Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Our community development project here has a significant agricultural emphasis.  The elevation is lower, precipitation more, and soil better than the mountains we lived in before.  Last year the project built two large (20 meters long) demonstration greenhouses.  One was built at an agricultural high school, and the other at the agricultural department's (gov) compound.  Students and young farmers were invited to construct and plant the greenhouses, and local TV came to film the planting day as well.  Our hope is that farmers will get excited about the ability to grow more diverse crops and increase the growing cycle.  

Here's one of the large greenhouses in January.  The lowest night temps were around 5-10 F.  The temperature dipped just below freezing inside the greenhouses, and the frost damage was not severe, so really, this is a great place for greenhouses.  Our teammate in the mountains also had a winter greenhouse, but he spent more than $200 on fuel to heat it through the winter!  This greenhouse did not require any heat.

Now, demonstration greenhouses are fine and good, but we wanted to have a more direct impact on the lives of poor farmers and villagers.  So we played around a bit, and found that the branches of a certain berry tree (which is abundant here) have great flexibility and strength to form a greenhouse frame.
So for our first year of village greenhouses, we surveyed and found 5 women in each village we work in, women who are known for being the most responsible and influential agriculturalists in their village.  We gave these women a 4 meter x 10 meter piece of plastic (less than $10), a handful of vegetable seeds (a few dollars), and trained them in how to set up their own greenhouse with sticks.
These pictures are the small greenhouse that I built in our yard.  I hope to get out next week to see some of the other village greenhouses.  We hope that poor families will find an increased ability to provide nutritious food, because most families cannot afford the vegetables imported from other provinces or neighboring countries.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Trigger Points

 We have mentioned before that security is a significant concern here.  In case that has caused you to wonder how we live in this kind of context, I thought I would write this short post. 

Security is often associated with feelings, when really, emotions can betray you from the actual facts on the ground.  A person’s general mood can affect how ‘secure’ they feel, and that affects the decisions they make.  For that reason it’s important that security is measured against more solid, measurable indicators.  Our organization’s leadership has called on us to write a list of “trigger points”.  Trigger points are the indicators that, if seen or known to occur, make the decision for us: it’s time to evacuate. 

Last year when a security incident caused the relocation of the Community Development work, our organization sent leadership and experts in to help our team write their first trigger points.  It’s a new year now, and the situation is different, and demands a review and revision of our trigger points.  It’s a good exercise really, to sort out fact from feeling, wise counsel from assumption. 

Some of our trigger points are:
-If the government no longer wants us working here.
-If communities are no longer requesting our work.
-If communities are not willing to guarantee the safety of our local staff.
-If our local staff refuse or are restricted by local leaders from travel more than 2 weeks.
-If us foreigners are unable (by judgment of security agencies) to make field visits for more than 1 month.

I would imagine that our friends and families have a wide range of ideas of what it looks like here and what it must be like to live in a county at war.  You’ll notice that none of our trigger points talk about actual violence or proximity of warfare, instead our points are more based on relationships.  This is because in this culture, in this type of conflict, most of the locals can see bad things coming in the distance, and they change the way they relate to outsiders because of that.  Our best forecast for security might be closely watching how our interactions are going..

I hope that this list will arrest some of the concerns that we might become boiled frogs here.  If the majority of these trigger points are happening, the decision is made and there’s no need to second-guess or linger, it’s time to get out.

Writing our own trigger points is a good way to keep our security on the forefront, but not let anxiety get the best of us.  Once our periodic trigger points are set, we watch the relationships around them, be smart with how we conduct ourselves in public, but beyond that, we can relax and enjoy the little things like a growing baby boy, a flourishing greenhouse, and roasted chicken– highlights of my day!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Let’s take a close look at… pooping.

 Tomorrow our project begins a week of training on a program called Community-Led Total Sanitation.  Appropriately named, this program deals with sanitation, but it deals with it different from most of the NGOs’ projects here. 

