Burkina Faso is a landlocked African country with approximately 18.6 million inhabitants—three million of whom have no access to clean water, and 14 million who lack access to sanitation systems. What anyone would call a country in need, Prosper Zongo, a 2016 University of South Dakota graduate, calls home.
Zongo was born in Côte d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast) after his parents migrated there from Burkina Faso, a neighboring country where they and their children are still considered residents.
“I grew up watching my mom and my older brothers traveling many miles to fetch water,” he said, “and when I was about five years old I started traveling that same distance."
Now, with a completed education and a passion for helping others, the 29-year-old aims to build wells for every village in the country and make clean water immediately accessible. Each day, women and children walk four to six miles to the nearest water source and carry enough back for their animals, crops, businesses and families. Between the need for help at home and the cost of education, many parents cannot afford schooling for their children.
Zongo, the eighth of his father’s 13 children, would have followed that same path if not for his mother’s intervention.
“I still remember, when I was six years old, my mother asking my father to please let me go to school,” he said, and he still thanks her for it to this day. She persisted for two weeks until his father agreed—on the condition that, after middle school, Zongo would drop out and come back to help on the farm.
His performance during his first year so impressed his parents that the condition no longer applied. Zongo’s father not only wanted him to stay in school; he sent the rest of the younger siblings to school as well. Not taking the opportunity for granted, Zongo held himself responsible for being a good student and setting an example for those who came after him.
He and his siblings attended school in the Ivory Coast until 2002, when a civil war broke out and brought school systems to a halt. His parents, now committed to their children’s education, sent Zongo and his three younger brothers to Bobo-Dioulasso, a city in Burkina Faso, where they could finish school. Having been out of their home country for almost 40 years, however, his parents no longer had ties with anyone there. The war also impeded banking and kept them from sending what little funds they would have been able to provide.
The four young men were ultimately on their own—and under Zongo’s care.
“We suffered a lot,” he said. “Sometimes I’d go home from school wondering what we were going to eat because we had nothing at all.”
They rented part of a house from a landlord who, after noticing their need, took it upon himself and his wife to make sure the boys were fed for the next four years. Despite their suffering, though, Zongo remained strong.
“What kept me going, even in the moments when I didn’t have food to eat, was this: coming from a poor family, if I let hunger prevent me from being the best student, nothing is going to save me. If my education does not succeed, I can’t rely on my parents to help me in the future because they don’t have anything. I always thought that, if there’s anything that will save me, it’s education.”
With this mindset he kept pushing himself to be the best student so he could eventually further his education in the United States. Studying in the U.S. would honor his parents and show them his gratitude for sending him to school.
After high school Zongo moved to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, with one of his brothers while the other two finished high school. There he attended the University of Ouagadougou as an English major.
With the war still in full swing, though, so was the financial struggle. This time, help came in the form of a Fulbright scholarship.
Zongo applied for the scholarship and a chance at coming to the United States in 2011, during his junior year. Throughout the 15-month selection process, more than 1,000 applicants were narrowed down to three recipients—and he was one of them. Not only would he be studying in the States, but he was also aided by a prestigious scholarship.
In August 2012 he started his senior year with majors in English and education at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The scholarship provided him $1,180 per month for food, books and other school expenses; but it also provided a new perspective on his life in the U.S. compared to that of his home.
“Coming from a place where my father had never held a thousand dollars in his hand, and then being here and given that much per month, I thought, ‘What can I do with this to help those who are struggling, who have nothing, and who cannot go to school?’” Zongo said. After spending his life setting an example for his siblings, he realized he could do the same for others.
He graduated from Augustana and then came to USD as a political science graduate student, all the while saving small amounts of his scholarship money each month. After three years, he had saved almost $10,000. The next step: deciding where his funds would be most helpful.
His country’s water issue didn’t immediately come to mind. During a graduate course at USD, his professor and advisor Eric Jepsen, Ph.D., assigned the book "Poor Economics" for the class to read. What Zongo learned was that countries in need receive a lot of financial support, but few sponsors visit the countries or know where their money is actually spent.
“The book teaches a lot about getting involved and talking to those in need, seeing what their needs really are, and asking how they want to be helped—rather than just sending funds,” he said. For example: helping build wells rather than sending money to support clean water initiatives.
Zongo spoke with Jepsen about finding internships and gaining the skills that would help him combat his country’s water issue. The advisor suggested organizations and opportunities such as Global Partners in Hope, a nonprofit in Omaha, Nebraska. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Smith, another of Zongo’s professors, helped him send out his resume.
