“One tap…two taps…three taps.”
This is what I was hoping to count to myself on Monday when I walked through town. Unfortunately, my optimism would be squashed.
The day before, Mzee, my host grandfather, described the water project he hoped to start in Kabasheshe. Currently, the closest water source is located at the very bottom of the valley; at least 30 minutes there and back, up and down hills. My host sisters (and me on a few occasions) make the journey at least once a day, but more commonly multiple times. Older sisters would carry 20-litre jerry-cans on their head. When full with water, these would weigh 20 kilograms or 44 pounds! I barely managed when I tried. Younger children carry 10- and 5-liter jugs; one or two, depending on their strength. These feats of strength are more impressive when considering that a 2-year-old toddler may also be on a woman’s back.
I should also point out for clarity that my household is somewhat lucky in that it is located directly uphill from the community spring. Other families have the dual challenges of living uphill and down the road from the water source, increasing their walking time.
If you walk 30 minutes up the road, towards the main junction, you find a completely different reality. The village of Rusoka seems to be an oasis of water projects – piped water, community boreholes, and others. On our way to see their current gem, my hosts and I passed a centrally placed hand pump. I was told that it was spoiled, not in use. I trust that this is true as I saw nearby pipes ripped out from the ground. After months of no more flowing water, the plastic pumps are commonly extracted; these can then be used by families to illegally smuggle power into their homes or any other use that they can come up with.
The Rusoka Primary School has another interesting feature – a
play pump; age unknown. Play pumps are water projects that replace the typical manual hand pump with a circular merry-go-round, one intended for children to play on. These work when kids are nearby and willing to use it, but are problematic for a woman by herself. It is also a sad part of development that many communities are conditioned to attract international donors, so children may come out to play for photos, but will stop once the abazungus (foreigners) leave. It was interesting to see one, though. If I had more time, I might have tried to uncover its history and current level of use.
After walking through town, passing orphanages, training centers, and hair parlors, we arrived at the pump house. This relatively large building provides piped water to the entire Rusoka community. It pumps water uphill to a storage tank and then downhill to several taps. This is the model that my village hopes for. Built many years ago, it has run flawlessly.
A cynic might propose that Kabasheshe’s mostly Muslim population missed out on the charity that Rusoka received from Catholic organizations that visited it, being a majority Catholic population itself.
A realist might say that Kabasheshe’s location further down the dirt road has left it with worse luck. Rusoka is closer to the main road, which also acts as a pathway between Uganda and Rwanda.
Either way, my host village finds itself without easy access to water.
Eight or maybe nine years ago, they did get a borehole, supplied by the local sub-county government. But, after 3 years of use, it broke down and was never fixed. It sits there today, a skeleton of its former self, with all removable components scavenged and probably sold.
This is the start of Mzee’s plan. Three years ago, Rusoka received electricity and thanks to a politician who lived here, the line was extended to Kabasheshe. Him, his brother, my host family, and a few others now have power.
Power is quite a life changer. It means that you can own a cellphone, as it needs to be charged regularly, and connect with others far away. It means a steady, cheap source of light. And it mean that you can own a TV and relax while watching it, as my host family regularly does.
But it also means one more thing, more options for community projects. Rather than the manual water pump that failed in Kabasheshe before, Mzee wants to install a motorized pump to provide piped water to his community. Just like Rusoka.
Going uphill, the water would be pumped to storage tanks, either polyurethane or concrete, and then downhill to various sources. Using storage tanks mean that water can still flow, even when there’s a power outage. Also, meters can be placed on the multiple tanks to track usage.
After seeing the borehole and location for future tanks, I was taken to see the community taps. There were three of them. Or, at least, that was what I was told.
One at the primary school. One at the trading center (local store and outdoor pool hall). And one near a home on the main road.
First, the school. Like what I saw in Rusoka, a plastic pipe was sticking out of the ground. After the borehole stopping providing water, someone dug up the line, cut it, and took it home. But, there was hope that a new line could be installed. It would be nice to see this school receive running water, as the alternative is children missing school to fetch water.
Next, the family home. We arrived at our destination, but I saw no tap. There was a hedge dividing two properties. A gated house on the left and a small business on the right. It turns out that this tap was demolished after the borehole broke and was in the way of the homeowner’s plan. All that is left is a memory of what was.
The third and final tap, at the trading center, had the same fate. It was demolished some time ago. Nothing left to signify that it was ever here.
This left me puzzled. Mzee told me about the three taps and my mind raced with possibility. But to have so much infrastructure missing, it would be a daunting project.
So, what can be done?
It is definitely possible to provide piped water to the community. The borehole is there. At least one tap (probably the most important one, in my view) is still in the ground and ready to be connected. And the community wants it.
How to do it?
As with most things, money is primary. Funding can come from one of three sources. It can be through the community, everyone pitching in and taking full ownership. The government could come in, but people have little to no trust in them. Or an outside source, like an international charity or aid organization, could be the one to manage the project.
