The water project in Kenya has proven to be bigger than what I can fit into a single post, so I am planning to give it as a trilogy, to cover all the major experiences and lessons learned while I have been on this project in the Kedong River (Ewuaso in Swahili) Region in the Rift Valley of Kenya, a couple of hours west / southwest of Nairobi.
This first of three parts of the story is focused on the “Big Picture” of water projects in Kenya, and for that matter, the big picture from everywhere I have traveled in the world so far, but most recently emphasized here on the Ewuaso Kedong Project. The two entries to follow will be about the specific project itself and then finally about the people and the experience I learned while I was on the project, which some of which felt almost like being on a retreat and giving me a chance to recharge and reflect while meeting a number of new people who both brought me back to my youth as well as gave me insights to my future. All probably fall a little too much into being TMI, but I hope all good over all! – For now, I’ll start with my thoughts to date on the big picture of water issues and projects in Africa and around the world.
I am still in the process of learning, but for a reference at half way through my year of working on projects around the world, I have identified a number of key elements that the projects and the success of projects seem to be dependent on. The following is a summary of those ideas with a short bit of my thought and experiences about them intertwined. The time here in Kenya has given me a chance to think about them more clearly, and although far from conclusive, and please know there is no checklist to having a successful project, but I hope the following provides a little overview of where and what I have seen as of right now as a positive first step in helping to add value where it is needed most. None is earth shattering news, just common sense, but keeping it in focus is key.
The most critical thing, above all else, is always remember, who and why we are here, doing what we are doing – it is all based on the community – the people. Their needs, their desires, their culture, their abilities, their growth, their health, their well-being, their future.
Working directly with the community, from the initial conscious thought of doing anything, is the key to a successful partnership and project; meeting with and working with the people to identify what the community really needs. What is their biggest issue, and how are they resolving it now, what resources do they currently have to resolve the issue. Find out what they have tried and what they feel would work the best, if they had the means to do what they wanted to do. Learn what is holding them back from getting it. – This is their home, before you got here and it will be their home while you are here and after you leave – The community knows best what they need, they also know best what they have tried, what has worked what hasn’t. – Talk with them, learn from them and their experiences and for a successful project; make and continued a partnership with the community from the start and through out, for the long run!!
We all bring experience and knowledge and possible alternative options that the other may or may not have been aware or have or have not had the chance to try or consider. Working as a team with a combination of knowledge and experiences and combining with what is feasible in the environment – feasible to build, use and maintain, where it is needed and will be used every day for the next hopefully, many, many years is critical. Realize that it might be dry as bone the day you are there, but in six months, where you are standing may be washed away or be filled with silt from flash floods. Driving around Ewuaso you would see places where people had come in and installed culverts or bridges that were just washed away, or put in wells that only had water during the rainy season, not exactly when it was needed. Talking to the local people you learned quickly that these were all done with no community involvement. Someone just came in and did it… thought it was the right thing… – Glad for the attention, but the community knows from experience, what works and what does not and where, if attention is to be given, where it best can be given.
A side bonus of partnering and working together is in addition to learning and making the best unilateral decision, having the community involved from the start and using all the information the community knows, helps provide an empowerment to the community and builds community ownership in the project and helping making it a success, today and in the future.
With ownership and empowerment comes responsibility or vise versa – but either way, they go hand in hand and to have a successful long-term project, there needs to be a group of people who over see and are responsible for all the above, plus the construction and the long-term maintenance of what ever you install, to assure it has a long life expectancy. And like the first two above, let the community define how this would work the best in their community. – They know the best!
My goal has been to work with different organizations on this year of discovery and I have been lucky enough to have had the chance so far to work with many of the ones out there, from small in-country grass-roots NGOs like Aqua Para La Salud in Guatemala to larger Non-Profit Organizations like Water For People in Cochabamba, Bolivia. I also have had the chance to be involved in projects being funded by larger organizations like this recent project in Kenya with Cross International, as well as projects working with Government Agencies, like the Peace Corps in the highlands of Guatemala on the Healthy School Program, along with funding from US AID. All of these groups have been amazing and all are amazing because of one major thing; – the people – the people who are dedicating their lives to making other people’s lives better. The people who are not trying to make other people’s lives to be exactly like ours, God forbid, but instead focused on helping with assuring our fellow citizens of this great world have their basic needs met of food and shelter, WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), education and equal rights.
