I’m writing from Practical Action’s office in Lodwar, Turkana having returned from an intense three days in the field visiting our water and sanitation projects here. I’m particularly interested in how our solar powered pumps are improving the lives of the Karamoja people who we’re working with.
First of all, I have huge respect for these proud people. Turkana is Hot! Every day the temperatures soared above 35 degrees, and at night things cool down to a balmy 25 … The environment is harsh – dry sandy soil, a few scrubby bushes and acacia trees, very little water. The fact that they make any living at all here is testament to their toughness, determination and ingenuity. I also have to thank them for their hospitality. I slept under the stars in the chief of the Lobei Karamoja’s compound disturbed only by gunfire (once) and cockerels (lots).
I’m dirty and dehydrated but what I’ve seen really makes think about what ‘dying for a drink’ really means.
In Turkana there are 3 ways to die for a drink …
1 … From the dirty contaminated water that most people are forced to drink – hand scooped holes in dry riverbeds many miles from home are the most common water source and they are shared with animals. Cholera is common here.
2 … In the act of collecting water from 5-metre-deep pits, hand-dug in the sandy bed of a dried up river – these collapse regularly, and last week in Lorengippi 3 people died collecting water in one of these.
3 … Or by violence – water, even dirty, contaminated water, is so precious here that people guard their access rights forcefully. I watched two women and a girl lifting water from the bottom of the pit for their goats and donkeys – all the while watched over by two warriors with loaded guns. Come to collect water at the wrong time here and you will be risking your life.
But things are changing in Lobei and now in Lorengipi. In October last year Practical Action, working in partnership with the people of Lobei, installed a solar pump, pipes, storage tanks and tap-stands so that now the women and girls have to walk no further than 500 metres to collect the water they need. Specially constructed troughs have been built to water the animals, meaning now that they don’t share a water source with people. Girls are now able to go to school, and in Lobei, the number of girls enrolled at the primary school exceeds that of boys for the first time. The head-teacher there is a trailblazer in many ways – one example was his kitchen garden and we saw the first ripe maize picked as we visited. So much change in so short a time.
In Lorengippi I watched as a new solar pump was installed, storage tanks raised and tap-stand built. For this community, water is a life and death matter. Conflict over water here is common. The boarding school has existed here since the late 60s. Children board as it is too dangerous to walk back and forth. In all those 40+ years the school has never been connected to water and never had latrines. Pupils walked 3km to collect water for breakfast and again for dinner, each time risking their lives to get it, and their health by drinking it. Open defecation in the fields surrounding the school was common, and the whirlwinds and seasonal rains brought all the faecal dust back into the school. Illness was common, learning didn’t happen and exam results suffered. Now the school is connected to the solar system, water is on tap at the school and new latrines have been built for boys and girls. Small, but important changes for these children, yet dramatically impacting their future.
I need to stop writing now, the sun is overheating my laptop and I need to get a drink before sunstroke sets in … I’m going to be thinking more carefully about where that drink comes from now.2 Comments » | Add your comment
But what I really meant was unassuming, simple yet effective.
In Gularia, Nepal we’ve been working with the community to transform all of their homes together into a healthy village – clean water, toilets, decent cooking facilities, promoting hand washing and good hygiene etc.
One innovation, which I’ve seen many times before, is the use of a concrete slab with a small raised wall to protect a water point from contamination. It works, its effective and therefore we’ve done it time and time again. In this case the protection was yet more vital as nearly all of the houses had a small cow shed attached and protecting drinking water from contamination by cow dung is vital.
The silly but great – so simple but I haven’t seen it used in this way before – was a wooden drying rack for pots, utensils, etc. placed immediately next to the water point. It meant that when women washed cooking utensils there instead of putting them on the potentially contaminated floor they stacked them on the clean rack. And so kept everyone safer.
Women talked about how learning about simple ‘kitchen management’ was part of making a healthy home. Not silly but true.
Small effective solutions that together are life changing.
I bet some of you reading this would have thought ‘silly’ too but then thought ‘silly but strangely wow – simple but effective’No Comments » | Add your comment
“The snake which cannot cast its skin has to die. As well the minds which are prevented from changing their opinions; they cease to be mind.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
So after 13 years Practical Action is moving from the AAYMCA Building on State House Crescent off State House Road to a new office block in the leafy suburbs of the city. I hear that the new building will also allow us to enjoy the sights and sounds of the informal – or should I say untamed villages west of the city. I will have to get there and find out.
