Five weeks in Uganda. Five weeks is enough to get over jet lag – even for a family of four. Five weeks is enough to share a proper greeting with several close, longtime friends. Five weeks is enough to conduct surveys and interviews of 263 community members within eight of the twelve villages where KIBO has completed sanitation campaigns and installed water wells. Five weeks is even enough to compile the data from each of these villages. Five weeks is enough to share long meals and even longer conversations about problems regarding clean water, poverty, and development in Uganda. Five weeks is enough to problematize simple answers. Five weeks is enough to scratch beyond the superficial and delve into real issues that haunt people on the ground. Five weeks is enough to transform a romantic view of people and place, as one is constantly exposed to malaria, dangerous traffic conditions, and the complexities brought on by Western involvement, so often in the form of “development.” Five weeks, however, is not long enough to say goodbye, neither to beloved friends nor to enduring issues.
In this trip I have been fortunate enough to revisit a project that I worked with for over three years. The five weeks in research with Kibo Group has reinforced a long-standing conviction: Water development is extremely complex. As this trip has been enabled through the Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility, the complexity pertains as much to the “ethical aspects” of water development as to anything else. One reason for this is that water development is not a thing. All water development enters into the complex network of water access, clean water production, and distribution. Once again, amadhi n’obulamu, water is life, and life is social, political, and economic. The work of water development does not exist in a vacuum, but is connected to all things, all aspects of life.
The Kibo Group organization, like any other non-government organization working in Uganda, is responsible for acknowledging this complexity and working with a number of issues that arise with the history and continued presence of foreign involvement. What is the responsibility of the government to its people with regard to water resources? What has the government committed to the people of Uganda? Where is the government getting resources for provision? How are the resources used? Does Uganda have the infrastructure for production of equipment needed for water wells, for recycling water, for treating water? What questions is one allowed to ask? Which questions will facilitate government cooperation and which ones will obstruct cooperation? One of the recurring jokes on our trips to the village and our time working with the accumulated data was: “In Uganda there is freedom of speech, but there is no freedom after speech.”
In addition, what are community members responsible for providing? Why is it so very hard for communities to pull together enough local resources to access clean water? How does the presence of NGOs affect the local political and social processes of discernment of responsibility and trust? Is the global demand for sugar and the increased planting of the cash crop of sugar cane actually causing the water level to drop? Without communication among government, NGOs and personal wells, a new well may draw from a limited underground water source of another well. More holes in the ground is not always a solution. One of the problems with development is that most often every solution on the part of the West raises three questions on the ground, at least in Uganda.
The issues go all the way down to the family. In Busoga, fetching water is mainly the job of women and children. Most families will make two trips a day for water – one in the morning and one in the evening. In more than one of the villages we surveyed, the biggest problem reported was the number of people in the village using the water well. The well opened at 4 a.m. and was functioning until midnight every day. For those living far from the water source, this meant not only increased labor but also less time for school work and an increased risk for women and young girls of being targeted by sexual predators.
And we have not even touched on issues of health yet. Many of the community members we surveyed reported a decrease in water-borne illness but no change in the frequency of overall sickness as malaria and HIV/AIDS continue to plague people in the Busoga region of Uganda. In addition, providing more water without addressing issues of sanitation within the home may very well result in an increased medium for sickness. Where is the well in relation to the nearest pit latrines? Where are the pit latrines in relation to the home? Where are the animals kept? Where does the family dry the dishes? How clean are the containers used for fetching the water? Which plants are planted next to the house? Do these plants provide a breeding ground for malaria? These questions are not simply questions of “development”; these are questions of life.
Interaction with members of the eight communities that we visited also reinforced the realization that we who are involved in water development are not ultimately involved in a project. We are not simply involved in trying to get the right answer to a problem. We are involved in the lives of people. These are people who are working tirelessly to provide the best education possible for their children. These are people who ache when their children get sick – people who are concerned about the quality of health care in their country. These are people who are trying to discern whether to plant sugar (for cash) or beans (for family sustenance) on land that is becoming increasingly scarce as the population skyrockets. And these are people who were overwhelmingly appreciative of work that brought clean drinking water to the community.
Amidst the complexity of issues surrounding life as it relates to clean water, I submit this final post with hope that Kibo Group (and all others involved in the lives of people who travel miles for the water that gives them life) will continue to ask better questions and continue to ask questions better. I know of no better approach than by starting with listening to those who experience the problem of clean water access firsthand. May we not seek a quick fix but listen to the wisdom of in the Soga proverb, atambula mpolampola, a tuuka wala – The one who walks slowly reaches far.