In any case, some things would need to be bought and installed. A motorized pump at the borehole, connected to the power line. A house would need to be built to contain everything. A 200-meter trench would need to be dug, at least 5-feet deep to prevent the thievery of the past, and plastic piping laid. The hilltop would be leveled and a few tanks installed on concrete or other structure. More trenches and piping would go downhill. The school would be re-connected and new taps would need to be constructed elsewhere
All in all, this would be a massive project. Probably the biggest one Kabasheshe has every received. I want to make it happen but have my reservations.
Will the village be able to repair future breakdowns? Will they be able to prevent thievery? Is it better to wait and lobby the government to change its ways?
What do you think? Is there anything not considered or missing?
Last Tuesday brought me to the sister towns of Rubira and Rwakashande. These farming towns are located less than an hour’s drive from Kabale and are home to 3,000 people–mostly subsistence farmers.
My mission for the morning and afternoon was to survey the area’s water and sanitation facilities to add more content to KIHEFO’s growing research on the area. But I was in store for much more in my conversations.
I was fortunate to be assisted by the primary school’s P7 teacher, Simon Peter. Together we spent the morning visiting some different parts of the hillside and speaking with people.
From the school’s central location along the main access road, we headed east to the closest water source. As we walked, I started to unleash the prepared questions I had arranged the days before; they were hit-or-miss.
How many functional and non-functional water pumps are in the town?
“The town has no water pumps.”
Does the town have a water committee to do monitoring and maintenance?
“No. The town has village health teams (VHT), though.” (They said that these VHT’s do hygiene awareness, but this I did not receive with confidence.)
Are there any community latrines? Maybe provided by an NGO or the local government?
“No. There are no community latrines. There are latrines at the church, but those are only for churchgoers and only during church hours.”
After this initial round of questioning, I realized that my plan was off base and that I should just slow down. I would wait to see what Simon would show me and build discussion from there.
On the west side of town, about a five minute walk from the school, Simon showed me a “spring” – as he called it. It consists of a underground pipe of constantly flowing, clear water, which is filtered somewhere upstream. This infrastructure was funded by the district and sub-county authorities in Kigezi. If the water is not collected at the point of exit, it either sits in the concrete basin around the outflow or finds its way through irrigation channels to farmer’s fields and then ultimately to the nearby river.
At the time of our visit, no one was there collecting the water that was falling to the ground. This puzzled me, but Simon remarked that families typically collect water twice a day: once in the morning and once in the evening. They may collect a third time, at midday, if needed.
We then took a long walk from here to the complete opposite side of town to see the second spring. This one had a high flow of water and was being attended to a woman with two jerry cans. Just opposite, there was a man cleaning his motorcycle in some standing water. A cow joined him to have a drink, showing the maximizing use of water here.
I further researched the sanitation facilities in the area. The typically household – parents, their children, and possibly elders – would have their own ‘latrine’. These latrines are made from local earth and wood materials. They have a wooden floor and a hole where waste is excreted.
I was very fortunate to actually view one in mid-construction. A group of men were digging a rectangular hole with vertical walls. The man in the hole was already 6 feet deep and was moving towards a final depth of 15 feet. The reason for this new construction is that the old latrine had collapsed. Most of these styles of latrine only last for two years before they collapse. The rainy season intensifies the deterioration by eroded the earth walls.
As I am learning more about public health through my outreaches with KIHEFO, I was happy to see that most latrines are a safe distance away from cooking and living areas. The one worry I have in the openness of these latrines and the potential for flies to transmit disease.
We returned back to Simon’s primary school, where the 320 children were slowly heading back home for lunch. In the small window of time before they departed, I was able to interact with many of the young ones. Or at least try, as their English was building and my Rukiga was non-existent. Through the help of another teacher, Innocent, I was able to introduce myself, ask them about their favorite sports, and see what futures they saw for themselves.
After the morning schedule, all children have to walk back home – up to 30 minutes uphill – to eat before returning for the afternoon activities. I was lucky, as the teachers invited me to eat with them in their Teacher’s Room.
Rubira Primary School hosts three levels of nursery classes – baby, middle, and high – although I suspect they are grouped together less rigidly due to available room. Then there are the seven classes, from P1 to P7, which children pass through before they can move into secondary school; there is no secondary school in town.
According to Simon, of the 100 students you might find starting P1, half would disappear by P4. The reduction continues into the next levels, but at a slower pace, as only 20 students would be found in a P7 class.
As Simon was the P7 teacher and I have an interest in understanding gender inequality, I asked him if what the male to female ratio was in his class. He said that there are 13 girls and 7 boys. I was surprised by these results. From what I’ve read and seen, girls are always devalued compared to boys. They are seen as having less future potential and bear the brunt of household duties – cleaning, cooking, collecting water, childcare – preventing them from attending school and reaching their full potential. It seems that either Rubira is a special case or that I need to investigate further to find the truth.
If someone makes it all the way through these classes and fairs well on Uganda’s Primary Learning Exam (PLE), they can move into a secondary school, if they can afford the expenses. Secondary school consists for 6 ‘forms’. There are two paths on offer. If a student intends to go to university, then they would finish Form 6 and start their degree. But if they intend to study a trade – nursing, for example – then the can enter a vocational school after Form 4.
