Spencer in Uganda

Spencer is a graduate student in religious studies in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. He was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Internship for summer 2013 from the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU. He is working in the Busoga region of Uganda with a development organization, Kibo Group, International, to assess local perception of Kibo Group water projects.

What I’ve learned in Uganda

An open water source

An open water source

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.

A mud hut

A mud hut

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.

Soap and a jerry can

Soap and a jerry can

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.

A view of Busoga

A view of Busoga

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.

The journey for water

The journey for water

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Our village visits

I believe that I mentioned in the first post that 12 village communities have completed a Home Improvement Campaign and have received a water well in partnership with Kibo Group.  Our research team has achieved its goal of interviewing people from eight of those village communities, and in this post I would like to simply provide a picture of what those days have looked like.

Morning chai

Morning chai

The village communities that we interviewed were located anywhere from 45 minutes to just over three hours from Jinja, our hometown for these five weeks in Uganda.  For those of you doing the math American-style, this may lead you to believe that these village communities are located anywhere from 30 to 180 miles from our hometown.  My family often drives from Dallas to Austin in three hours, but this kind of comparison serves only to demoralize one concerned with efficient time management.  Most of the villages we visited are located about 50-60 miles from Jinja, the distance it often takes three hours to reach.  Fortunately, Busoga is beautiful; fortunately, conversation on the road among this team of researchers is utterly enjoyable.

Our days often started around 7:30 or 8 a.m. – or at least that was the goal.  While the team was impressively punctual, one learns quickly in Uganda that time exists as events, and events are quite unpredictable.  For instance, one of our village days was postponed because of strikes and protests on the roads due to a raised value added tax on public transportation.  Information about such events becomes known in conversations around morning tea, which leads to what I perceive as a prime rule for life in Uganda:  NEVER RUSH MORNING TEA.  It seems that with a cup of tea in hand, accompanied by a chapatti (fried flat bread) as one’s daily bread, the events of the day unfold through conversation, laughter and stories that trickle in from those nearby.  And at some point, amid the plans, stories of the previous evening and empty cups of chai, we get in the Land Rover, and we leave.

Jerrycans at the well

Jerrycans at the well

On the road, one is constantly negotiating with pedestrians, bicyclists, animals (mostly chickens, goats, and cattle), public transportation vehicles (the matatu is the minivan that seats 14 passengers, not including children, luggage, and small animals) and the string of potholes that one can follow to the next town.  It is the dry season, and therefore, the enemy on the road is enfufu – dust.  If one is so unfortunate as to be driving behind a large truck, it is possible to see nothing except a red cloud of dust for a large portion of the journey.

Once in the village, our team of five sets out in different directions to conduct the surveys, moving out from a location near the water well along the dirt roads and walking paths.  Most of the people we encountered were extremely hospitable, taking a break from cooking, cleaning, or harvesting to sit and answer the questions on our survey.  I will save some of the insightful realizations for a later post.

Enock conducting an interview

Enock conducting an interview

The Basoga people, in general, are wonderfully hospitable and place a high value in greeting and hosting a visitor.  While the idea of wandering into someone’s space and infringing on their time is uncomfortable for me, the people with whom I spoke made the experience enjoyable.  They were also patient with my increasingly broken Lusoga (my family and I lived in Busoga from 2004 until 2010; when I left I was a fairly competent communicator in the Lusoga language).  In all but one of the villages the water well was functioning properly.  This is a good sign of community ownership and cooperation in maintenance of the water source.

The return to Jinja often consisted of recounting stories of the day – awkward situations, the complexities of good research, encounters with people suffering from sickness, and new realizations for water development derived from the wisdom of people in the community.  Conversations often shifted to two staple topics here in Uganda – religion and politics.  This, no doubt, produced laughter, argument, and even moments of agreement.

Mangoes

Mangoes

Since the days were full we often worked through lunchtime and snacked on whatever we put in our bag that day.  Because of this, the last event of our field day was often a stop at a roadside stand to buy fresh mangoes.  I can hardly imagine anything sweeter, especially while on a dry dusty road and with the twinge of afternoon hunger.  The joy we shared in these offerings from the earth brought to life a favorite local proverb – Oluganda kulya – brotherhood (and sisterhood) is eating. I continue to be thankful for that bond with these friends and co-workers.

