Thursday, December 31, 2009

Teka Teka

In Runyanchole, the language of southwest Uganda, "teka teka" means "to think". So, in these waning hours of the first decade of the 21st century (profound, huh?), I thought I'd give some thoughts about my first nine months in Africa.
  • Finding your place is hard - coming to Africa as an individual was undoubtedly the right thing for me to do, but it's been hard. I came with an unclear idea of my role or organization, and it's taken some work to be assertive in making a place for myself. I'm now doing some great work for ACTS, sharing in the design work for a new GFS project, creating new water testing equipment, and soon writing proposals and preliminary engineering for new projects. As with most pursuits in life, no one has guided me by the hand. This has been a tremendous lesson in self-motivation and determination.

  • Does the world need more NGO's? Last week I had an encounter with one of the many characters you'll find in Africa, the old male ex-pat. Married to a Ugandan woman, he was recently retired from work with the European Union and now helping his wife to run a small guest farm in western Uganda. After dinner, he came over to our table and whispered in conspiratorial tones about the underside of politics in Uganda, which is wicked indeed (and of course it is, or it wouldn't make a good story!). But the thrust of his discursive soliloquy was that in the last 15 years the number of NGO's has exploded across Uganda. Bloated, bureaucratic and unresponsive, he railed against the huge overhead they spend on ex-pat staff, wasting most of the donor's money.  And the government plays along, all to happy to relinquish responsibility for tasks it would normally handle in a well functioning state. Indeed, they also crowd out opportunities for the private sector. In fact, a friend of mine now just finishing their first year of university has told me of his great desire to work for an NGO, because that's where the best opportunities are. So, does the world need more NGO's? A hyperbolic and impossible question to answer in so short a space, but I'll say at least this - all effort should be put into finding private sector solutions to issues before resorting to the creation of another NGO.

  • The world is, uh, complicated - every action you take affects others in potentially a myriad of ways. This is especially true when you enter into a vulnerable environment in an effort to help. Bottom line is, think, and think twice before setting up new projects to help people. You may end up doing more harm than good.

  • Matoke, matoke! Ugandans LOVE steamed matoke. They love posho, and they love g-nuts. I mean, they love this stuff. I find it entirely pleasant, but I admit I'm putting together an epic list of restaurants to visit once I get back to Berkeley.

  • Goma is a strange place  - This city on the eastern edge of Congo, clutching the north shore of lake Kivu, is a study in constrasts. It's home to legions of mzungus, who work for an ABC list of NGO's, or the UN (MONUC). There's parties, bars, and fantastic restaurants. The incredible barricaded homes along the lake are just beautiful. In fact, Mobutu's (now Kabila's) notorious vacation villa is just a few hundred meters away from HEAL Africa's Maji Matulivu. And yet in those meters between, the destitute children of Goma que up on the lake shore to carry water in 5 gallon jerry cans, often many kilometers to their homes. The wooden shack is by far the most common home in the city. Because of the huge foreign presence, prices for basic items have spiraled up, putting them out of reach for ordinary people.

  • Corruption is killing potential - this isn't anything new to the cynics out there, but it's particularly depressing to see it up close. In Uganda especially, parents put a huge emphasis on education, sometimes going into crippling debt to pay school fees. And yet the hope of their children find a job is slim, because the managers in charge of hiring are looking for a 5 million shilling bribe ($2,500).

  • Music! A quick list of some of the music I've find during my time here: Maisha Soul (Congo), Khadja Nin (Burundi), Afrigo (Uganda), Yo-MalĂ© (Senegal), Moses (Uganda). I was blown away by the street music you hear in the villages of eastern Congo on a Sunday afternoon.

  • My New Year's resolution - the opportunity to be here and have the freedom to learn and participate as I wish has been a huge blessing to me. Occasionally I remember to really absorb that fact, but it slips away so easily. In 2010 I resolve to be more thankful for the people and groups I've worked with in Uganda and Congo. I don't want to look back with regret when I get home, wishing I'd appreciated more the chance I'd been given.
Heri za Mwaka Mpya!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Compulsory Community Involvement

Most development projects these days rightfully focus on community involvement, in other words, getting beneficiaries to contribute to the success of a project. This fosters a sense of ownership, which should allow whatever is being done to last far after the implementing organization has left. I've seen many failed water systems here in Uganda, most likely done in because the local community had no stake in the construction or implementation process.

The ACTS GFS project in Bwesumbu is following the current thinking by working hard to include the local communities that will benefit. There are 5 "cells", comprising about 8,000 people. One Ugandan staff member is dedicated to meeting with local government and religious leaders to encourage them to moblize their communities to contribute to digging (and there's a lot of digging to be done). While this has gone pretty smoothly on previous ACTS projects, it's proving to be a challenge here.

In fact, on several occassions the local police, in a happy show of their own authority, have set up a road block on the main road that winds through the hills. All travelers are stopped, and those living in the project area have been "encouraged" to get off their bodas or trucks, grab a shovel, and get to digging. And the work sure has sped along on these days.

The police set up a road block to gather workers
But unfortunately, while such tactics are popular here in Africa (the local police captain told me that Africans are "lazy". I nodded politely), they circumvent the entire purpose of community involvement - ownership. If the beneficiaries must be compelled to work, they clearly have not fully understood the benefits of the project. And compulsion fuels resentment.

I suspect this current project is moving slowly because of the sectarian split between the Church of Uganda (Anglican) and the Seventh Day Adventists. Neither wants to work unless it's clear that the other is also. We have therefore worked especially hard then to reach out to local government leaders. Unfortunately, there appears to be a talent gap in the local leadership department, which is hampering our efforts. However, we will be back in force after the new year, ready to redouble our efforts to convince the community about the enormous benefits of the project.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Spreading Light

UPDATE: The solar power manufacturer we used at the second clinic is Barefoot Power.

Recently, I heard a statistic that surprised me - 86% of Uganda is without power (granted, I have no idea where this comes from). While I find this hard to believe, I spend most of my time in Mbarara, which is a pretty well developed town in the southwest. Up in the mountains at the work camp north of Kasese, there is no power for at least 10 miles in any direction.

So whatever the statistic, power is a precious commodity in much of Uganda. And that's especially true when it comes to health care. Medical emergencies don't wait for daylight - some issues have to be resolved immediately. Delivering a baby or performing a C-Secion by the light of a gas lantern is a dangerous task.

Providing light is therefore important, and it is the primary goal of WE CARE solar. WE CARE works with clinics in several African countries to provide a packaged solar solution, allowing for quick installation and ease of use. The package comes with the solar equipment (panels, charge controller, breakers, etc) and a series of lights for use in the clinic (headlamps, overhead lights). It also comes with batteries and a cigarette outlet for using DC power cables (for use in charging mobile phones, for example).

My fiancee is partnering with WE CARE for part of her dissertation research, and so I accompanied her to a small town outside of Ibanda to explain to the clinic what they were receiving, how it should be used, and what they could expect from it. The owner was very happy to participate in my fiancee's study and to utilize the new solar gear. She will be working with the clinic for the next few months to observe how the solar items are used (and of course to conduct her own separate research).

On the way back from Ibanda, we stopped at a second clinic participating in the study. This clinic received a smaller commercial product called the Pawa Pack by Barefoot Power, which comes with some lights and a 5 watt panel. It's quite small, but it will be used only for lighting.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Clean Water, Almost There

Being an engineer, I find it extremely satisfying to participate in construction projects. As foundations are laid or equipment installed, I can take pride in knowing that I'm part of the team that put the infrastructure up. This satisfaction was the best aspect of my previous job, and one of my favorite parts of the work I'm doing in Uganda and DR Congo.

