Local man is finding water for Congo

Gwen Chamberlain
Surrounded by water, Fontier lives on Seneca Lake near Penn Yan, and for a few years has wintered on his sailboat in the Caribbean.

While many Americans are keeping an eye on developments related the Ebola virus in the U.S., a Penn Yan man is hoping conditions in Africa don’t interfere with his plans for the winter.

For the past few years, Leon Fontier, 67, who lives near Long Point on Seneca Lake, has wintered on his sailboat in the Caribbean, but this winter he’s planning to spend it near the equator on the African continent.

Fontier, who was born in Congo, has been raising funds for more than two years to help construct safe water supply and sanitation systems at a school in the village of Bolenge, near where he was born. In 2012 Fontier retired from a long career as the owner of Fontier Designs, a metal working business based in Penn Yan. Since then, he’s been working on his dream through his foundation, Habitat Technologies Solutions.

His dream grew from a family trip. In 2010, Fontier took his grown children, who were born and raised in Western New York, to Congo to see the country where he was born. There, they saw the extreme poverty and poor living conditions. According to the HTS website, the lack of safe water contributes to an estimated 1.7 million deaths worldwide per year.

According to Unicef, one in five children in DR Congo dies before reaching five years of age. Diarrhea and other waterborne diseases account for 1 in 10 of these child deaths.

The village of Bolenge has one source of fresh water for roughly 4,000 residents, and about 1,000 children attend a school there. But the school, which was built by missionaries in the 1930s, has no latrines or running water to wash hands, says Fontier.

The school consists of multiple buildings for students in primary and secondary grades.

Bolenge is located where the geographic equator intersects with the Congo River, formerly the Zaire River, which is used for bathing, drinking and toileting, creating unsanitary conditions that are the breeding ground for deadly diseases.

Support totaling $55,000 from Rotary Clubs in Penn Yan, Corning, Hornell, Elmira Heights, and the Rotary District, along with clubs in Istanbul and India will help his foundation combat these waterborne diseases.

The Rotary funds will pay for the construction of latrines, cisterns and hand washing stations, and funds from the HTS foundation will pay for Fontier’s travel and living expenses. Fontier is planning to spend 8 1/2 months working with the villagers to complete the concrete block latrine buildings and the 30 biosand filter systems that will provide clean drinking water in each classroom.

The labor intense work will all be done by hand, so he estimates each one of the systems will take two to three weeks to build. But before construction can begin, he needs to establish a team of workers and train them to do the work.

“The whole idea is to transfer the information,” he says, acknowledging the comparison to work done by Peace Corps over the years.

Fontier says the Bolenge project was chosen by a friend who lives not far from the village. “It’s one of the best schools in the region even if it doesn’t have latrines,” he adds. He visited the village this summer, and realized there is no lack of other potential projects. The question was, “Where do we start?”

Fontier will live in a small cabin in the village, and he will have some intermittent cellular service so he can stay in touch with supporters back home. He hopes his wife, Eileen, will be able to visit him at some point during his lengthy stay.

DR Congo is in Central Africa, quite a distance from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, where the current massive Ebola outbreak is expected to kill hundreds if not thousands more victims. “Of course there’s always a concern about it (Ebola), but the three countries that have the outbreak are quite a distance away,” he says.

Liberia is about 1800 miles from DR Congo.

The World Health Organization is also monitoring an outbreak in Congo that isn’t related to the West Africa outbreak. The current Congo outbreak is located in the same region —the Equateur Province — where the Ebola virus was first identified in 1976.

According to a recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine, the DR Congo outbreak began over the summer, and had killed 49 people of the 69 infected by Oct. 7. The WHO is not recommending any travel or trade restrictions except in cases where individuals have been confirmed or suspected of being infected with Ebola.

For more information about Fontier’s foundation, and to make a contribution to his project, visit http://www.htscongo.org/