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Water and life in Uganda

Amadhi n’obulamu – Water is life. When many of our Soga friends share this pithy proverb, they express the gravity of a perennial truth – a truth that one might walk three kilometers to access, and a truth that may very easily be polluted.  The Busoga region is by no means a worst-case scenario when it comes to clean water access.  The region, which now boasts a population of almost 4 million people and which covers approximately 3,443 square miles, is virtually surrounded by water – Lake Victoria to the south, Lake Kyoga to the North, the magnificent White Nile to the West, and the Empologoma River winding along the Eastern border. The lush hills, fertile soil, and vibrant wildlife well merit the title “Pearl of Africa” that Winston Churchill bequeathed to this small country years ago – a title that betrays the assessment of a lucrative profit venture or an ornament that one might wear around one’s neck.

RoadinBusoga

Road in Busoga

And yet, amidst the rich resources that vitiate this equatorial country, only about 65 percent of the population has access to clean water.  In many cases this access is very distant.  If the closest water source is contaminated, additional time and resources (firewood in particular) are often required to boil the water – but let’s be honest– who has time for all of that.  Almost 80 percent of the population in Uganda work as farmers.

I consider it an honor to work with Kibo Group this summer in this context in conjunction with the Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at Southern Methodist University. Kibo Group has been imaginatively seeking partnerships in development between the United States and Uganda since 1998. In Busoga, Kibo Group has been working with local leaders through three main projects:  on a community building reforestation initiative, a women’s empowerment program, and a health, sanitation, and clean water program.  The work with water development functions under the area of Kibo work identified as “Water Source.” In October of 2006 Kibo drilled the first water well in Kirongo village.  Since the initial project Kibo Group has formed partnerships with water organizations such as Busoga Trust and Draco drilling company in order to learn from those who have been working with villages throughout Busoga for decades.

SpencerandRonald

Ronald and I at a water well.

Through these partnerships and through countless conversations with many people in villages throughout Busoga, Kibo has learned that lack of clean drinking water was only one part of the water problem.  A greater cause of sickness comes through a lack of sanitation in the water cycle that includes clean jerrycans (the usual 20 liter container for water), dry racks to raise the dishes after washing, latrines, tippy taps (a hand-washing system located outside of latrines), rubbish pits, energy-efficient wood-burning stoves for the kitchen, and an eradication of mosquito breeding environments near the homes.  Kibo has placed an emphasis on Home Improvement Sanitation Campaigns that take place in every village prior to the installment of a clean water source.  Since 2007 there have been 12 villages that have completed both the Home Improvement Campaigns and the Water Well installment through Kibo Group.

My work with Kibo this summer involves assessment of these projects.  International Development relationships are fraught with complex ethical issues.  The questions of who owns the resources, who is in control of the resources, who is making the decisions, and who ultimately benefits from the development relationships are at the core of these issues.  In addition, these relationships take place in the context of histories of past colonial relationships, which in many situations have continued through expansion of major economic centers.

Kibo Group is a small-scale development organization that seeks to address these complex ethical issues through particular contexts and local leadership. Through this internship with the Water Source projects, Kibo Group hopes to evaluate surveys that aim to gather data from citizens of the villages that have completed the Home Improvement Campaigns and who have received water wells.  The surveys will cover three specific topics:  The sustainability of the home improvement and water projects, the local perception of the projects (concerning responsibility, benefit, and ownership), and local perceptions of impact on health and death rates.  So much of the ethics concerning “international development” as understood by Kibo Group comes down to how well these categories are negotiated, as the greater value is placed in the voices of people in the villages that the projects hope to serve.

I am working together with the manager of the Water Source Projects, Ronald, and three other individuals who bring experience with research in Uganda: Joseph, Harriet, and Enock.  They bring a joyful spirit and a committed work ethic to the project every day.  Katuje! (Let’s go!)

KiboResearchTeam

The research team and myself.

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