My last day in Goma was a day for construction, and we set about the work with great vigor. All the material had arrived for the water filter, and now it was time to get about putting it all together. The first step was to dig out rock for the foundation of the metal stand which was to hold the filter (the purpose of which is to allow the water to travel by gravity from the roof, through the filter, and into the 250 liter storage tank). To my great surprise, one can actually bust up lava rock if you hit it enough with a pick axe. It's something they're quite used to doing in the lava fields of Goma.

Not surprisingly, the digging took most of the day. Once complete, we erected the metal stand and placed the 500 liter water tank (filter) on top. We then connected the gutters and began adding gravel at the bottom of the tank (click here for more detail on how a slow sand filter works). Unfortunately, it became clear that we were a little short on gravel. The day was also running short, so our work had to come to an end. We left the drain valve on the bottom of the tank open to allow the coming rains to wash the gravel. If all goes well (fingers crossed!) the filter will be finished in the coming weeks by the Heal Africa technical staff. I hope to return in February to evaluate the work and verify completion.

With the enormous support of donors from the US and the technical staff here, there is now a filter to allow women to collect drinking water from their homes instead of walking 2+ km to fetch their water. While it will only be available during the rainy season, it should be of tremendous help. Very satisfying work indeed!

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Most people know that when you go to do work in a "developing" country, things operate differently. Projects move slower, priorities are different, and you have to navigate a new and foreign environment. Unfortunately corruption is another common feature of doing work in such a region, and it costs a lot. The price comes in two ways: from the corruption itself, and when legitimate enterprises try to adapt in response.

I can give one example of the first: traffic stops. Being a mzungu with a foreign car in Goma means I'm a constant target for the traffic cops. So when they stop me, I have to obey. I talk to them, I negotiate, I call their bluff when they say I have to go to the police station. All this takes time, and it saps my ability to get my work done while I'm here.

Secondly, probably even worse than the corruption itself is the drastic measures that have to be taken to prevent it. For example, in the last few months I have raised enough money to have a large water filter constructed so that women can drink rainwater collected from the roof. The money was raised in the US, and then wired to HEAL Africa. But that's just the beginning - actually withdrawing the money from the internal account is a huge process, requiring special authorization and proof that each dollar has (or will be) properly spent. The delays in dealing with this have been painful, especially since I'm only here in Goma for a few weeks to get the project done.

A second (more humorous) example involves the police again. A few days ago, I was driving with a 500 liter (125 gallon) water tank on top of my truck. Having been stopped once by the police looking for a bribe, I had to travel along all sorts of back roads to get the filter to its destination. The back roads included traversing through a live soccer match! My car slowly ambled across the pitch with the large tank on top - it was quite a sight I'm sure for the spectators. That trip, funny as it was, took much longer than just driving on the main road. But when the alternative is an encounter with corruption, you do what you can to get by.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Failure, Success, and the "Way Forward"

I've been in Goma for the last week and a half, working with the HEAL Africa Technical Department to implement two projects. I knew starting and finishing two projects in so short a time was an ambitious goal, but I've been learning these last few days just how ambitious it actually was.

Firstly, I have been frantically finishing work on a solar refrigerator. There was more work to be done than I anticipated (seems to be a common theme!). I also worked hard toward a solution that in the end did not work out. Essentially, to provide thermal mass to the fridge I wanted to seal a large amount of water inside. Turns out making something water tight is easier said than done. In the end I had to give up using water and instead turn to using concrete. The thermal mass is about half that of water, but still should keep the fridge cold for several hours during a power outage.

Pouring the concrete was a nerve-racking experience. Once poured, my decisions permanent. If it didn't work, I couldn't do much to fix it. Success or failure! After drying, I plugged the fridge in and waited. 3 hours, no change. 5 hours, 1 degree C, but that was likely because the day had gotten cooler. It was looking like failure. And in one way it most certainly was, because I had run out of time - I had been planning on taking the fridge to a rural hospital the next day. I couldn't take it without knowing if it worked or not.

And so I traveled north to Rwanguba empty-handed. However, while there I did get some great work done. A few years ago the hospital had a small solar lighting system installed by the International Rescue Committee. Last time I visited in July it was not functioning, and probably hadn't been in a while. This visit I was determined to offer something, even if not what I had originally hoped for. And so, after a few hours work with the staff engineer, we got the lights back on. With lighting now for two wards, they will be able to run their generator much less, saving money.

Back in Goma, work is progressing on the second project, a water filter for a rainwater collection system. Gutters have been installed, and more items will be purchased and installed in the next few days. With any luck, it will be near completion by the time I leave next Sunday.

And so now I have to take stock of the next steps. The fridge is still being tested - it's now dropped 6 degrees C in 2.5 days, so I think maybe, just maybe, it's working. Apparently it takes a long time to cool concrete! The benefit though is that with high thermal mass, it will also take a long time to warm up, providing cooling even during power outages. Looks like my calculations were incorrect!

So much of this work is new for me, I have been learning a lot. The principle lesson is that success is quite unlikely the first time you try something. I'm trying to not be discouraged by failure, but to learn what went wrong and try again. I think we've all heard this before, but it's quite different to be told that than to actually have to go through it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Tutu onana, Uganda!

In this part of Africa, small distances make a big difference. Travel a few kilometers, and you can be in Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda or Congo. But despite the short distances, each of these places has its own unique and often tragic stories. Having just returned to Goma in DR Congo, I am reminded of the stark contrasts that exist in this small part of Africa.

Though relatively safe, Goma is a place that can keep a mzungu on edge. The border guards, customs, police, or anybody in authority wants one thing - $10. That is the price of no hassles, though only for a moment. Street children, mamas, and others via for your attention on the street.

But despite this, Goma is a wonderfully beautiful place. Lake Kivu is serene. Mt. Niragongu puffs quietly in the distance, and women parade around in a riot of colors. And the physical beauty is matched by the warmth of the people (provided they're not in a position of governmental authority!). The joy of people here makes the city infectious, and is one of the reasons I keep coming back.

But Goma is also a place to make you ask, "what am I doing here?". It's expensive, and not exactly a tourist trap. So you probably want to have a pretty good reason to be around. Every time I get here, I seem to continuously ask myself this question: what's my purpose?  What am I achieving by being here? It's a good sentiment for keeping myself on task, but it can also lead to deriving my sense of worth from my output. I have to keep in mind that my worth is independent from my work.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ghosts from the Past

This last week I have been roaming the foothills of the Rwenzori mountains, trying to wrap my head around how we will design a gravity flow water system for the community here. Yesterday, while walking the proposed pipeline, our team came across an unexpected site - a water tank, just like one we're proposing to build a few kilometers away. What was it doing here?

Turns out it's a reservoir tank for a defunct gravity flow system. The tank looked old, but when I walked around it I found plastic HDPE pipe sticking out of the ground. HDPE has only been used in these systems for the last 30 years or so, clearly dating the system as installed after 1980 or so. Not that old.

The tank (notice the pipe in foreground). Click for larger image
I then asked the headmaster of the school when the system failed. "A while back," he said in typical non-specific Ugandan English (I'm trying to get used to this and reformulate my questions to get the answers I need). He did tell me though that it was built in 1994. It's only 15 years old! And it doesn't work anymore.

Seeing the tank got me worried: why did the system fail? What could have prevented it? Will our system look like this in 15 years? These kind of follow up questions are extremely important for designing a better system than last time. Unfortunately, we don't have the time or the resources to investigate.

Lastly, some of our system will serve people that used to be served by the broken system. Is that the best use of resources? Might it not be cheaper to investigate why the old system failed and fix it? That would likely cost far less in materials. Unfortunately, such work is beyond the scope of our time and money. So our project will replace the old. It's perhaps not the best solution, but may be the only one available for now. "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good" has crossed my mind.