Just the thought of moving office I am in tormental angst, although it is not immediately evident. I only know because recently I am dreaming in black and white, horror visions causing me to wake up in tears. And you know what they say about a man in tears. My cat Brian has refused his usual breakfast – a mixture of yesterday, today and an alternative proposal of tomorrow’s stew, a menu he has faithfully taken since he moved in with me a number of years ago. Even Thande our old Rottweiler has begun being extremely attaching. I think I am expressing my emotions too openly when I am supposed to be a man – take a hold of yourself mister!
I joined Practical Action about nine years ago. And I liked it. During those days there were about 100 living experts on the available work stations. Everybody seemed busy. I remember that we needed both the second and the third floor of the building to fit everyone. Our office hosted three other organizations; Community Livestock Initiatives Programme (CLIP), International Labour Organization’s Advisory Support Information Services and Training for Employment-Intensive Infrastructure (ILO ASIST) Department; and Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN).
There was so much activity at the office that it was like a small town, it even required policing – I guess one of the greatest reasons why “the General” our good watchman at the gate had such a well-defined role. He was always proactively involved in even keeping order not only in the compound but also in our office. Our Director walked about encouraging and motivating staff and residents with a phrase “the struggle continues.” What was evident then and there are traits of it even now, was the passion and drive that kept the organization vibrant. I guess we also made a lot of money then because everyone looked happy – but I digress again.
Fast forward, we have moved to the Methodist Ministries Centre. And I am sad. In fact, I am slowly seeing my ‘waist tires’ grow, my belly hanging and my neck blowing up. We had the hill on State House Avenue to cure this. Now it is good bye England’s rose. I miss the roof top even though it was associated with credulities of the grapevine. I miss the inspiration I always got when I looked at the view of the central business district. I miss how easy it was to simply stroll to the city on the break and back. I simply cannot come to terms with the fact that there is no short-cut to town anymore. Indeed I miss the sense of insecurity we had at the office block that anyone would walk in and out and only stop peremptorily to find directions and not seek permission.
Although we have moved to this uptown neighborhood, I really want to cry. Will we ever get a prettier car park? The trees at the old car park would lavishly and gently paint our cars with flowers; except when one weekend when the most beautiful Acacia Nilotica in the yard faced the detriments of a storm and just gave up the ghost. Much metal and steel was lost in the incident.
Then there is the economics. My accountant – who happens to be the Vice President of my household, tells me that if we are not careful we might be facing a down turn that will see our GDP fall to levels equivalent to those of the great depression. When I married my profit and loss account presented to me an image of progression and profit. My Vision 2015 indicated positive variables with no effect on the principle. It now seems that my advisors were wrong. I now have acquired a new status – “Mrs. Food-Fare Poverty.”
The other day I told myself that just because I am hungry I could sample the eating places in the neighborhood. Afterwards, I spent the whole afternoon in the restroom. The following day I told myself, “It is just a reaction to a new dish.” So I asked a friend to accompany me to the eating joints in the leafy suburb. You can believe it when I say I spent the weekend on my corridor – between my living room and my place of worship. I guess we got so used to the germs in our old neighborhood that we became immune to the ailments. It is all in the process of natural selection and our own evolution.
My new genetic make-up will have to live without the monotonous Mama-party dishes, Migingo Island assortment menu and the watery stew and greens of the church bunker. As a new species I will have to adapt to climate change in the form of the comfort of the loo (did I just say loo?), move from the watery boily and fatty to the hotty, spicy, hygienic lifestyle.
Although I miss the AAYMCA building and we all have to embrace the new culture and living, the new office package does not come with the freedoms I had. I will have to spend more on my second life. Otherwise as Jay Asher says in Thirteen Reasons why, “You can’t stop the future; you can’t rewind the past; the only way to learn the secret…is to press play.” I rest my case.No Comments » | Add your comment
First of all I must confess that I got over excited a few months ago. I had promised myself that I would request to host the next celebrity visitor we got to our office. And I had been granted my wish even though this was not ‘the’ celebrity I was expecting.
When I was informed that I was going to accompany Jamie Oliver to visit our projects in Kenya, I immediately read “The Naked Chef,” a show on BBC. I even started to think about all the recipes I would learn from him, all the ‘Return to School Diners’ I would be experimenting on during the visit and probably be a graduate of ‘Jamie’s 15-Minute Meals.’ In any case this was a dream come true.
