said.
However, being fluent in Swahili and English, Ndaiga takes every chance he can to engage the people he meets, especially during the nightly soccer matches just outside the camp.
From the two decades of his life living in the country, he knows that the locals might have concerns with a few dozen camouflage-clad Americans living and working with heavy equipment near their village. "I like interacting with the locals and helping them understand why we are here," he said. "It builds a good relationship between Kenya and the U.S., and it stops from us looking like enemy combatants coming to take their land."
For Kenyans working with the Seabees, they have seen the changes over the years as relationships have improved. Alfred Kiragu has been working with Seabees deployed to Kenya since 2006. During that time, he has seen the relationship between the two countries blossom, through community involvement and considers the water well members friends.
"The Seabees are doing more than just giving the people water," he said. "They interact with the locals. Almost every evening they play soccer with the children. They drive the message that we are here to help, which they take home to their parents."
And helping people in the land where Ndaiga came from is something he can take home to his parents.