There is a good chance that our project will succeed where the previous one failed, mainly because of ownership. ACTS conducts its projects so that the community will claim ownership of the system for long after it's gone. Ownership is created in three ways: first, the community participates in construction through building the work camp, digging trenches for the pipe, and excavating for the storage tanks. Secondly, the community is asked to create a water committee for administration. The water committee is responsible for collecting user fees and conducting repairs when needed. The committee is setup before construction begins. Obviously, the user fees are critical to long-term operation. Lastly, ACTS provides training for health and agricultural workers to improve the overall health of the community. These workers will retain knowledge and skills after ACTS has left.

ACTS has been operating in Uganda for over 20 years, with every system built still operational. That's quite an achievement, given the increasing number of inoperative systems I've been finding here.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Next Stop Buisumbu

In the Rwenzori foothills, Fifteen hundred meters up lies the small community of Buisimbu, Uganda. It's located about halfway between Kasese and Fort Portal and 45km from the Congo border. This community is one of many clinging to the mountain here, forming a dense patchwork of homes, schools and businesses.

These communities are mostly without protected water. Those lucky enough to live close to a protected source trudge long distances in the early morning to carry their 5 gallon (40 lbs) load back to their homes for cooking, cleaning, and drinking.

ACTS is just now setting up camp to begin work on a new gravity flow system to serve a population of 5,300 people. The camp consists of about 20 Ugandan crew, working on construction, health, agriculture and support. The camp also has several Mzungu volunteers like me that are assisting with engineering, education and health. We'll be here for about six months during construction.

living quarters at the work camp
As I mentioned in a previous post, the secterian divisions in this community present a unique challenge for the project.  Normally "mobilization" involves working with the Church of Uganda to get the community involved in construction and the formation of a water committee. Unfortunately, as of now these divisions are still present; they will need to be addressed very soon before construction begins in earnest in about two weeks.

I'll be here at camp for the next week to develop the preliminary engineering. I'll then be leaving for Congo for a few weeks to work on several projects in association with HEAL Africa.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

All together now!

There's a lot going on in the water community of Uganda, at least in Mbarara district. The National Water and Sewerage Corporation, the Church of Uganda, and various NGOs all play a part in providing safe water and sanitation to the people here. Yesterday I sat in on a semi-annual coordination meeting between these groups; the purpose is to keep abreast of what each organization is doing and to not duplicate our efforts.

The chairman, a member of the district government, opened the meeting by expounding at length upon the issues he sees as critical to improving water and sanitation. Among these issues were things such as increasing water coverage for high altitude areas (above GFS coverage), planting trees to prevent erosion, empowering water committees to promote sustainability, and bypassing politicians to prevent corruption. On that last point, the chairman made the comment that many local politicians will take bribes to allow people to illegally tap into water lines.

Most interestingly, a presentation was given on the progress of a water census being conducted in Uganda (WATSUP). The purpose of the census is to track progress in providing water, to prioritize projects, and to report to the UN regarding progress made towards achieving the MDGs. Currently the safe water coverage of the Mbarara district stands at 61%, which is much lower than I expected based on what I have seen. Clearly I haven't been out in the rural areas enough.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

You want to build what?

I'm trying to get over some confused looks here in Mbarara as I wander from store to store, asking for strange parts, wood cut to odd dimensions, and joining L-brackets to small blocks of aluminum. I'm trying to build a refrigerator and many folks are a little surprised at that. Understandable - I hesitate a moment before explaining to someone what I'm doing. Even I think I'm a little crazy.

But once I get over my self-consciousness and properly explain what I'm doing, I've been met with a lot of enthusiasm. Several of my suppliers want me to bring in the fridge when I'm done so they can see what all this work is about. They're excited to see something new and unusual.

In case you're wondering, the fridge itself is actually quite simple. It's based on the "Peltier effect" and uses a small cooling module sometimes used in electronics. When an electric current is passed through the module, one side becomes hot and the other cool. Heat is therefore "pumped" from one side to the other.

However, despite its simplicity actually constructing and mounting the equipment has proved difficult with limited resources. I'm learning how to source parts and build from whatever supplies I can find in Mbarara (and occasionally Kampala). For example, today I was explaining to a local metal-worker I wanted to join small L-brackets to a block of aluminum. The purpose of this is to seal the cooling unit off from the inside of the refrigerator, which will be filled with water to help maintain temperature during a power outage. It was a very unusual request, and requires working in aluminum, so he wanted 70,000 UGX ($35). Unfortunately that's way more than I can pay to keep the entire project to a reasonable cost. So now I need to go back to the drawing board - how can I achieve the same goal for a lower cost? It's a process of design iteration.

The purpose of the refrigerator is to demonstrate that a reliable and efficient vaccine cooler can be built in a developing country for low cost. Ideally, the model could be copied in countries all over the world facing the problem of reliably delivering vaccines. This model should be finished in a few weeks and operating in a rural clinic, at which point I will be testing energy use to properly size a solar system to power the unit.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Building relationships before building pipes

I was sitting on a small wooden chair in front of about 50 community members of a hilltop village in the Kasese district of Uganda, at the foot of the Rwenzori mountains. With the sun beating down, a confident-looking man stood up to ask a question after a brief presentation by the regional director of the organization with which I'm volunteering. "We (Anglicans) have come out to work, and yet others have done nothing. Why should they benefit from our labor, when they have been invited to join and have refused?"

A tricky question that requires a little background. These water projects are done with the invitation of the Church of Uganda, a member of the Anglican Communion. The Church works hand in hand with the central government all over Uganda, in areas such as health care, income generation projects, and community health. In many cases, this partnership works out very well because the pastors are knowledgeable and respected members of their communities. With their buy-in, it is much easier to learn about the local community and receive their support. It is also easier to explain to the community the goals and potential benefits of a project.

The work camp. Click for larger image.

And this works out fine as long as the Anglican church is the center of the community. In the Kasese area, this is not so much the case - at least fifty percent of the population belongs to the Seventh Day Adventist church, and 5-10% are Muslims. It appears that this particular project started as most do, with an invitation from the Anglican church. However, with that invitation came the impression that it would be solely an Anglican project. And so when the time came to start digging trenches, an Anglican church came out, but nobody else did. What we have here is a failure to communicate.

The pipes for the gravity flow system will serve all people within the catchment area, restricted only by the flow rate of the source. It is therefore critically important that the other communities participate in the construction, so that everyone has a sense of ownership and no religious group resents the other (or at least don't resent them for not doing their fair share of the work). Luckily on hand this afternoon was a potential solution - local government. These village leaders represent people of all religions within their cell (the smallest unit of government in Uganda). With their buy-in, it would be possible to convince the Seventh Day Adventists and Muslims that the water would benefit them just as much as the Anglicans. Hopefully in the days ahead they will be able to mobilize their communities to start digging.

Working with a respected member of a community is a critical step in any development project. In Uganda, this is often the Anglican church, especially because government so often lacks credibility. However for this project the Anglicans could not legitimately claim to represent the whole community. Thankfully there appears to be effective local government to bring legitimacy to this important project.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Christianity and Development, Part 3: Inclusiveness

Here's an obvious statement: religion plays a major role in the lives of most people on earth; especially so in the developing world. Customs and habits have been formed and deeply ingrained because of particular religious beliefs. For many, the desire for a better life is intricately linked with their faith. And yet many NGO's that address development issues are completely secular. But this is for good reason.

Fundamentally there are two reasons why religion and development have a difficult relationship. The first and most serious issue is that of inclusiveness: what happens when the communities you're working in aren't one (or one particular kind) of faith? If I enter into a split Muslim/Christian community (quite common here in Uganda) with a Christian agenda, I will likely exacerbate an already tenuous relationship between the two groups. Even if my aim is not strictly to proselytize, I have to be extremely careful about how I conceive and implement projects so as to work towards community development, not estrangement. For example, I have a friend working in eastern Congo, who told me of a conversation she had with a Muslim family in Ethiopia - the father said simply, "I'll be whatever religion they want me to be if they will feed my family." In a situation like that, not only are these people hungry, but they are forced into the humiliating position of lying about their very identity just to survive. This is not treating your neighbor as yourself.

