Sunday, October 20, 2013

How do you face angry village elders?

This is a long post.  The meeting that I describe below concluded, then I sat down in a room here in one of our project villages and tapped out the story on my tablet while the local staff were busy. It was a new opportunity to record a full story with details that really describe what some of our work is like.  So, enjoy it for what it is, or skip it!

How do you face a group of village elders who have been angry for months about the results of your work? I was thinking this to myself for the past week while the plan was made for me to do just that. To explain why that became the plan, we have to go back several months.  Remember the well project with the pants-less well digger? What I haven't told, because I have just learned it, is that before I came to this part of the country the engineer before me was a bit careless in his surveying, and he led people to believe he was promising more than the project had capability to deliver. Without communicating much, he surveyed for a large water reservoir above the village, which could be the source for several gravity-fed pipes to different areas in the village.  To him it was just surveying for future but unfortunately the villagers that watched him do this believed it was the definite "phase II" of the project that he was looking at.  Learning this recently has helped me understand better why this community has had such a hard time managing to share the single reservoir we fixed and piped water to. 

The frustration from the community has come out in different ways.  Many of its members have complained that there is not enough water, or that they never get their turn to get water.   Another symptom has been that those living close to the reservoir have considered it their right to take as much water as they want, and those living further away do not have the same ability.  Those that are getting less water and hauling it more distance are quite disgusted with the others, and some have quit using this clean water source and gone back the river for water collection.

The unequal use of water, and those that have walked away from the clean water, poses more problems in regard to community's expense.  You see, water doesn't reach the reservoir for free, it is pumped up the valley from the well we helped them dig, and the community shares the electric utility expense on the well pump, as well as a monthly wage for local "water manager". Less people using the water means the division of the utility and wage goes up for the others.  Water hogs drive the cost up more.  In this situation it is understandable how those that are paying for water, but not getting enough of it, are furious.

So why don't people get enough water? It is not that the well runs dry and has to be shutoff to recharge.  It is a combination of the overuse by some, and the limited timeframe to collect water for all. The time to collect water is limited because the pump is only turned on for a few hours of the day. Why is that? Perhaps because they don't
want to run up the electric bill? Or because electricity is in only available part of the day?  No, it's actually because the pump is only run in the afternoon, which is when people are used to collecting water, and the afternoon is not long enough for everyone to get the amount of water they need, especially considering the water hogs! 

Wait, there's two more elements to add to the situation: gender, and age.  It used to be that water was collected by women or children, in the afternoon, as they would take their donkeys to the river and load them with water jugs.  Now that water collection has moved to the center of the village, in a religious space by the mosque, there are new dynamics.  Women who are not from the houses immediately around the reservoir are not supposed to be in spaces like this, so instead the men from those houses have had to collect the water.  Don't cheer about that however, because they have made it hard for the women and children who still collect water for their houses nearby the reservoir.  In this culture children and women are most always expected to yield to men.  Actually in this case no one is winning, everyone is angry.  The women from the far houses are angry because they can no longer get water with other women, and their men are angry because they have to get it.  Then the women from the nearer houses are angry because the men from further are cutting in line, and their men are angry because their women and children don't always get water. 

So, there's the stage of the situation. How would you have gone in?  I thought and prayed about it a ton, because I was very concerned about what could happen in this village if we didn't find a resolution. Finally when I left for the village I had three short lists: 1- things to listen for and encourage, 2- topics to steer away from, and 3- points to assert.  I won't even share those lists with you however, because from the first speaker at the meeting I realized it was going an entirely different route!

I arrived in the room with 10 grumpy, white-bearded elders, we exchanged nice greetings, then we got right to it.  The first man said, "from the beginning we were told there would be a big reservoir above the village (the one mistakenly surveyed), and we also need a backup generator."  I was taken aback because these first two points drove right into the areas I wanted to steer away from!  So, I asked them to tell me more about what it meant for them to not have those things.  As they described the problems affecting them, I began to weave in suggestions of my alternate solution, hoping we could leave their desired solutions behind.  Thank God it worked!  As I began to gain momentum with the suggestion of adding two more pipes instead of another pump and reservoir, I turned the discussion toward the social matters that were in their hands; matters that I saw as prerequisites to us doing any more material projects.  My one local staff who went with me (and sat by silently, thanks for the help buddy) said later that only a foreigner could address a circle of elders and say that the root problem was that the community had not made sufficient agreements.  i first asserted that they needed to agree on the limits for the use of the clean water or the abuses and frustration would continue.  I also asserted that until they made a daily schedule for water collection by the different parts of the community, that no amount of water or reservoirs would bring peace back to their village. 

With my chips on the discussion table, the leaders began to argue with me about the superiority of their solution.  They really wanted to skirt the difficult social matters and convince me to commit the funds to build them a bigger reservoir.  I didn't tell them no, but instead laid out the negative consequences I saw from their plan: people would continue to hog water, separating collection locations without a schedule would only slow the time it takes to fill each jug, and their electric expense would double with the addition of another pump.

At this point they turned to their village dialect (I had been talking with them in the national language) so that they could talk about me, in front of my back, privately.  Their interaction got quite heated, but eventually the leader turned back to me and said, "how do you suggest we go from here then?"  I laid out for them a four-stage plan: 1- they would determine as a community how the clean water may and may not be used (I.e. only drinking and cooking? Bathing also? Washing also? Animals also? Gardens also? Construction also?)  They would also decide a time of each day for each of the 3 sections of the village to collect water, and stick to this plan. 2- We will come next week, survey both the social matters and the physical possibility of adding two pipes to the two further sections.  If all looks good, we'll work with them to put in the pipes as soon as they're ready to do the labor.  3- then we will spend the winter encouraging the community to stick to the new system, and record their usage and expense over several months.  4- In the spring, if they still think another reservoir would serve them better, then we have the data to do a thorough operating expense projection, and can figure and share that with the community so that they can make an informed decision. 

More arguments followed, but my suggestion gathered enough acceptance right away that my new proponents did the refuting for me.  Another round of arguments in the village dialect solved, the leader turned to me and said, "your plan is excellent and appropriate, we could not have agreed on this without you."

Before we left the room I commented on their wish for a generator, saying that it was outside our policy (we only do renewable energy projects), but if they wrote a proposal we could advocate for them to other agencies. With that door for another false assumption closed, we called the meeting to a close, went outside and took a look at the locations for the suggested extra pipes.

The walking tour of the locations for the extra pipes was a great chance to listen to the elders more, and make sure they understood what they agreed with!  I'm still concerned that the men might not have understood me, but rather assumed they were hearing what they wanted to hear!  My other concern is if "the right ones" were not in today's meeting.  We should find this out in the next visit!

I sense that we are not out of the woods yet. There have been a lot of twists and turns in this story and I should not be surprised if I have still missed another angle of this situation.  The learning here never seems to end. 

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