A couple days ago I spoke with a woman in a coffee shop about my trip to Kenya and the water project. She asked me what my most inspiring moment was. It wasn’t something I had thought about before, but I knew the answer almost immediately.
I did a lot of research before I stepped on the plane to Kenya. Case studies, anecdotal stories, failures, successes… I read everything I could about the creation, development and execution of water projects. Sounds boring, I’m sure, but I really am a research kind of girl. And it was a FANTASTIC distraction from fundraising.
We take many things for granted in the developed world (surprise, surprise), from water to education, health care to governmental support, but the one thing I had not considered before I left was the fact that I took information for granted. More specifically, access to information. Between the libraries across town and the ready access to internet nearly anywhere in the city, information is literally at the tips of our fingers. Growing up in the era of the internet, one doesn’t easily consider the impact of such access, and what it would mean not to have it.
In a case study about peri-urban water kiosks in Zambia, I came across the concept of community sensitization. Often in development, or really in any project, we get so caught up in what I have taken to calling the ‘hardware’ of the project that we forget the all important ‘software’. The building might be there, but it’s utterly useless if people do not know how to use it, or that it is even there.
This might sound irrational, but it’s not. In a low-income community where electricity is scarce and computers too costly, information must be shared through people. Word-of-mouth and community meetings are the currency here. I would say community sensitization is more akin to advertising rolled into an instruction manual.
In Zambia, they accomplished this goal through meetings, drama groups, posters, and public announcements. In Kenya, we trained a group of Village Resource Persons (VRPs) in health, sanitation, social marketing, and a whole host of skills that will help them teach the members of their community how to use the water and why it’s so important in the first place.
Now this community sensitization program is the perfect example of why it is so important to shut up and listen in this field. When we were first planning this training and its components, I had an image of these VRPs in the community. I imagined that these individuals would attend the training and return to their homestead, hopefully taking the initiative to set up plays at their children’s schools, to talk with their extended families and possibly standing up in their community meeting and speaking to the community as a whole. I did not have the capacity to predict what actually happened.
The training took place over the course of three days. I was only able to attend the last day when they focused on communication and marketing skills. I missed their sessions on water, hygiene, municipality structure, and a few things that they started to explain to me but I must abashedly admit that I did not understand. I do think that the fact that the seminar was in Luo didn’t help.
But as I watched the seminar, I saw the most amazing transformation. These VRPs were forming a community. Friendships and partnerships developed as they fostered this sense of dedication and determination to ensure that this water project succeeds. They developed a committee, voting on the chairperson and the secretary, and planned on future meetings to discuss what they could do to spread what they were learning to their neighbors.
So what was my most inspiring moment in Kenya? These Kenyans, during this training these VRPs took ownership and spoke of the water project as theirs, as the community’s. They spoke of how this water project and its success is essential to the vitality of their village. It was an incredible thing to watch and filled me with so much hope and happiness.
And then I came down with malaria.
Unfortunately I didn’t get to see the end of the seminar or get to participate with the formation of an action plan as I had my hands full with the clinic’s doctor, but after seeing these men and women in the training, I have no doubt that they will succeed.