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.