The typical program enters a village, gives materials or cash or both, and tells people to build latrines.  The project walks away happy that they can report to their donor that they have built X latrines (and thus renew their grant next year), and the villagers are happy that they have been given or even paid to make a small cement-floored building.  You would be surprised to hear the variety of creative uses villagers have made of their new latrines.  Some cover the toilet hole and raise chickens in them.  Others find they make great storage for hay or other goods that need to stay dry.  One man found his latrine just big enough to park his motorcycle in.  The most creative: sheep, crammed into a latrine.  Sure they could use them for their toileting duties, but some would reason that this will only make the place stink, and who would want to do that?!  Much better, they say, to relieve oneself in the field, under the cool night air and the starry sky (sounds nice doesn’t it?). 

Sanitation projects are not easy, because it takes much more than a cement pooping pad to get people to change the toileting habits they have held all their lives.  You might be thinking to yourself, “they need to be trained in the benefits of using a latrine.”  You are correct, but this type of training is extremely difficult, because people are often glad to verbally agree that their toileting practices need correction (because the more wealthy trainer tells them this), but unwilling to actually change (because, well, there’s a lot of reasons they may not change, more on that later).

Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) is an approach to sanitation that puts all the emphasis on advocacy.  To make that clear, the approach also pulls away all the handouts and stipends of materials for building a latrine.  The theory is: only a family/community motivated enough to invest and build their own latrine, will actually use a latrine. 

How does CLTS motivate people in such a way?  Simple, it shocks them, and it shames them, and it leaves the solutions up to them.  Examples?  The project staff ask the villagers to take them on a tour of the village.  When they see traces of open defecation they might ask the villagers, “how are you going to avoid eating that?”  They then explain the various ways that their own feces may end up back in their mouth: animals eating it and later being handled by food preparers, children running through it and bringing it into the house, flies being in it and then landing on their food.  This discussion is made blunt on purpose, to let communities know what kind of problem they’re dealing with. 

It gets worse.  Ready for this?  I have already heard that there is a “fly talk” that goes quite well in this part of the world.  The trainer asks the villagers for a cup of tea.  They dip a single piece of hair in the tea, then asks if anyone will drink the tea.  This seems to gross people out, so they all decline.  The trainer then asks how many legs a fly has, and explains that when a fly has been on feces, and then lands on their food, it is bringing 6 times the amount of feces to their food, as compared to that one piece of hair they were scared of.

Ready for worse yet?  In most places, there are other disgusting stories of the effects of poor sanitation, and the trainers that come in to a village look and listen for such stories, and then make a big public discussion of them.  The best stories I’ve heard:
-One trainer spots a chicken eating poop, and asks what the eggs have tasted like recently.
-Often trainers are taken as doctors, and people bring their sick to them.  On occasion a child will be brought with a parasite worm coming out of its nose or eye.  The trainer again makes the connection between worms and parasites of feces on the ground, and that thing they see coming out of the child’s face, in other words- how did that get there?
-In one place we heard about, a whole village complained of worms, and so a project gave worm medicine to everyone the same day.  In this place, the practice was to toilet on top of a clean rock.  When the urge to relieve one’s bowels hit the whole community at once, they covered a good portion of the fields around their village with their poo.  What happened next turned the whole village upside-down- a flock of game birds (that they often hunted and ate) flew in and descended on the fields, devouring the freshly laid worms.  Seeing this, many in the community were now vomiting.

In each of these places, the communities committed 100% to breaking the cycle of traces of feces making it back in their mouths.  They understood that it would take more than latrines, it would take a whole behavioral overhaul to rid them of the risks they were putting themselves in.  That is a real sanitation program!