I remember my anxiety, the sweat on my face; the dark smudge under my armpits; and my dry mouth. I thought, would I just say ‘hi,’ or just ‘Welcome to Kenya Jamie.’ Would I bow with my left or right knee? Would I smile when they take the pictures or would I just be official? Would I plough in to his chest with my already musty abdomen or would I just stretch out my hand?
And shamefacedly I had announced to everyone during an official update session at the office that I would be travelling the country with a celebrity, who was, in fact a cook! I could see the grin on most of my colleagues’ faces burning with envy. I was going to have an experience of a lifetime and of course learn from the best.
When I ‘Googled’ him, I found a face – a handsome dude in his late thirties. In fact in his pink background website (pink?), I found out that he was more than just a cook; which in essence meant that I would be chatting up a man with diversity in his experience. (This, I like). You can now see how baited-breath-eyes-out I was as I waited for him at the Lodwar airstrip. I was experiencing bouts of movie-like dreams and visions during the day and night in expectation.
I was expecting to see a guy carrying a full suitcase, a horde of camera crew and a thin-looking tall female escort. Of course I did not expect him to have hauled his pans and ladles with him from the UK to Turkana – a remote hot and dusty region in beautiful Kenya. I never knew how thoroughly embarrassed I would be.
My jaw dropped when I met the handsome young man – a little thinner than the guy in my fantasy. And yes, I got the experience of a lifetime. My mouth went dry for days afterwards and I could not tell why. My speech was affected. The Jamie I hosted was not the Jamie who cooks and writes. This Jamie is quiet and it is contagious. This was my celebrity. I have never recovered.1 Comment » | Add your comment
Here in the UK we’ve probably had the biggest rainfall in years. There have been regular news stories about floods affecting people, houses and roads (apart from the hosepipe ban debacle), and it’s all very inconvenient, and for some, costly.
But imagine living in Bangladesh where nearly a quarter of the country is regularly flooded and at times 50% of the country is underwater. Where people’s livelihoods are swept away in the monsoon season – and others become stranded for months on end. In June this year 100 people died and 250,000 were marooned. Life during the monsoon season in Bangladesh is more than inconvenient. That’s why Practical Action is working with some of the poorest communities to help them prevent the devastation caused by flooding and the unpredictability of the rainy season caused by climate change.
I recently visited some of Practical Action’s work in Bangladesh. Here’s my video blog about what I saw.
Help to us to carry on helping those affected by flooding in Bangladesh: take our Nightrider challenge and tell your friends.No Comments » | Add your comment
I feel so strong
These were the words of a woman member of the Rural Service Centre (RSC) co-operative I visited today. I didn’t get her name, which my colleagues in communications will tell me off about – but she spoke so softly I had to strain to hear, and she spoke even more quietly when saying her name. Others then cut in to tell their stories and I couldn’t go back – sorry!
She said in answer to my question what do you value about the RSC? “I feel so strong. I am from a livestock group and rear bulls. Before we had RSC I got at most 8000 Taka a year, now I have a shorter season between breeding and I can make 24,000 Taka a year. The training on feed was very useful. I can make the combination I was shown how to make and my feeding practice has changed – before I used to feed only straw. I have invested the extra money back in my small farm and am trying to buy another bull.”
Another lady added, “I started with one bull, and then I invested and bought a second bull, now I have three.”
The testimony of these two ladies and the fact that they were reinvesting in their small businesses was a great sign of success. Others then went on to speak, talking about being able to purchase seed at lower cost, selling their produce through the centre being easier and saving transport costs, learning about artificial insemination, how to deworm goats, etc.
The RSC centre is an initiative of Practical Action together with the community, set up just 15 months ago. It helps the community bulk-buy essential inputs for their farms – such as worming tablets for bulls – and acts as a joint marketing initiative, saving on transport costs and making sure the farmers get the best price for their crops.
I wanted to know how the RSC was now owned, as Practical Action, having ensured its sustainability, moved to having only a watching brief a few months ago. I am not anti-business (enterprise can be a great model for successful sustainability and scale) and asked if it was an enterprise or a communal effort?
The President, Mr Shuttann, might have been offended and had a somewhat different view of business versus community, saying, “I run the centre not because of profit but because of honour, I take pride in being the President of the group. All the profit goes back to our savings account in the bank. We use our savings to buy different equipment needed by farmers which we then rent out to them – we’ve bought some things already and are thinking of buying a net that we can rent out to our fishermen. We would like to imagine in the future being a centre for credit for farmers at a lower rate than the 25% for weekly payment currently charged by BRAC or Grameen – the credit they can now get.”