Secondly, when addressing religion (whether through a secular organization or not) one must be well versed in exactly what that religion looks like in that community. Even global religions (such as Islam or Christianity) have been deeply morphed to fit a local context. For example, the saint's days prevalent in Latin America were used to incorporate pre-Christian beliefs into the new religion. If an organization enters a community with a pre-conceived notion of what the people's faith is about, they're bound to make some pretty serious mistakes when attempting to address religion in their projects.

But if religion is not constructively engaged, then a central part of a community's identity is missed. Change, even for the good, can breed resentment if it is not framed as a religious imperative. I've had several conversations with Christians here in Uganda in which the speaker has bemoaned the fact that development has simply brought more bars (now I think a great bar is a wonderful thing, but then again I'm not a Ugandan).

I've been thinking about these issues as I consider how to holistically engage a small community in the process of development. Many organizations address a particular issue - AIDS, water, nutrition, conflict, micro-finance, etc - at a worldwide level. They work in particular communities, but primarily to address whatever issue is their expertise. However, some (mostly smaller) organizations do the reverse - they work on many issues but only in small communities of which they have a great understanding. Both models have their place, but as I said above I'm personally more interested in working on many issues in a small community. And when that's your model, the role of religion in the community becomes a huge issue.

So what is the answer? Um right now I'm still thinking about it. But two organizations I've been associated with in the past are doing a great job trying to address this issue. Agros and Amextra, both working in Latin America, attempt to address a wide range of issues in small communities. They are motivated by a Christian belief, but they do not proselytize. Because their staff are mostly (though not required to be) Christian, they have an understanding of how to work with and respect the local community as it works towards its own "transformation."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Music from the Congo

Though I've never had the patience to learn any instruments myself, I'm something of a music nut. I have to say I was floored by the wonderful sounds I found during my last visit to the North Kivu area. For example, one Sunday when I was returning from the town of Kiwanja, I noticed there were music bands playing in nearly every town we passed through on the way back to Goma. I presume that these humble gatherings of musicians were the only form of entertainment to be had, and seemed like people were enjoying it.

I've put together a compilation of photos and audio I recorded during the trip, which you can watch below:

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Christianity and Development Part 2: Development vs. Transformation

In my last post I alluded to the limitations when measuring the progress of a developing nation (or any nation) using GDP. The United States has one of the highest GDP per capita in the world, yet lags other developed nations in crucial measures such as life expectancy and infant mortality. In fact, a consensus has emerged in policy circles that GDP should be replaced - the only question is with what. In Bhutan, the government produces an optimistic yet enigmatic statistic called "gross national happiness". The UN, in a more humble attempt at measurement, created the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These 8 goals aim to measure success against physical poverty not by tallying GDP, but by more closely monitoring what impacts an individual's daily life - education, water and sanitation, mother and child health, etc.

These new measurement techniques result from the seemingly obvious recognition that we judge success by what we measure. GDP growth in many developing countries masks the horrific income inequality that exists, and may even be growing along with GDP. The basket of statistics that are the MDGs are an improved method of determining our success in reducing physical poverty.

I use the term "physical poverty" deliberately, and in the same way that most would simply write "poverty." I do this because what we typically call poverty is only part of the story. There are people in all nations, whether "developing" or "developed" who suffer from many different forms of poverty; poverty of spirit, of community, of hope, and of meaning. Should we not address all forms of poverty, not just physical? What I am saying is that just as success is judged by what we measure, our goals will match the language we give them. Therefore, we need a new term for our goal, rather than "development" or "poverty alleviation". A term that more accurately reflects the movement of a people from desperation, isolation, dis-empowerment and physical poverty towards a life of security, hope, fulfillment, and joy.

The word "transformation" means the radical change from one state to another, and more accurately reflects the work Christ wants to do in each of us personally and in societies as a whole. When a community is transformed, it is not simply progressing towards looking like another Europe or Japan, but towards what God envisioned it to be. This vision includes much of what we call development - more education, healthier people, more business opportunities. But it includes so much more - a passion for justice, a love of peace, a desire for community and a longing for truth.

When we conceive of our goal as transformation rather than development, we become aware of the myriad ways in which poverty destroys communities and lives. But we also become aware of the richness of life possible when one seeks to be transformed into the fullness of God's creation.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Christianity and Development, Part 1

I've decided to do an occasional series of posts called "Christianity and Development", in which I'll discuss how Christian faith influences perceptions (or doesn't) of development, and how that plays out among missionaries and those in the secular development community.

As a Christian myself, I'm especially keen to address this topic. I think both communities have a lot to teach each other, but rarely take the time to do so. Unfortunately, there is a lot of parochialism amongst the NGO community, which leads to a lot of groups doing their own thing without attempting to learn from others.

I'd been considering a series like this for a while, but I've finally decided to write because of a conversation I had a few days ago with a Ugandan Christian. During our conversation, he made a comment that ran something like this:
a few years ago an American pastor spoke to our group and said, "the reason America has become so developed and powerful is that many years ago the people there made a decision to turn to God and be faithful to His word." Until Uganda makes the same decision, we will never be a successful country.
His point was that America's success was a direct result of a collective faithfulness to God. I wasn't sure how to respond to such a sentiment, so I tried to be nuanced. "America prides itself on being a place of diverse opinion and thought. So while there are many faithful Christians in our country, there are many people who do not follow Christ. And many of those people have been successful, along with Christians." My friend was less than convinced.

Inside however, I was a little upset. No matter what this pastor had intended, the perception he left behind was that America has been successful solely by being Christian. The reality of course is much more complex. I am afraid that this pastor left the impression that Ugandan Christians should be out converting everyone to Christ before attending to issues of development. Unfortunately, Uganda has been "converted" many times over yet has not achieved the same level of success as the United States (granted, "success" is a relative term. The Christian worldview would attest that measuring a nation's GNP vs. the US is a deeply flawed metric).

However, the values central to the Christian faith: honesty, love, faithfulness, and sacrifice play a crucial role in the development of a society. Corruption hinders most developing countries, and I think a transformational commitment to Christ (and these values) would eliminate this most basic of problems. But if Christian groups only pursue altar calls at the expense of "holistic transformation", poverty will continue. The gospel must not just be preached, it must be demonstrated. When we as Christians do work towards transforming lives - and that list is potentially endless - we show to non-Christians the work the Holy Spirit is doing in ourselves. And at the same time, we show that the work done in our lives is overflowing into their own lives. In saving us, God has also blessed others.

Only when we proclaim through words that Christ is Lord, while at the same time proving it through our work, will societies truly be lifted up. As James said,
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such a faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing for his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." James 2:14-17

Friday, August 14, 2009

Unintended Consequences

As part of her marathon tour of Africa, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently toured Goma to see for herself the devastation that has been wrought by years of conflict. It has been years since someone so high up in the US government has visited Congo - and not one has ever visited Goma. Sources say that her statements were well thought-out and more candid than typical for a politician. The centerpiece of her visit was to profile a new $17m aid package to address the conflict in eastern Congo. And not so surprisingly, this is where the problems started.

Any aid and attention to the situation is appreciated, but in a region as complicated as this, outside support needs to be carefully considered. Unfortunately the package announced by Clinton bears all the hallmarks of rushed planning. Firstly, the plan gives little to no money to indiginous NGO's - the onces that know best what the needs of the community are. Most of the money will go to the International Rescue Committee. And secondly, much of this money will be spent on the construction of a brand new fistula treatment center. That kind of assistance is greatly needed here, the problem is that such a facility already exists in Heal Africa. Instead of supporting and expanding current operations, the US will be starting over from scratch. What of the years of skills and experience possessed by the Heal Africa staff? This new facility will, at best, create competition where there should be cooperation. At worst, the greater resources of this new facility could very well canabalize the success of Heal Africa as talented individuals are lured away by higher salaries.