All sick or silly stories aside, sanitation is a serious business.  It’s been almost 10 years since NGO started flooding into this country with various attempts to alleviate poverty and facilitate development.  One major focus has always been water and sanitation, and yet last year UNICEF reported that 257 of every 1000 children born in this country, was dead before age 5.  Diarrhea is a significant cause to that figure, last year 75,500 children died due to diarrhea.  Rapid latrine-building projects and ORS distributions have not curbed these figures, something more must be done.

And just in case you have some sick notion that God is showing his wrath to this people, let me remind you that our mandate is to spread the message of a God who created man in His image, who is in fact a God of life.  How will we do that, unless we care about the number of their babies that are dying?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Marketing Update

Last time I talked about Biosand Filters I listed our action plans for marketing the filters for private sales.  If you found that interesting at all, you would probably like to hear how it’s going now.

Billboard signs:

Our plan of putting up large signs at every entrance to town stopped as soon as we met with the mayor.  We figured that he would request some personal favor in return for his permission to put up signs, so we combined our meeting about planting trees on city property.  The conversation between my colleague and the major went like this:

SM- As our NGO committed at the environment meeting, we will replace the trees around the park that have dried up.

Mayor- Yes yes, give 500 trees, that’s great.

SM- We will survey the trees around the park, then we’ll let you know how many trees we will replace.

Mayor- Of course, give 400 trees.

SM- After we count the trees needed, we’ll let you know.

Mayor- Okay fine, give 300 trees.

SM- We planted 300 trees around the park 3 years ago, most of them are living, so the number will be much less than the original.

Mayor- That’s okay. (pause) Just tell me I can write you down for 200 trees. 

After the discussion over trees, we should have known that the discussion over our signs would not go as well as we hoped.  We told the mayor our idea, and made sure to specify that we were not making any profit from the sales of the filter we were advertising.  The mayor was excited about our idea, praised our efforts in creating a water filter factory here, and said he would love to be involved in the growth of our project.  Then he kindly obliged to permit us put our signs if we paid him a cool $1,200 each.  SM kindly asked if the mayor would wave his cost, because the size and design we planned to use was going to cost $400 each.  He didn’t budge.  So, signs are out.  We don’t have the budget to pay that much for the signs, nor would we lend to corruption.  Yeah the mayor wanted to pocket the fee himself.


We’re about the send a poster design off to a printer.  It’s a pretty simple poster that shows the Biosand Filter, lists the benefits of clean water, and gives the address and phone for the factory.  My only problem is getting language support on the graphic design program I’m using.  If anyone knows how I can get more languages added to a Scalable Vector Graphics program, let me know.

Radio drama:

This has been the most fun.  Our team worked together to script a drama, and I helped them record it.  It goes like this (in another language of course):

Woman 1-Hello, how is your family, you house, your children?

Woman 2-Come in I’m glad to see you, my family is good, but my daughter is sick with diahrea again.

1-Where do you get your drinking water?

2-From the only water supply we have, the stream.

1-Why don’t you filter your water?

2-What is a filter?  I have heard of that.

1-There’s a new kind of water filter available here now.  It’s incredible because we also collect water from the stream, which is often cloudy, but after it goes through the filter the water is crystal clear.  Ever since we started using it, no one in our
house has been sick.

2-Where can I find one of these filters?

1-A factory was set up last year, (describes address), you can buy one there.

2-But what is the cost, I probably can’t afford it, I’m a poor person.

1-It’s $20

2-That’s cheap, considering that I can spend $20 each week when my children are sick.  All the trips to the clinic, the medicines, the doctor fees, it all adds up quickly.  Thank you so much for telling me about this filter, I will send my son to buy one today and we’ll start using it right away.  Thanks for your instruction, I am so glad to learn about this new way to stay healthy by filtering our water.

Thats your marketing update, give me your feedback or suggestions!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Getting to know the big boys

In previous posts I’ve written about the local men that lead humanitarian or development projects on a much bigger scale and budget than our projects.  I like to call these leaders the big boys of the development world, just for fun.  (By the way, when I talk about local people, I mean men or women that rightfully claim this is their native or birth country.)