The RSC is owned by the farmers, and the President – who receives no salary – says he finds it an honour to represent his community. The RSC originally started with 10 groups but recently, because they have seen how successful the members of the RSC are, another group has joined. In total they now represent over 250 small farmers. Each group has one executive committee member which meets each month to take decisions, receive orders for inputs etc.
Alongside this collective purchasing and marketing the centre also acts as a base for Practical Action-trained paravets, who provide animal treatment and advice on growing crops.
And finally, today I heard about the simplest technological innovation we’ve introduced – ever. I am sure it was learnt from traditional farming – sticks! Yes, sticks – you stick the sticks at regular intervals in your field above the height of the fully grown crop. Birds land on them, watch the ground and crops and eat any insects they see. It’s a kind of reverse-engineered scarecrow! I’d never thought of using sticks in this way, neither had the farmers, but someone somewhere in Practical Action had –No Comments » | Add your comment
I visited a remote rural school today, very close to the border between Bangladesh and India. As we drove to the school rain pelted down, there was fierce thunder and lightning, we jolted through potholes made invisible by the water. My colleague Faruk wondered if the students would manage to make their journeys from their homes the weather was so bad.
They managed to get there!
I was going to write about the project I visited – a knowledge node set up in the school providing vital information for farmers, a bridge to the outside world for the students and – probably frustratingly, a way in which the students can tell their parents how to do their jobs literally (a question and answer service for farmers, fishermen and small livestock breeders where the questions and answers are ferried by the children).
But instead of talking about our project I want to talk about the kids. Two had been picked to make a formal presentation in front of me (the visitor from England), a representative from the government, their teachers, parents and classmates. I can only say that they were brilliant – each talking for 10 minutes confidently, in English and with excellent delivery. They were both 15 years old from a remote, rural and very largely poor part of the country and listening you could imagine them as leaders of tomorrow. We should be proud to work with children like that and with teachers and parents who can help them develop so well.
Coming back to the guest house this evening I sat and talked again with the woman from the World Food Programme she had been visiting a hospital for seriously malnourished children in much the same area.
The contrast was huge but I know which future I’d hope for. Practical Action is working with farmers to produce better crops for food and for sale allowing them to put their children through school – this is the essence of the knowledge node and the para vet, agriculture and fisheries support that operates from there .
I know its clichéd but the children are our future – I was reminded of that today and the kids I met gave me lots of hope.
PS: the young men working as rural extentionists also gave me hope – trained by Practical Action they make their living by treating sick animals, providing vaccinations, advising on crops, growing fingerling fish (‘seeds’) etc. I thought of the young man yesterday and how these men were building a living and could see opportunity for poor people to build successful small businesses serving their communities.No Comments » | Add your comment
Further along the embankment we stopped to talk with another family. Two years ago Practical Action identified Moniva Begum as needing help towards a sustainable livelihood, and provided her with three sheep. Two years later she has eight, four of whom are pregnant (one due any minute), and has sold a further eight.
I asked what they had used the money for? Her husband put his arm around her and said, “My wife was ill now she is well – we used the money to pay for her to go to hospital.” I’ve found that you rarely see public displays of affection between husband and wife in Bangladesh and this was just lovely. Moniva then added, “Of course we also fixed the roof too,” pointing to a new tin roof on their small house. I think she was worried in case anyone would think she spent all that money on herself!
They believe they have earned about 24,000Taka in 2 years by selling sheep – that’s about £200 I think – but it’s made a huge difference in their lives.
To the question, are sheep better than goats – the answer was very firmly sheep. When I dug more I was surprised: “Goats are trouble, they get angry, they wander around and make trouble with your neighbours. Sheep are calm.”
Good reason to have sheep, I thought!No Comments » | Add your comment
Now, I know about floating gardens, I’ve seen them before and think they are fantastic. I also know about pit cultivation and have spoken with families who have benefitted hugely by growing and selling pumpkins. But until today I didn’t know that with some communities we do both!
Today I travelled to Rangpur, a district in the far North of Bangladesh. I met with communities living on the very edge of the river – precarious banks deeply susceptible to river erosion, but for these people there is nowhere else to go.
Mohammed Munis Ali told me how he had lost his home three times to the river, making it difficult for him to care for his family. Now, with the help of Practical Action, he has two ways to earn a living and provide food for his family – in the rainy season he tends his two floating gardens, while in the dry season when the river recedes he grows pumpkins using the Practical Action pit cultivation technology. He also uses the old floating gardens as compost to improve his pumpkin yields.