This situation reminds me of some fictional situations presented in the foreign service oral assessment, which I have attempted several times. The purpose of the scenarios is to judge one's critical thinking skills under pressure. This aid package, which threatens so much of what Heal Africa does, was announced at Heal Africa itself! Based on how genuinely sympathetic Clinton appeared during her trip, it seems that she was poorly informed about how her announcement would be perceived. This is a great example of the kind of situation the oral assessment would present; a shame then that it appears Ms. Clinton would not have passed this section of the exam.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Uptime, Sweet Uptime

Getting a reliable internet connection in east Africa is something of a challenge. Fiber is supposedly on the way, but it's been promised for years to no avail. Most institutions, including Heal Africa, rely on a satellite connection to access the internet. The speed is nothing to write home about (perhaps equivalent to an ISDN line), but it's a lot faster than the alternative phone line connection.

But even with a decent connection, reliability is still an issue. Occasionally the satellite will either stop broadcasting or the dish comes out of alignment. A more frequent problem though is simple electrical power - when it drops out, so does the modem that manages the internet connection. But satellite connections, as slow as they often are, offer an unexpected advantage - all the equipment needed to operate the connection resides within the building. And there isn't much needed - just a modem and a router. And so, with a large battery, a charge controller and an inverter, this equipment can be powered for several hours, keeping the connection alive.

In the past this might not have meant much - the computers using the connection wouldn't be on either, and the battery would drain too fast trying to power them. But nowadays with the prevalence of laptops, this isn't so much of an issue. With a live connection, laptop users can keep browsing for data even with no lights.

I had this surreal experience a few times during my last trip to Goma. I would sit in my hotel room with the nauseous kerosene lamp, even as I checked Facebook on my mobile phone. I couldn't power a TV, a phone, or a computer, and I could barely see. But I could still chat with all my friends 12,000 miles away.

But the new backup system at the hospital serves a much greater purpose. With a nearly guaranteed connection, researchers can keep in touch with advisers and find data. Doctors can keep up to date on procedures. Staff can continue to raise funds through foreign contacts, and project administrators can communicate with volunteers. Heal Africa can rely on this now, and in one respect at least, is no longer subject to the whims of the electrical grid.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Choirs of Kiwanja

About 80km north of Goma along North Kivu's main highway lies the town Kiwanja. The road north twists and turns through Virunga National Park, where the adventurous can find many of the "Big 5" game animals (in fact on the way south on the same road I came across a family of baboons). The road also passes through several small towns, which can be filled to the brim with people on market days.

A few weeks ago I traveled to Kiwanja to observe a Christian outreach event put on by my friend Bizi and two of his associates. The trio are members of a small organization called United Evangelism Group. The purpose of this group is to preach the unity of the church in light of the gospel - meaning that all Christians, whether Baptist, Catholic, 7th Day Adventist, Presbyterian, Pentacostal or whatever, are united in Christ. Preaching unity is something eastern Congo could use a little more of these days.

After passing by the UN airstrip, we turned east into town. On our way to the church, we passed the first truck full of Congolese soldiers I'd seen since arriving. I was amazed not because I saw soldiers, but that they were all traveling together; every other time I'd seen a soldier he'd be by himself, either walking on the road or hitching a ride on a moto. Somehow the army had actually gotten its act together and transported a group all at once.

As we pulled up to the church, the mob of children decended before I had even stopped the car. "Mzuuuuuungu!" echoed off the lips of the children and radiated outward from the vehicle in a frenzy. I tentively got out after my three friends had exited, to take away some of the attention from myself. But the kids couldn't get enough - clearly there hadn't been a mzungu here in a long time, apart from the UN soldiers. And probably not without good reason, as sixth months previously Kiwanja was a dangerous place.

That night Bizi put on a showing of "The Passion of the Christ", which drew a tremendous audience. It wouldn't be my first choice for a movie screening, but I was amazed by the number of people who showed up for the outdoor performance. And the day after the show, I got to see another performance at church: choir after choir of amazing, ecstatic and joyous music. Men, women and children got up in their finest clothes to perform for their audience. And the music was really good. It helped me forget I was sitting through a 6 hour church service!

That Sunday was the beginning of my love of Congolese music. On the way back, and during my few weeks in Goma, I kept the radio turned on to the tinny guitars of Congolese gospel music. Thankfully I recorded one the songs, which I've posted online and you can listen to here. Hope you like it!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Road to Goma, Part 2: Bunagana to Goma

The missionaries left Rungumba in 1990 after the fighting in the area became too heavy. Their legacy however is surprisingly intact considering what's occurred here in the last 20 years; homes, schools and a hospital are still operating. But many of these buildings have fallen into disrepair, and those that are still in working order are a shadow of their former selves.

Bizi had taken me to this area to spend the night after crossing the border. The original plan had been to press on to Goma, but with night fast approaching it was no longer safe to make the trip. We wheeled of the main highway and bounced north on a narrow road near Bizi's home town. On the way to the missionary campus, we stopped by the river turbine built to supply power to the buildings. Constructed in 1929, the turbine had operated continuously but with declining output until 2006, when it finally gave up the ghost. The hospital up the hill, and the guest homes beyond now have little to no electrical power, and so must depend entirely on parafin lamps for lighting.

The guest house we were to sleep in is maintained by a small staff from town. The building itself looks just as it did when the missionaries left thanks to the cleaning and repairs the staff performs. The house sits on a hill overlooking a dirt airstrip once used by the Baptist missionaries. The field is still clearly visible, but small plots of farmland are encroaching on the strip itelf, making landings now impossible. Above the house stood a series of abandoned schoolhouses, bashed up by the recent fighting in 2008.

The night passed peacefully, and in the morning we set out carrying our obligatory batch of matoke and a sack of potatoes (a vehicle never goes to waste around here). The road south was covered in potholes, though not deep enough to slow us down too much. What did slow us down however were the police - we were stopped at least twice, and there may have been some sort of exchange of items (I swear I couldn't tell; I don't speak French or Swahili!). We also passed by trucks loaded to the brim with people, some carrying AKs. It looked like armed people, maybe army, maybe not, were mixing in amoungst people just trying to move from one place to another. Thankfully we were never stopped by anybody like that.

2 1/2 hours later we arrived in Goma. The city had installed a huge number of street lights since I had last visited in May. They were put up in advance of President Joseph Kabila's visit for Independance Day on June 30th. The sight was impressive, but it made me wonder what else the government was capable of if given the proper motivation.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Road to Goma, Part 1: Mbarara to Bunagana

"You may pay if you want to, but you don't have to. It's up to you."

It was the first time I'd ever been asked for a bribe, and the police officer sure was nice about it. I was sitting in a small metal hut in Bunagana, Uganda, a few feet from the DRC border. I had spent the previous five hours driving across the hilly, dusty roads of western Uganda learning how to drive a stick shift and drive on the left-hand side of the road. It was easier than I had expected, though putting it into first was still tricky - quite a few locals got a chuckle out of watching the mzungu sputter out of a petrol station or a stop sign.

But now at the border I was at the final stage in a journey of emotions. When I had set out from Mbarara towards Kabale, I was moving fast, feeling the wind on my arm, and loving the trip. But after Kabale, I became less sure of the way. Excitment gave way to apprehension the longer it took to get to the border. I was afraid I was lost. But I finally reached Kisoro, and shortly after that Bunagana. I had arrived at the border.

My fear was not completely gone however because I still had to cross the border, meet a friend, then travel several hours south to Goma. And my fears were not relieved - my paperwork was not in order, and it took several hours to make it so (special thanks to Melissa, who emailed the documents. And special thanks to Zain, whose wireless internet made it possible to recieve them. Technology can be pretty amazing, even in east Africa). By the time I actually crossed the border, it was too late to drive to Goma before dark. And so my friend Bizi from HEAL Africa drove us to Rungumba and the abandoned Baptist missionary outpost that was to be our lodging for the night.

