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. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Latrine monitoring in K.T.

 Today I went to one of the project villages to look at the latrines being built.  It was the typical trip with lots of little things that I could mention, but usually don't because that requires more energy than I usually have in the evenings.  You're in luck because I just got back from a break and feel motivated to "take you along" on this village trip by sharing my observations of the day:

Every trip is a small adventure.  Before leaving town my driver and I made some calls to check security.  There was fighting overnight near the airport, so we took the rough road instead of the main.  A few kilometers down that road our Toyota Hilux truck started to wobble like a penguin.  I told the driver to let me drive so he could observe and try to figure out what it was.  So there’s the driver running beside me watching the front wheels.  It worked, he noticed the part of the suspension that was moving wildly from a missing bolt, and we limped it back to town to get said bolt.  20 minutes later we’re back on the road.

Our male staff are enthused that the second round of 20 latrines has been progressing much faster than the first 20.  The first took 2 months to complete, but in just 2 weeks many of the second round were well underway.  Makes sense, now that their harvest is over, they have time to do our physical projects.

Lunch was delicious salad, carmelized squash in sour cream, and rice with chickpeas (a feast to welcome me back from my trip to Am-ree-ka).  There was even pudding.  Wow, they hardly ever make pudding in the village.

Out we went on the walking tour of 30+ latrines.  The village is big, about a mile long and a quarter mile uphill in width.  The entire place is on a hillside so strewn with avalanched rocks you wouldn’t believe that over 75 families live there, but they do.  We walk up and down the hill to zigzag to all the homes with latrines.  I see a number of positive surprises along the way, including the number of latrines that had been ‘boosted’ into commode-style latrines by the homeowners.  I say ‘boosted’, because we do not include commode fixtures or extra plumbing with our program, our latrines are more basic slab and pit latrines.  It’s amazing to see that over 50% of the people in this village have gone out to buy themselves commode fixtures and piping to connect to a remote pit.  Months ago when I first heard about this idea I was skeptical because I feared there would be technical issues and it would come back at us.  Quickly I saw that lots of people were eager for commodes, because a number of men had seen them and worked on them in a neighboring country.  Now I can’t help but stand back and think this is excellent, because a commode is much better than the standard slab at controlling flies and smell, and the porcelain white fixture is a beautiful thing to see in a dusty village.

I’m humbled to see that some villagers have taken our program so serious that they have prioritized building their latrine over finishing their home.  Many new homes are being built in this village; people are constantly moving here from overpopulated mountain villages, and starting over here.  One man struggled to dig a 5-meter pit through dense rock, then bought 12 meters of 4” pvc pipe to drain the commode he installed in his house, to the pit down the hill outside.  He was so proud, and the latrine and wash space was truly well done by his own handiwork.  It was only as I left that I noticed his wife rocking an infant in a rickety wood cradle, in a room with no floor covering or windows.

Next stop is a house that looks just as simple and poor as the rest, but his latrine is visibly different; the interior of this latrine has been plastered and whitewashed!  This was not the only latrine that had been fancied up, there are several that have plastered walls and handwashing points with soap.  Some have even been turned into a latrine/washroom by enlarging the floor space, cementing the walls to knee-high, and installing a floor drain.  Then my mind was officially blown when I saw a toothbrush and toothpaste sitting on nails, on the wall of one washroom/latrine.  That’s the first time in 6 years that I’ve seen a toothbrush in a local home here, and it was out here in a poor dusty village. 

On we go, one latrine after another.  Some are average, but most look really good.  Then we find one with a green door and window frames.  Awesome

Later there is a curious latrine that does not have a roof yet, but the hole in the slab is covered.  This tells me that the family has put the latrine right to work, and applied what they learned in the training about keeping the slab covered.  Nevermind there’s no roof yet, there’s no rain this month.

Most of the latrines have covers on the slabs, which is great because this is something the project didn’t supply; they had to get their own.  One family used what looked like the cover for truck air cleaner.  Whatever works!

To be honest not all the latrines were up to snuff.  Several were made with the technical suggestions of a certain man who swore he was a well-trained engineer.  Unfortunately he suggested they overlap their 2-piece slanted tin roof the wrong way, and when the rain comes they will be getting dripped on when they go to their latrine.  I pointed this out, but as I suspected, they all chose the “we’ll wait and see” response.  That’s fine, it’s their latrine, made with their own hands, so if it needs to be fixed, I’m pretty sure they’ll do it. 