He and the other members of the community talked about lives changed and lives saved, about being able to work and provide for their families. They were really positive about the help they had received from Practical Action, our local staff and the innovation the community had continued – showing off new crops they had trialled and found to be successful.
There are 20 families in the community and each family have two floating gardens – they’ve shared out the water space between them. They told me that in six months they have between six and eight harvests, on average harvesting 40kg of veg per harvest (mainly Kang Kong, which is quick growing, but also okra, red onions and other veg). I asked the ladies what they thought: ‘Great to have food, great to have veg, but tastes slightly different – but we are used to it now,’ they said.
As were leaving the village, walking on the embankment, one young man started to dissent from the others – he was shouting slightly and wanted to be heard. He didn’t want to grow pumpkins or make and cultivate floating gardens – it was too hard work; he wanted a job. What can we do to help?
Our project manager spoke about how he had grown up in a family impacted by river erosion – they had lost their home too – but education had been his escape: he’d worked hard, been clever and now had a good career and was working for Practical Action. I don’t think it satisfied the guy who at probably 20 was maybe too old to go back to school, but I did like his passion for more, his push for development and his willingness to speak out. The other members of the community eventually shushed him and talked of a ladder, one step at a time and things will get better.
It is brilliant that we can help – but when, like here, we are working with people who are counted as the poorest of the poor in Bangladesh, it’s not surprising that the young are ambitious for more. I am not young and fit, but when I was, I think I too would have thought this a very difficult way to make a living.
This only served to emphasise to me how hard working and committed to caring for their families the villagers were. Mohammed Munis Ali must, like me, have been in his early 50s, and is doing all he can to keep his family going. It is very hard but they do it!
On a very practical note, the project manager also talked about pumpkin cultivation combined with smaller squash – both have a good market, but the small squash takes only half the time to grow, meaning you can get a quicker return for your labour. When the pit cultivation starts in December they plan on testing some with both squash and pumpkin and think it may be possible to get two good crops from one pit – nearly twice the return for the same labour.
Hopefully another small step on the ladder out of poverty for this community.No Comments » | Add your comment
Yesterday was my first day back in the Practical Action offices after being in Africa for a month. After my work trip to Sudan, I then spent some time exploring Morocco, on the other side of the continent. I love Africa, but I definitely missed certain home things while away: yoga classes, green trees, red wine, BBC Radio 6, dark chocolate, peanut butter, the weekend papers. I think, to my surprise, I even missed the rain. So now I am home, where I can enjoy all those things I missed, and reacquaint myself with the realities of my life.
The only problem is it all seems a bit trivial. My life is trivial. I keep comparing my daily existence with that of the poorest people who I met in Sudan. For so many of them, life is about survival: the desperate, hopeful struggle to grow enough food, search for water, care for animals, walk great distances to collect firewood. I recall one woman from a small village called Kulkul in North Darfur which is grappling with a huge food crisis after last year’s rains didn’t fall. She told me “of course we fear for our lives, but we don’t have a choice, we can’t give up.” I don’t think I have ever feared for my life. Of course, there are universal unifying truths – birth, love, death – but in terms of what I do with my life – going to the office or the gym or the cinema or the pub or supermarket – it all just seems a bit meaningless. It’s just stuff that fills my days because I’m lucky enough to live in a place where I don’t have to spend my days fighting to exist.
So after being immersed in one part of the planet for a month, a few hours on a plane have delivered me right back to where I came from. It’s strange, internally there can be a seismic shift, yet on the outside, everything remains as it always was.
I am thinking of my Practical Action colleagues in Darfur. I wonder what struggles have they faced? And what successes have they celebrated? A colleague, now a friend, informed me of skirmishes and gun fire with government forces in the market place of El Fasher last week. All this is happening right now; other people’s lives, lives full of love and tragedy and struggles for survival and celebrations of success.
I keep returning to a Louis MacNeice poem called ‘Snow’, which has this beautiful line about feeling “the drunkenness of things being various”. It is not about being drunk. It is about feeling intoxicated by the sheer plurality of the world. I feel a bit like that today. Drunk on all that I have experienced in the last month – drunk on all the people I met in Sudan, all the stories of hope and loss and despair I heard, remembering that all those people’s lives are continuing right now, as I sit here typing my thoughts, re-writing my world as I try to make sense of all that I have learned.No Comments » | Add your comment