I have a fair share of criticism for the big boys, often because they’ve done their project planning without the participation of the communities, thrown money around wastefully, or flat out fostered corruption.  In our last term I had almost zero contact with the big boys, and it was much easier to belly-ache about their work.  One of the biggest changes in my new role is that I regularly meet with the big boys to discuss various issues in WASH work (water, advocacy, sanitation, hygiene).  Today was one of those meetings, so tonight I will share some of my reflections with you.

I used to have nothing good to say about the big boys, that is, before I knew them personally.  Like I said, I had a fair bit of criticism, and it was easy to spout it, when I had never met them.  Now that I meet them regularly, I have had to assess my previous blanket judgment upon them.  In the process of this assessment, I have found some unexpected qualities in a number of the big boys.  Sure, some things I outright disagree with remain there, but when I acknowledge the positives I have seen in these individuals, I have had to adjust how I think about and engage with them.  Rather than holding a defensive posture so that these guys will not pollute our project, I think it is much better to let them see that in fact, my guard is down, and I’m interesting in talking and learning.  It appears very clear in our meetings that when I do this, they follow suit.  It’s been a decision on my part to focus more on their qualities than their deficiencies.  It has opened up some really positive interactions, and these boys, as big as they are, are interested in hearing how we operate on values that are very unique to their own.  These guys are probably some of the most intelligent men in this country, so they are already distinguished from the common person here.  They are able to see some of the deficiencies in their own culture, indeed they are sad over the state of their nation and people.  By acknowledging their individual qualities and leaving the critique of their culture to them, they have willingly opened up to us and accepted some of our advice on how to do things differently.  I wish more Americans could make this discovery about people of this religion in general and this country in specific.  I sense way too much fear coming out of America, directed to this part of the world.  Fear causes defensiveness, and that shuts down the whole positive process I have just described.  I pray you have opportunities to face down your “big boys”, and make people out of them. 

On an entirely different topic: One of the agenda items at every meeting with the big boy is giving program updates.  We go around the room sharing what has been good, bad, and ugly in our work lately.  One of the biggest of the big boys shared that they are expanding their work in the most insecure portions of the province.  You should know that the level of security varies widely from place to place.  People here know, generally, where is safe and where is not.  This guy said they were headed straight into the valleys of the province that are controlled by the insurgents.  This is no secret to the government; most of the local government there have been assassinated and replaced with “shadow” government (dark stuff indeed, and don’t worry, we have no intention whatsoever to wander there).  How on earth can this aid organization go there you ask?  Good question.  Another one of the big boys posed this question, and it started an interesting discussion.  It was interesting because the big boys were showing their 2 strongest motives: service to their people, and money.  Perhaps money is the greater of those motives for most people here.  Let’s face it, poverty and war have destroyed so much, all families need income.  Many are corrupt, but many are astonishingly generous, and sometimes at the same time- money works very differently here.  Why is there money involved in going to the dangerous corners of the province?  Because there’s underserved populations there, and big donors (that give grants to big boys) have millions ear-marked for infrastructure, rehabilitation, and development in insurgent zones, with the intention of winning people away from the fanaticism and violence of the insurgents.  The NGO leader that accepts the task of going to these extremely dangerous places will earn a huge salary, as long as he doesn’t get killed.  The payoff is so great that for some of them, it’s a risk worth taking.  I really don’t like this, but I thought it fair to include this part of the story because it tempers the other part.  The other strong motive among the big boys is to serve their people.  They’re sick of their people suffering violence and poverty, and they want to do something.  They believe the projects they run will make a big difference in lives and communities.  The question from one big boy to the group was, “how do we run projects in insecure areas?”  The man who is taking the biggest risks told us what measures he is taking, but the question remains on the table for our next meeting at the end of the month.  Anyone want to offer counsel I can take to the big boys?