One of the big surprises of the day was learning that my lead staff took the liberty to let every man build his own latrine, and be paid the mason’s wage for that.  The plan had been that 3 masons would be contracted to build the more technical parts of the latrine, together with trainees at each house that would learn the construction techniques.  At first I was disappointed with my staff leader and planned to make an issue of how his choice would make the community more dependent, but then I decided to first go and see the result of his leadership.  We toured on a great day, because a number of men were literally putting the finishing touches on their latrines.  I saw the pride and satisfaction on their faces, and I heard their appreciation of our project finally making it possible for them to “quit being lazy” (the words of one man) and take care of their sanitation need.  I was reminded of two points I read recently in a book titled “Poor Economics”.  The authors of this book argue that development needs to be tested and researched according to how each unique people group responds to different types of support or assistance.  They suggest that a handout or incentive is not always a bad thing; perhaps the handout is what convinces people to act right away.  This might cause concern that they acted because of the incentive, or that they would get used to handouts.  On this point, however, the authors counter that perhaps it’s not handouts they get used to, perhaps they rather get used to latrines, and never allow themselves to go back to life without them. 

I was still thinking about these points when my staff started to ask me how we will proceed with the rest of the community.  That is the question isn’t it?  I mean, no matter what we have done, where is it going from here, and will we be able to affect change in sanitation outside of the area where we give away materials and pay builders?  My staff must get tired of hearing these types of questions from me.

By the end of the week I estimate 35-40 latrines will be done in this village.  The goal for the year is 75 total, and then we will do another round of hygiene training over the winter for the 50 new families (told you the village is growing fast) before we do any assistance with their latrines next year.  What we will probably do between this year and next is transition to a new phase in which we no longer pay for any labor on latrines, we only supply materials not found in the village.  Most of my staff think this will be a mistake because people will not tolerate being treated differently.  My staff leader, however, agrees with me, that once there is a critical mass of 75 latrine-using families in a village, the social pressure will be on the other 50 to get theirs done, and they will be more inclined to do the labor for free in order to catch up with the rest of the community.  I wouldn’t be so sure of this, except that the commodes, white-washed walls, and the toothbrush tell me that this community has “got” the message on hygiene and sanitation, and they should be able to handle the continuation of the latrine project as the outside organization takes steps back and lets them do it.

We will see!  Ask me later about this village that we call K.T.!

Saturday, October 5, 2013


This morning we stepped back into our home in Fize, after almost 6 weeks of traveling, family-timing, holidaying, traveling more, conferencing and networking, and traveling more.  There are always mixed emotions returning to our homes, and it is not always easy to even name what those emotions are or where they have come from. 

Let’s be honest, there are a variety of aspects of life here that are not exciting to return to.  The convenience I miss the most is a refrigerator, and the close second is a hot shower.  It is also hard to return knowing that I am not coming back to a job that is going well, in fact I’m coming back to address all the problems that I gladly left behind weeks ago.  The reality is that as soon as I deal with those problems, there will be just as many new ones, because our projects always seem to create issues before we can really help people make lasting solutions.  Oh the energy it takes to even think about that.  It’s funny how I often feel the most zapped when I return here from a break. 

In the first hours back in our house, there were so many things that I needed to get to work on, but my heart was really opposed, so I had to take a few minutes, find a quiet place, and talk to my Maker about the state of things.  Actually I didn’t communicate much, but rather I urged Him to speak up a bit.  It’s a shame to admit that I was surprised when He answered.  Maybe it’s because the answer came in a unique way.  All at once, my senses were opened, and a combination of present happenings and near memories popped into my mind like a film.  In a matter of minutes my consciousness scanned and senses absorbed the following things that are all right here:

-the laughter and play of hundreds of children in the school across the street
-the flowerpots on the street, but they are not flowerpots, they’re old tank wheels put on their side
-the men on the sidewalk who spend the whole afternoon playing chess
-the watchman who returned a bottle of perfume that my wife unknowingly dropped 5 weeks ago (rather than taking it home)
-the driver who was noticeably careful with the van full of young families (the same driver I threatened and nearly fired 2 months ago for not driving safe)
-my son who arrived and toured every room and corner of the yard with exuberant joy
-my wife who threw herself right into cleaning the layer of dust off of everything
-my daughter who vacillated between smiley giggles, and closed-eye head-bobbling, as she tried to stay happy and awake during lunch

These senses and pictures help on days when returning seems hard.  It is so great when help comes right when we need it.