From my experience, all these groups are needed in this ultimate goal for all people to have a chance at life, to live with a future open with opportunities.
Lessons learned from working with these various organizations and people include the importance of having a plan that was built with the community, and like every good plan, it continues to needs to be checked and re-checked, evaluated and re-evaluate and revised as determined as a team is what is best for the day-to-day user and to assure a long-term success for the people of the community. Maximizing the focus to be on the community and minimizing the organizational agendas. Being transparent, is the new buzz word in this world of volunteer work, which I guess is important because it records things so well, but it seems mainly important to feed back information to the donors and sponsors, which is good and important, but we need to be careful not to lose sight on the primary goal of working with the people who are in need. And throughout, know you are making a difference and that it is critical to keep going and doing what you are doing to make the ultimately difference; of making people’s lives better.
Somewhat unintentionally, I broke this up into the three major groups of people who have the biggest impact on resolving a crisis in our world and giving the best potential for all people in the world to have healthy lives; the community themselves, the helpers and the governments. All three have a major impact on the future. The community needs to know that they have a future and they are part of making it happen. The helpers are adding value with working hard every day with the community to help build that future. And the governments need to focus on their priorities, their greatest resource, their people. Governments need to put into places policies and procedures that assure the people of their country’s have at a minimum their basic needs met. That they have:
- Clean water, sanitation and access to allow for proper hygiene
- Equal Rights; be it gender, race or religion.
Sadly it often comes down to economics and governments seemly put their highest priorities and in turn procedures and policies into things that will bring them money. There needs to be a new mindset that highlights the greatest value any country has is its people. Healthy, educated people with equal rights for growth and development are what make people and in turn countries stronger. Governments who put their priority in to their people, assure the people and their own future of opportunities.
I recently read an article about Taiwan, essentially a rock in ocean in south-east Asia with very little natural resources. The article highlighted that the government put a focus on the only resource they had, their people. They focused their priorities on education and health care, economic freedom and freedom of press and human development. Since this focus came about, they have experienced a rapid economic growth and have become an advance technology industry leader that has all helped to provide more attention to continue to provide these basic needs to their people. I don’t know Taiwan’s story well enough and I am not saying all the world should follow its lead exactly, but the article did show the importance of focusing on your people’s well-being and the positive outcome in making the overall country stronger.
One final observation, and not to get all new age on you and all, but all the groups above, all of us, need to change our mindset and to know it is possible. It is possible to have a world with health citizens that have opportunities for a future. Governments not only should, but they need and they can stand up and do what is right to provide their citizens with the basic needs; food, shelter, clean water, sanitation, education and equal rights. The helpers not only should, but they need to and can work together, with each other, with the communities and with the governments to make a difference and resolve the worlds immediate needs, all our basic needs, giving all involved a true ownership and empowerment. And the Communities not only should, but can and need to change their thoughts of the places they are in is not only dependent on the past of where they have been, but on their thoughts of where they can possibly be in the future, starting with making a change in the present.
It comes with “change” – Change for all involved and knowing change is tough; giving up the known for the unknown – but change is what is needed, if we want to and know we need to and know we can change the fact that just shy of a billion people do not have access to clean water, 2.5 billion people do not have access to proper sanitation. Change the fact that three and half million people die each year due to water-borne disease, that is close to 10,000 die each day. Change the fact that millions of women spend hundreds of millions of hours each year “fetching” water. Change the mind-set to know that gender, racial and religious equality is needed by all parties to make a change and to successfully rid the world of senseless deaths and nonsensical inequalities and to make this world a better place to life, raising the quality of all people by raising the quality of life, providing these basic needs to those most in need. Change the feeling that it is impossible and know it is possible, possibly with the help of all people in changing the way we think and act and to change to focus on a new priority, the priority of our people.