Click here to see a Flickr map of the trip from Mbarara to Goma.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Great Expectations (Dashed)

Yesterday I visited a Kampala supplier of power and water equipment to purchase items needed for a power backup system at HEAL Africa (I'll detail the system in a future post). Davis & Shirtliff is a Kenyan company with distribution outlets all over east Africa: Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia. Their ads are dotted around Kampala, promising solutions to all your water and power needs. Just the kind of stuff I'm looking for.

I decided to purchase from Davis & Shirtliff because it seemed to have the qualities one needs when making a large purchase - informed salespeople, professional outlets and quality equipment. It certainly appeared that way from looking at their website and their sales catalogue. After looking over the second-hand equipment sold in Mbarara, the prospect of purchasing from a reputable supplier was reassuring.

So I walked into the store on Jinja Road with great expectations. After waiting a while I met a sales representative and explained to him exactly what I wanted to do. He detailed which products I would need and priced them for me. I hesitated when he told me I could use a charge controller designed for a DC solar system, when I explicitely stated I would charge the battery using the AC grid. But he assured me the model (Sundaya Apple 15 amp) could do both, so I agreed to the purchase. I left the store agreeing to buy a charge controller, battery and inverter. I planned to come back the next day to pick them up.

I arrived the next day expecting to just walk in and walk out. But looking over the battery, it turned out that it wasn't exactly what I'd asked for (unsealed, when I needed sealed. The sealed battery is necessary because it's maintenance free, which is very important in Goma). It then turned out there were no sealed batteries in stock at 50 Ah, which is a common size. The rep called a different retailer across town, but they didn't have the exact size. And then it turned out the other retailer was closing because someone hadn't shown for work. So no dice.

However, I still could buy the charge controller and inverter and get the battery from a supplier in Kigali. But now comes the part that really gets me: the charge controller was not the one I needed, after explicitly asking 3 times. I almost walked out of the store with the wrong equipment (a big deal when traveling to Kampala takes so long). When the rep eventually did find a model for my application, they only had one left, which was slightly scuffed and missing a cable. The rep sent someone across town to get a new one, and when he couldn't find it tried to buy a US plug and file down the ends to fit into the charge controller's DC outlet. Umm, not going to work.

And so after leaving the previous day excited with my pending equipment purchase, I walked out of the store empty-handed. I had chosen to go to Davis & Shirtliff explicitly to avoid a series of events like this.

The phrase "TIA" (this is Africa) was rattling in my head. One has to go with the flow or you'll never fit in and never get anything done. Things take time, and mess-ups will happen. True, and when appropriate I hold that expectation. But when doing business, one should expect a certain level of professionalism. Expecting an African business to be less professional than any other would be condescending. Building trust in a brand is a critical part of being successful. When that trust is broken, it's terribly hard to repair.

This small series of events is just one experience. Based on their size, Davis & Shirtliff appears to be a very successful company. But my trust is temporarily on hold, and I will be much more wary the next time I approach a seemingly professional company.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sand Water Filters

Getting clean water at the HEAL Africa hospital is an intermittent affair. When all is operating as it should, city water pumps take water out of neighboring Lake Kivu and deliver it to paying customers by underground pipes, like most cities. The water is purified by chlorination, which is a very effective means of removing contaminants. However when the power goes out, as often happens, the pumps fail and the water stops.

HEAL Africa does have a backup, however. Large rainwater collection tanks dot the hospital campus, harvesting water from the roofs of buildings. This water allows the hospital to keep functioning, but only after the water has been purified. It cannot be used immediately because of the contaminants the water acquires while passing over the roof to the collection tank.

Currently, rainwater is purified by boiling before use. While this solution is very effective at producing safe water, it has several drawbacks. Firstly, it is difficult to scale up; boiling a few liters of water is easy - boiling hundreds (or thousands) of liters for an entire hospital is hard. Secondly, boiling water is energy intensive. It requires a large amount of charcoal, which fuels almost all stoves in Goma. The charcoal is expensive and its production is harmful to the local environment.

Due to these drawbacks, the hospital is seeking an improved solution for providing safe water during outages. There are many potential solutions, depending on the type of contaminants present. In this case, because the contaminants from the roof are all biological (there's no fertilizers or pesticides to worry about), slow sand filters can be utilized. These are extremely simple and effective, and should work well for HEAL.
The filters work by passing water through a bed of sand. As the water flows down, many contaminants are trapped in the sand. These contaminants then begin to form a "scum" layer on top of the sand. This scum layer is actually the most effective part of the filter - it digests other biological material as more water passes through the filter. Once the water emerges from the bottom, it is cleaned of all biological material (except viruses, which can fit through the sand and are not consumed by the scum layer. These will not be present in this case because the water is immidiately removed from the roof when it rains).

The filters have no moving parts, don't need to be refilled, and are low-maintenance. They do need occasional attention however to remove the scum layer when it becomes too thick. Because of this, the filters work best in an institutional setting where maintenance staff can be trained to care for the filters.

In July, we will be building a prototype filter for use in a small residential compound outside of town. Doing so will allow us to learn on a smaller scale before creating the larger filters needed for the main campus. I expect the filter to cost $100-$200 in materials, plus construction. Once complete, I will be performing a water purity test to verify the cleanliness of the water. Staff will continue to observe the filter before the next installation.

I'll be posting more pictures and updates about the actual installation as it proceeds. If you'd like to help support the prototype construction, please click on the link below. Thanks so much!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Support Water, Power and Health Projects at HEAL Africa

In an earlier post I described my trip to the hospital HEAL Africa in May. I came away impressed by the dedication of the staff there; but I was also impressed by the limitations they faced in doing their work. It's the little things that can get irritating - running out of necessary supplies, boiling rainwater when the city water shuts off, losing your internet connection when sending critical emails. These little things add up, and drain away from the time the medical staff could be spending on critical things - like healing victims of one of the most protracted conflicts in Africa.

But speaking to the staff at HEAL Africa, they described ways to alleviate some of these distractions. And so when I return to the hospital in July, I'll be working to implement a few projects that will do just that. In the next few posts I'll describe each project and explain what will be necessary to get them done.

But right now I want to ask a favor - can you partner with me to get these projects done? They're small and quickly achievable - but I need the finances to purchase the equipment. Batteries, sand, concrete, steel and plastic will build the filters, refrigerators, and communication backup that will let the medical staff focus on what they do best: saving lives.

If you'd like to give, please click on the link below. 100% of the proceeds will be going to purchasing equipment. It's not often you get a chance to contribute to a cause at such a low level - I will let you know exactly what you've bought and how it will be helping people in Goma. Thanks!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Silent for a Bit

I'm in India for the next few weeks, with some spotty internet connectivity, so the blog's going to be a little quiet. I'm sure I'll have plenty of thoughts on water and sanitation here, enough for a "Tales of Water in India." My hotel has a squat toilet with little to no flushing capability - so believe me, the reflections regarding water in India are flying!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Philosophies in Development

Rwanda is an amazingly beautiful country; words simply can't do it justice. Hills and valleys span every corner of the country from border to border, filled from top to bottom with terraced farms. 98% of the country is cultivated to support the densest population in Africa.

It also has a culture different from many others in Africa. When Rwandan leadership decides to do something, the population generally goes along with it. So when the current president, Paul Kagame, decided to move full-speed with development after the genocide, Rwanda moved into high gear. With money pouring in from the West, a lot has been done. Roads are paved and medians are filled with streetlights and flowers. Buses leave on time, roads have irrigation ditches and the terraced farms have steep gutters to channel water, thereby preventing erosion.

The safe environment is created by the huge international presence and the strong central government. Into this safety have come some entrepreneurs from the West, looking to do good and make some money. I met two on my way back to Uganda from Goma, and it got me thinking about the relative success of different approaches to development.