During our lunch break, I was able to talk with a larger group of teachers – both male and female – and learned about the community I now inhabited.
I was most surprised to hear their views of polygamy and bride price. These old, religious traditions, held by both Christians and Muslims in Uganda, but rarely found in the West, were deeply engrained in the minds of even the highly educated.
“Would a woman be able to take two husbands?” I asked. They all laughed – as expected by a question that would not normally be asked in normal conversation – but one woman noted that there was in fact a case where a woman took a second husband, as she was the primary breadwinner in the family and therefore, could make such a non-traditional move. But, on the whole, men are the ones who can take a second wife, a third wife, or really any number of wives. They also noted that many people – both men and women – might have additional partners that are not classified as either ‘wife’ or ‘husband’.
Another part of marriage that is widespread is the traditional of dowry, or bride price, where the husband’s family pays the wife’s family for their loss of a daughter. The price is not set in stone. Instead the two families meet and negotiate on the price. This acts as remuneration for the parent’s, who are losing a valuable member of their family and allows them to better prepare for their older years. A dowry might be paid in cows or goats, which hold value; in practical items, like pots and pans; or can be paid in money.
The teachers were eager to question me on if Canada had the same type of marital systems. I responded that we are a mixture of many peoples from many different lands. This creates a mosaic where traditional overlap. Rather than a Ugandan marrying another Uganda, you could find Brazil-English partnerships or Aboriginal-French unions. With this mixing of cultures, Canada and other Western nations have chosen very strict legal explanations of marriage that have eliminated dowries and polygamy. They seemed to be receptive to this counter approach of life and I think they enjoyed exchanging information as much as I did.
I have much to learn.
My first exposure to Uganda consisted of a midnight crossing of the international border that is shared with Rwanda along the three-hour drive from Kigali to Kigezi district. Along with KIHEFO’s driver Enock and four University of Calgary medical students, I filled out the appropriate forms and showed my passport, with a newly acquired East Africa Visa, enough times to make it through the gauntlet of road stops and gunned border agents. With the darkness around us and only a few stars above, we drove the short distance from the border to my new home of Kabale – a southwestern, hilly town of around 50,000 people.
I was thankful to be the first one in our van to arrive. It was 1:00 am and I was in desperate need of something other than a car or airport terminal to call home. My apartment companions Trina and Atayo greeted me and gave me the short version of their home tour before calling it a night. I was running on fumes, but took them up on the offer of a shower, as it would be my first in over 72 hours of travel, layovers, and a night asleep on the benches of Toronto Airport’s Terminal 3.
That first day of work – Monday – would set the tone for the rest of the week, as it was filled with continuous learning and interaction
after interaction. I met more students – these ones were American – who were here to learn about public health in a East African context; some of whom arrived a day before me. We started with a great presentation on the history and work of Kigezi Healthcare Foundation (KIHEFO), an organization that does amazing work in providing health care to the four districts of Kigezi. In addition to their permanent clinics – medical and dental care, HIV/AIDS, child nutrition – in Kabale, KIHEFO does several outreaches each month in surrounding communities. In the afternoon, we were able to actually tour these clinics and the town of Kabale. The town is flowing with hills, houses set into them like blocks, with stores and the artery roads running through the valley.
Over the next two days, we were given presentations on the health care options in Uganda, which range from village health teams and traditional healers to formal national hospitals; and on the conditions mothers face in during their pregnancy, during childbirth, and while caring for children.
Thursday allowed me to start looking at the Village Nutrition Surveys that have been developed to find out what families face in Kigezi. With questions covering access to water, illness, foods consumed, and household assets, it will allow KIHEFO to have quantifiable data for future initiatives in their communities.
I was invited to add additional questions related to water access and sanitation facilities, so that information from these sectors could also be used in future planning.
The last day of the week gave all of the new arrivals, including myself, our first look at village life in Uganda, with a tour of a primary school in Ibumba. After speaking with teachers and having the most amazing welcome by their students, we traveled a short distance away with the school’s deputy headmaster to speak with a women’s group that she is leading. Together, this group of widowed and orphaned women have found strength. They farm together, save together, and learn together. They also helped us learn, by describing the challenges they face in their remote community.
The weekend gave me time to rest, relax, and do a few errands. On Saturday, I started the process of making some custom shirts with local fabric. Two yards of fabric, which comes in amazingly bright patterns, sells for 10,000 Ugandan shillings (or $4). This is enough to make a single men’s shirt, tailored to your exact measurements, costing an additional 20,000 shillings (or $8).On Sunday, I washed clothes. To hand wash clothes completely and in a reasonable amount of time is an art form; I am not there yet.
Looking forward, the second week will see me going out into communities and participate on maternal and child health surveys. There will also be the opportunity to discuss new ways of small-scale agriculture with local youth. Both of these projects have me excited to learn more about Uganda and the issues that people live with each day.
More updates to come.