Engineer on a Mission

A Jesuit priest EE finds a new calling in Africa

As both an electrical engineer and a Jesuit priest, Lammert B. ”Bert” Otten can lead a spiritual retreat just as easily as a dam-building project in Zambia. ”As an engineer,” he says, ”you’re cocreating with God to make life better for people.”

Zambia has been Otten’s adopted African home since 2005, when he retired from the University of Seattle. As a consultant in appropriate technology for the Diocesan Promoters Office in Monze, about 180 kilometers southwest of the capital city of Lusaka, he has installed solar-powered water pumps for irrigation, solar vegetable dryers, solar lighting, and refrigeration. He has turned the oil from the seeds of local plants, such as jatropha, into biofuel, soap, and candles. And, yes, he’s built a dam—on the Ngwerere River.

As if his retirement weren’t busy enough, Otten also uses available materials to solve smaller problems. There’s the lamp he made by covering a cardboard toilet-paper roll with an inside-out potato chip bag as a reflector; the solar water distiller he made from glass, poly film, conduit pipe, and a plastic water bottle; and the battery-charging windmills he fashioned from discarded plastic sewer pipes. Otten also hitched LEDs (donated by stateside friends) to flashlight batteries (ditto) as a cheap and safe alternative to burning diesel fuel or candles in a grass-roofed hut.

”Many people in Zambia are living on a dollar a day or less, so cost is a big thing for them,” says Otten. He’s now working on a battery recharger made out of refrigerator magnets and coils from telephone dialing equipment. ”You wave the magnets around the wire coil and get the electrons moving enough to light LEDs,” he says.

He also mentors local high school students; last summer he initiated a Seattle University Engineers Without Borders student group trip to the Zambezi River to build a water pump run by river current.

For his efforts in appropriate technology, the University of Missouri College of Engineering, in Columbia—one of Otten’s many alma maters—gave him a Missouri Honor Award for Distinguished Service in Engineering.

As a child in St. Louis he relished making crystal and one-tube radios in his basement. At the same time, he adds, ”there was always something about my personal relationship with God. I kind of felt called to the priesthood but didn’t want to do it. Then, in high school, I got to know the Jesuits, their lifestyle, intellectual discipline, and mission work in the developing world. I realized I could do things like that in relation to technology, and it all tied together.”

Otten started at the Jesuit-run St. Louis University as an electrical engineering major in 1950 but entered the Jesuit seminary three years later. He ended up with, among other degrees, a licentiate in sacred theology from the University of Saint Mary, in Kansas, and a Ph.D. in EE from the University of Missouri.

Otten first visited Zambia in 1994. Now 77, he lives in a Jesuit compound containing a high school, hospital, radio station, and staff living quarters within walking distance of the village of Chikuni. Africa seemed a natural choice for retirement. ”Most of my contacts were in Zambia, and the needs in Africa were so much greater,” he says. ”One fellow, orphaned at 10, worked his way through teachers college making and selling LED lights,” says Otten. ”Now his life is different.”