There are of course many, many approaches, and I can't hope to compare and contrast all of them. But there are two I'm thinking of now, and wondering - which is more successful? The first is what I'd call the current development orthodoxy. Let's call it "micro-enterprise." Essentially, this approach states that development best occurs when it's bottom driven by many small entrepreneurs. When they develop successful small businesses, their purchasing power is increased. They then spend their earnings in the growing economy, spurred by other micro-enterprises. In this way the entire society is lifted to a higher standard of living. This process is driven and guided by the people themselves, with little outside influence (perhaps only seed funding through micro-financing).

The second approach is more top-down in nature. The national government, an NGO, or the "international community" decides that a certain project is worth pursuing, and then mobilizes the resources to do so. There is less input from the affected people themselves (not necessarily no input, just less). Examples of this would include the two Americans I met in Kigali; both are working in partnership with the government. The first is developing a company to sell bio-digester systems to schools, and the second is selling solar systems. Both of these pursuits require more initial investment than is possible with micro-enterprise. They are implemented by the government and not by individuals. Lastly, their impact is communal rather than individual.

And that I think points to the answer - these approaches work best in tandem, one supporting the other. The local "context" will determine which is more appropriate, and which is more successful. And in reality, it's not appropriate to pit one approach versus the other - they are not mutually exclusive, and one improves the chances of success for the other. So why did I ask this question if now I state it's very premise is incorrect? Well, that question is what I've often asked myself, and the point of view I think many people have. Successful development depends on complex relationships, and unfortunately there's no simple solution.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Chukudus are awesome

What makes a certain technology popular in one place, and yet non-existent in another? We see this a lot in high technology - for example, when crazy advanced devices take off in Japan, but fail to have any success in the US.

I thought about this after seeing my first Chukudu in Goma:

Pronounced choo-ka-dook, these clever devices are all over the place in Goma. Essentially, they're home-made bicycles designed to carry heavy loads. Men use them all over the city for carrying lumber, cement, potatoes, and other heavy items. They're made mostly from wood, but do contain a small amount of modern material such as rubber and a spring.

The chukudus are a vest improvement over the standard bicycle, which is also common for carrying loads in Uganda and eastern Congo. The bikes don't have as much room for materials, they can be expensive, and they don't stay balanced very well.

So if they're such an improvement, why are they so common in Goma, yet non-existent in Uganda? It seems like they would be much more useful than the bikes used in Uganda. Is there less wood? Are people embarrassed by the DIY look? Is it just a lack of knowledge? I don't know. This is one of the questions I think requires a long time within a culture to really understand. There may be all sorts of subtle reasons that are not clear to the outside mzungu. Then again, there may be many people ready to switch to something better if given the chance.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

HEAL Africa

The city of Goma in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has been on the periphery of a guerilla war to the north for several years now. After the end of the Rwandan genocide, many of the Hutu perpetrators fled west into Goma, taking advantage of the non-existant government of the eastern Congo. The newly installed Tutsi Rwandan army conducted border raids, and eventually a Tutsi proxy army sprung up in DRC to fight the Hutus. The Congolese army, violent and ill-disciplined, took the side of the hutus. So in a small geographical area, at least four separate military forces vied for control. Through the years, the allegiences have switched back and forth. Like the drugs that fuel the Colombian FARC, valuable minerals (especially coltan) have sustained the violence in eastern DRC.

Located on top of the lava that over-ran the city in 2006 is HEAL Africa, one of the largest and best run hospitals in DRC. The doctors, nurses, and practitioners that provide care here are mostly Congolese, but they come from all over the world. And their expertise is needed here to heal the wounds from the sadistic violence of the war. While the last few months have seen a reduction in violence (with the capture of Laurent Nkunda), the need is as large as ever.

Over the last few years, First Pres Berkeley has sent several teams to the hospital. I've heard so much about the place, and now have finally arrived in Goma to see for myself. I'll be here for a week to work with the on-site building maintanance team to look into power use and water issues. Currently, we're looking into adding a slow-sand filter to clean the rainwater that is used when the city water supply is unavailable (this happens when the power goes out and the city water pumps stop running). If all goes well, a filter could be up and running in a few months.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The ACTS Camp

On Wednesday and Thursday this week I had the opportunity to spend time in the project camp for Africa Community Technical Service (ACTS), one of the organizations I'm hoping to partner with (that's still not finalized yet, which I'll discuss in a moment). The camp is located just outside the small village of Ncera, about a two hour drive south west of Mbarara. It's made up of about 15 tents, a small office, a kitchen and a small dormitory. The camp serves as the living quarters for the construction and engineering team that builds out the gravity flow systems (GFS) that ACTS specializes in. The Ugandan construction team lives in the dormitories, and the visiting interns and engineers typically live in the tents.

I was visiting to get up to speed on the GFS design process, and to collect some software for the friction loss calculations. The current project in Ncera will serve about 5,000 people in several villages once complete. The water is delivered to communal 'tap stands', from which people can fill jerry cans to carry back to the their homes. On future projects, ACTS is looking to inorporate rainwater harvesting from the roofs of homes farther than 400 meters from tap stands. This will reduce the distance families need to travel to get water.

I also had the chance to observe a program called "Farming God's Way", taught by a young couple from the US. Farming God's Way is a version of conservation agriculture, which is essentially farming without irrigation, pesticides or fertilizers. We might call it organic farming in the US. Conservation agriculture increases yields for the local farmers, allowing them  to move beyond subsitance farming.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Simplicity: Water Delivered by Gravity

In remote communities, there are only a few ways to get water; and often there are even fewer ways to get clean water. For the poorest, the simplest option is often the only one: fetching water from a stream. This is usually a less-than ideal solution because streams can easily be polluted by others living up-stream. The streams are used for washing clothes, feeding animals, and open defacation. Obviously this creates all sorts of problems when trying to use it as a potable water source. A second option is well water - this is often safe, and for a while a plentiful source. However, it is limited in the number of people it can serve because people must walk to the well. Therefore, many wells are needed when serving sparsely populated areas.

A third option is called gravity water distribution, and it works like this: a source is identified on top of a hill, protected, and then pipes are built out to resevoirs as far as 10km away. This has the advantage of providing clean water to a large number of people distributed over a wide area. It is also simple - it doesn't require any mechanical equipment, and therefore does not need electricity to operate. It is also very easy to maintain. The only drawback is the initial expertise required to develop the system, and the possibility that the source may run out if used too quickly. In general however, it is a system with many advantages and few drawbacks.

Monday, April 20, 2009

No Water

"Do you have a jerry can?"
"" I replied.

I have been living in a small building behind the house of a local pastor for 3 days now, and everything had been great up to this point. It's small, but comfortable and has everything I need. However, when I got home this afternoon and went to draw water to cook some beans (they take forever!), nothing came out of the tap. Uh - I hadn't expected that. I waited an hour, but still no water. Finally I asked if the front house had water, and I was told that they did, but that this was probably because of the water storage tank (that my building is not connected to).

Turns out that even out here, about 1.5 miles from the center of Mbarara, there is city water supplied to homes. And sometimes it goes out, just like the electricity. That would explain the storage tanks placed on 12ft high platforms that I have seen around homes. And so without city water, I was given a large bucket of water. I can boil it and then use it for cooking and cleaning, and I have a UV purifier for drinking water (I will do a separate post on that later - it's great!). As long as the outage doesn't last long, it's no big deal. But it's an unexpected, first-hand look at what I imagine I'll be seeing a lot more of in the next few months.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Designing a World of Hope

This past Wednesday I had the opportunity to visit the construction site for a project designed by Engineering Ministries International, a Christian organization that brings together design professionals to work on projects in the developing world. This particular project is to be a primary school for orphaned and low-income children who participate in a choir that tours the United States, Canada and Europe.