Here, again, the student confronted more challenges. Many of the organizations’ responses were that he lacked appropriate experience and therefore wouldn’t take him as an intern.
“Finally I decided that, if they won’t give me the chance, why don’t I just try by myself?” Zongo said. “If I succeed, I will know this is something I can do on my own. If it doesn’t, maybe I can learn from my mistakes and improve.”
He started by sending $100 and a request to his friend in Burkina Faso: locate three villages that are most in need of water. Then, find a company that can drill the wells.
“And he did,” Zongo said. “He’s a very good friend, and he found everything.” With those first steps taken he was ready to get to work. He left for Burkina Faso and met with the drilling company two days after his spring semester in 2016.
Of the three villages, they started with one about six hours from Ouagadougou. Two drilling attempts in different locations revealed that, even 60 meters into the ground, there was no water. The company manager decided that Zongo, the workers and their machinery should return to the capital city and choose a different village. Before he left, though, Zongo promised to return and provide them with clean water.
Their next target was Sapone, a village roughly 45 minutes from the capital. Again the crew started drilling—this time, with better results.
“Fortunately, that one worked perfectly. There was water flowing out of the ground,” Zongo said, adding that villagers were present and watching the water appear. “It was the greatest feeling to see the joy in the eyes of these people who have lived many years without such close access to clean water.”
Not having told the villagers who he was, Zongo was assumed to be a government official sent to address the village’s need. After the well was built, he revealed himself as a student who was there to help and self-funding the project. All he asked in return was that every child in the village be sent to school; since they no longer had to spend their days fetching water, they could spend time getting an education instead.
“The water will help us tremendously,” said a villager named Justine, in a video Zongo filmed to capture the event. “It will bring us health and improve our daily lives. Before we couldn’t even have water to do laundry, and we faced recurrent diseases because we relied on the dirty water of the river.”
“He saved us,” said Wouloug Naaba, the village chief, in the same video. “He gave us exactly what we needed. He gave us water. If I try to express how helpful this water fountain is for the village, I may say nonsense words because words cannot convey how I feel.”
Inspired by his success and the difference he could make for one village, Zongo will return to see how their lives have changed and build two more wells. He finished graduate school at USD in December 2016 with degrees in political science and international relations. Armed with his education, he plans to continue building wells throughout the rest of Burkina Faso. He aims to serve all of the country’s villages by 2022—but he’s not stopping there.
With the wells built, Zongo plans to run for president of Burkina Faso in 2025.
“I’m passionate about helping because I believe I can help, and that encourages me to be a leader in my country—so I can help more,” he said. “But if I’m serious about helping my country, I shouldn’t wait until I’m president to do it.”
As one of the few people who attended school, Zongo holds himself responsible for giving back to a country where so many still live in poverty. By funding and building the wells as a student, he will have lifted the financial burden off the government before his election. He could instead invest in hospitals and roads that need building, as well as education for what is one of the most illiterate countries in the world.
“Prosper has a bright future as a development policy expert and as a public servant,” said Jepsen, Ph.D. “He is one who leads by example and seeks to build diverse coalitions to support his ideas for change and progress.”
In his time at USD, Zongo kept busy setting an example for students and the community. He was elected president of the African Student Association (ASA) in the spring of 2016 and used the position to advocate more for helping those in need.
After launching a book drive on campus, he and the other association members helped collect more than 2,500 books throughout the semester. With such impressive results but not certain where to distribute the collection, the association sought out a charity who might be sending books to African countries.
They found Books for Africa, a Minneapolis-based organization that could deliver the students’ contribution to Kenya. Inspired by their success, the students hosted a second drive in the fall 2016 semester; this time they brought in another 4,000 books that will be delivered to Tanzania by the same organization.
“I see Prosper as a transformational leader, who started out as the leader of a band of African students at USD collecting and sending books to students in Africa and will in the future, influence and inspire millennials in Africa as well as young people from developing countries who come in contact with him,” said Meera Venkatachalam, Ph.D., associate director of the Honors program and another of Zongo’s mentors. “He expresses the power of the individual to make meaningful change happen.”
Other accomplishments during his time as ASA president include a symposium regarding how minorities in the U.S. can maintain good relations with those around them. He also initiated a mentorship program in which graduate students are matched with undergraduates and work with them on improving academic performance. When it comes to equality in education and leadership, Zongo has been cultivating a passion since his youth.
No life can survive without water, and no population can thrive without education and sound leadership. Prosper, by definition, means “to flourish” or “to grow strong and healthy.” According to Zongo, there’s no story behind his name and its definition. According to the work he’s done and intends to accomplish, he’s writing that story himself.