The money for my well building project was recently transferred, so on Tuesday I went out to the three towns where we’re building the wells to participate in community meetings and supervise well placement.
There’s no cell phone reception in my commune, which made communications difficult. The three towns where we’re building the wells are spaced out along a rural path in the south of my commune. The towns knew I was coming with the vice-mayor and my coworker at the MBG, but we were also supposed to meet up with the well builders at the trailhead at an unspecified time.
The vice-mayor, my coworker, and I took a taxi brousse to Ansampanamahazo, the town at the trailhead, and tried unsuccessfully to call the well builders to see when they were arriving. Eager to get a move on, and under the false impression that I was familiar enough with the path to be a guide, the other two struck out on the path and I waited behind with a woman I knew from the town to meet the well builders and secure a temporary storage space for the building materials. I hadn’t met the builders, so once we found a storage space, we waited along the road and yelled out at every unfamiliar male, “Hey! Are you a well builder?” Since this is Africa, this worked well, and half an hour later I was walking toward the towns with the two friendly builders and (since this is
The path out to the villages is narrow, muddy, and occasionally supplied with worrisome makeshift bridges over streams. The first bridge is a failed building project, a cement structure wide enough to hold a truck, but broken in the middle. To cross it, you jump over a narrow chasm and then clamber back up from the fallen half of the bridge on a felled tree trunk. The second bridge is just a felled tree trunk. The third is a precarious zigzag of two by fours. I told them that as an environment volunteer, I would condone the felling of a tree for a functional third bridge, but I don’t think they believed me. They were, however, very impressed that I could keep up with them, and kept commenting on the “one meter stride of Americans”.
For the village visits, we briefly visited the village presidents on the way out to alert them of out presence, and did community meetings and well placement and dowsing on the way back. Due to a combination of African and French cultural influences, formal introductions are very important when you go to new towns, and are very formalized. Unfortunately, it’s not a structure I fit easily into—on one hand I’m a white educated foreigner and I handle the money; on the other hand I’m young, female, and have a shaky grasp of formal language and cultural intricacies. Who starts speaking first and who introduces who is dependent on age, status, relationships, whether you’ve visited before, and a host of other factors.
In the first village, I was on solid footing since there were only the two builders, the president, and myself. After the basic greetings, I did the formal introduction of the interlopers, the president did the formal welcome, the builders did the formal statement of their intentions, and the president did the formal empty speech about the importance of development projects, and we were on out way. The second village was a little more awkward, since the first president had accompanied us and while I had been to the village before, I hadn’t met the president. We sat in the president’s house for a little while and stared at the walls for until the first president figured out I didn’t know who the second president WAS. So he introduced me, and I finally realized that I somehow “ranked” the first president in the second village for some unclear reason, and I started introductions, and we were off and rolling again. The third village happily presented no problems, since we finally caught up to the vice-mayor and my co-worker, both of whom “rank” me and could do the introductions. Whew.
The third village was interesting to visit since, while like the other two villages it has zero wells, it’s the closest to the forest reserve I work with and has benefited from more projects. One of the first people I saw was a little boy in a kid-sized wheelchair (extremely rare) with his feet wrapped in gauze from a recent surgery to repair severe clubbing (the surgery is also rare; most people just live with whichever disabilities they’re born with). We also stopped by the new school building, which was a sharp contrast to the “homemade” buildings still standing next to it, which strongly reminded me of pigpens—low, built with makeshift materials, and falling down.
Community meetings are an exhausting necessity. In the case of smaller towns, everyone gathers in an open space in the center of town, and after the empty rhetoric speeches about development by the VIPs, we get down to business: what we’re doing, when we’re doing it, why it’s important, and how they need to help. The well building requires significant community input, just not in the form of money. The town will gather sand and gravel for the cement mix, house and feed the two supervising builders for the duration of their time in the town, and transport the building materials (including sacks of cement) by a combination of human labor and dugout canoe from the main road to the building sites. More importantly, two people from the town will be required to work on the project everyday, helping with the manual labor and more importantly learning how to actually build the well, so they can do repairs and possibly even start a new project later on.
The villagers are excited about the well but their immediate question was—“ Why only one? There are almost 1000 people in this village, why do we only get one well?” I expected this, but it’s a little hard for me to explain, so I was happy that the “other VIPs” fielded the question. It’s because there are six towns in the area without wells, and we only have funding for three, so we’re spreading it out to do the most good. It’s because we need to make sure the villagers use and take care of the first well before we invest in more—future wells will be based on who takes the best care of and makes the best use of the one they’ll have soon. It’s because while there’s 1000 people in the area, not all of them are going to switch to a clean water source out of habit and convenience, and one well is enough (just enough, but still enough) to support the 500 or so who will make the switch immediately. And, most of all, it’s because we had to make a choice—no way do we have to resources or time to build the 12 wells needed before rainy season, so the choice was to build one each in the three towns closest to the forest reserve. Once this was clear (and in particular, once my co-worker made it clear there were other towns who would happily accept the wells if the villages in question didn’t have their contributions ready in a week), they were enthusiastic again.
I read an article somewhere that categorized aid workers as either cowboys or statisticians. Cowboys (and girls) see a single person or a small cause that needs help and throw themselves in to help, full commitment. Statisticians look at what will make the most sense and do the most good for the most people, and work on that. There’s value in both approaches, and people get motivated by both. Choosing the well sites? That’s statistics. The boy who received surgery and a wheelchair? Cowboy aid work. My desire, when I see a child with a cleft palate, to get the kid to a hospital and pay for the surgery myself if I have to? Cowgirl. They both make sense, but sometimes they feel mutually exclusive.
Anyway, back to actual work. After wrapping up the community meetings we chose the sites for the wells, and the builders were hugely amused when I wanted to help dowse for water—they have two L-shaped metal wands that they hold loosely by the short length and observe the movement and direction of the long end. I’m not sure how scientific it is, but it’s definitely fun.
After the villages gather together the materials they need, they’ll send a note to my co-worker, who will tell me, who will tell the builders to buy the materials, which will be picked up at the trailhead when we send out an announcement on the radio for “the villagers of Anamboafo, Marolamba, and Antanandava to come to the road on Thursday and pick up their well supplies”. No cell service, you know.