The project is being built to the highest standards, but that doesn't mean that it's being built like a western building. The walls are constructed of brick and mortar, with concrete columns to support the weight of the roof and provide rigidity (yes, there are earthquakes in Uganda!). The tin roof will have a dropped ceiling to support light fixtures and provide good acoustics (a brief tangent - this is important because the buildings here are very echo-y. The exposed concrete is needed to keep the building cool, but it comes at the cost of bad acoustics). Additionally, all doors, access ways and ramps will be ADA-compliant. The high ceilings will stratify the air, and the open ceiling will let that air out through the top of the building, allowing fresh air to enter through open windows at ground level.

The project is also good experience for the Ugandan construction team because they get the opportunity to work on a high-profile (and well-funded) project. It also is an opportunity to see a modified and improved method of construction. It's a method appropriate for long-term maintanance, comfort and safety.

More photos

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Development Quandry: Lake Bunyonyi

Lake Bunyonyi is a beautiful, peaceful lake in Uganda near the border with Rwanda. Steep terraced farms fall down towards the water in a patchwork of greens and browns, dotted with the shiny reflections of tin farm house roofs. The deepest lake in Uganda at 6,500 ft, it has a series of islands dotted throughout.


Until about 15 years ago, there was nothing in the area but the farms and the fisherman who scoot about the lake in their powerboats. But in the mid-nineties, a group of Chrisitan missionaries started a small camp for tourists on one of the islands. Over time, the camp became a modest tourist attraction, and other entreprenours took notice. Today, there are now more than 10 different resorts hugging the hilly edges of the lake. Each has their own piece of the market, catering to backpackers all the way up to posh full service cottages.

The tourist economy created by these resorts has brought a lot of good things to the area - jobs at the resorts, supporting jobs such as transportation, and a market for local handicrafts. These things are "sustainable" in that they don't need outside input to keep the development moving forward (other than tourist money of course, but every industry needs its investment source). Sustainability is an important goal in development work because it means that the people being helped are now capable of supporting themselves, so that development money can be spent elsewhere.

However, this success has its downsides. The resorts have pushed up the value of the land around the lake, meaning that as the population grows young farmers do not have enough money to purchase land to start their own farms and raise a family as they always expected to do. Tenant farmers could be forced off their land. And that valuable land? It's likely to be purchased by foreigners (muzungu's) to start a new resort or build a fancy vacation home. Clearly, every change has positive and negative ramifications. Less clear is the net benefit the resorts have brought to the Lake Bunyonyi region.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009


I confess that I've seen the Steve Miller Band in concert not once, but twice. A big name in the 70's, a lot of people probably wouldn't know them today. But regardless, I was humming their hit "Jet Airliner" over and over in my head as the plane took off for Uganda on Monday:

Big ol' Jet Airliner, don't carry me too far away, big ol' jet airliner, 'cause it's here that I've got to stay

The song goes on about leaving trusted friends behind until returning home. I know I'm leaving many trusted people behind to see what international development looks like in real life. At this point it's an open book.

I arrived today in the early morning, then spent the entire day trying not to fall asleep so I could beat the jet lag as quickly as possible. It's funny how the head can more or less completely understand what's going on with the body being totally confused. And in the end the body usually wins no matter what the mind wants.

Hopefully I'll be back to normal by Monday when I will be meeting with ACTS to learn more about their work in Uganda and what a partnership with them might look like.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Organization Profile: Africa Community Technical Service

This is the last of 3 posts looking at different organizations I may potentially partner with.

The Africa Community Technical Service (ACTS) is a Canadian organization that works with local churches and community groups to help facilitate development in local regions. ACTS works with local residents to identify issues impeding development, and then provides some technical assistance to complete projects and build the local expertise to maintain projects into the future.

ACTS works to simultaneously address the many inter-related issues that lead to poverty. Their current projects address issues such as: water supply, agro-forestry, income generation, skills transfer, health, land rights, HIV/AIDS, and environmental conservation. This multi-pronged strategy is in response to failures that have been observed when focusing solely on one issue. For example, a doctor may come to treat symptoms of a water-borne illness. However, if the source of the water contamination is not removed, the disease will return. But then, if a project is completed to bring clean water, if the residents do not have the skills to maintain the system, it will eventually fall apart. When tackled simultaneously, these inter-related problems can be solved. However, the going can be slow and the work takes patience and perseverance. It requires a deep relationship with all people involved.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Organization Profile: A Single Drop

"Teach a man to fish..." We all know how to finish that saying. It sticks with us because it makes intuitive sense - teach someone how to provide for themselves, and they will no longer need your help. Basically, this is the work A Single Drop does - teaching local organizations the basics of water technologies and implementation so that they can do it themselves.
A Single Drop started in the Philippines and has recently expanded to Africa. Their philosophy focuses on providing a training workshop to local communities, which afterward will form a water group to manage local water resources. This training lasts for several weeks, with each week covering different aspects of implementing a community-wide water program. The first week teaches the community how to inventory their needs and identify areas for improvement. The second week is devoted to teaching the actual water technologies - embankments, rainwater collection, sand filters, sanitary toilets, etc. The last two weeks focus on budgeting, fund raising, and bookkeeping.

A Single Drop provides the training to implement projects - the actual construction is left to the local communities. This ensures that the communities take ownership of their own development. Also, by explaining water issues during the first week of training, A Single Drop helps to "open the communities eyes" so to speak, but doesn't tell the community what it needs. In this way, the community learns to identify its own problems. It can then look to the available technologies and decide which is most appropriate to their situation. The solution may look different for each group.A Single Drop follows a philosophy of growing influence in the world of development NGO's - working alongside communities to provide assistance, but not just giving things away. The idea is that when recipients take ownership of their development, the projects that are established will last long after the group providing assistance has left. In this way, long-term, sustainable development can be achieved.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Organization Profile: Medair

Planning ahead is a good thing - after all, it's what we teach our sons in the Boy Scouts. Planning ahead can make it easier and faster to adapt to changes. For example, bringing a rain jacket to India during the Monsoon season is probably a good idea.

But if you plan too much, you come burdened to your destination with things you'll likely never need. And if you plan for a specific set of circumstances that don't happen, you can find yourself with skills or items that are no longer needed. You're not flexible to handle the unexpected.

And so it's been a hard decision for me to leave some of the "pre-planning" for this time in Africa until after I arrive. The most important decision I have still to make is which organization I'll be partnering with when I arrive. I'm not fitting neatly into any organization's application process - the truth is I'm making some of this up as I go along. But it's also a tremendous lesson in leaving up my direction and expectations to God. And so as I arrive in Uganda, I will be meeting with several organizations to get a hands-on look at what they do. With time, I'm confident there will be an organization that will be a good mutual fit. Since my trip to Uganda last Fall, I've found 3 different organizations that I think may be a great opportunity. Over the next 3 posts I'll outline what they do. The first is Medair.The Organization
Medair is a Swiss organization that does relief and rehabilitation work in many countries all over the world, including Sudan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Madagascar, and Uganda. Their work in Uganda focuses on the devastation caused by the Lord's Resistance Army, a brutal force that terrorized the population (especially children) of northern Uganda. Though the fighting has subsided (at least in Uganda), the physical and psychological wounds require much healing. This is where Medair steps in.

Medair provides two services as a result of humanitarian disasters. The first is immediate relief; as soon as is possible, Medair staff arrive to assess the situation and begin work. They have three areas of expertise: health, water & sanitation, and shelter & infrastructure. Medair works to provide each of these to return the impacted region to its previous level of these services.

Once immediate relief is provided, Medair then begins the rehabilitation process. In this stage, Medair trains local staff and population to provide health, sanitation and shelter without outside assistance. This is known as "capacity building". Through this work Medair ensures that the relief provided will be sustainable in the future.

Medair is not a development organization, and so there are many regions in need of assistance that may not be candidates for Medair's assistance. Instead, Medair focuses specifically on regions most hard hit by humanitarian disasters - in this way limited resources and expertise are used to the greatest effect.