Supporting Water Aid

Supporting Water Aid

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Disparities and ditches

Dying in a ditch
A woman died in the Kampala slums we went to yesterday. She died because she fell in the open sewers that were full to the brim from the previous night’s rains.  She was just taking her little girl to school.  Her daughter was rescued but for her it was too late. It didn’t make the news.  We only found out because we met the local parish councillor. I don’t really know how I can explain what I feel about walking past that scene, even if it had happened much earlier that day. 
It’s dry season at the moment and from one deluge alone, the sewers, the rubbish, the animal faeces, the toxic waste and whatever else is lying around gets amalgamated into a mega mix of I’m not too sure what. But this is the same mega mix of toxicity that runs through the local inhabitants’ homes, that young children play in and that people sometimes have to wash themselves in. But surely they don’t drink it? Perhaps not directly but  with toilets placed “conveniently” at the tops of the hills and the water source (a natural spring) at the bottom of the hill, they might as well.  What it’s like here when the tropical thunderstorms barge their way in doesn’t bear  thinking about; neither does the number of children who become orphans in the process.
Out of desperation comes innovation (and admiration)
Being innovative – thinking outside the box?  Making a new app? Finding the best way to air brush photographs, make boobs look bigger and abs look better? It certainly means different things in different places…
For those of you who know me well, you’ll know that I’ve been privileged enough to spend about 14 years of my life in the developing world. I’ve spent a lot of time in slums in Manila, been through the ‘internally displaced people’ camps in Timor-Leste, visited slums in Rio and a few other places; so the scenes of make-shift, ramshackle buildings and people living in the most abject poverty imaginable is not new to me. It’s easy to walk through and judge everyone by the western standards that we have come accustomed to. But I take my hat off to these people and I mean it whole-heartedly when I say that I admire them. 
I wouldn’t in a million years have thought to save all the banana peelings from the local village, make them into charcoal briquettes and then sell them back to the same people who probably left them on the floor in the first place. Nor would I have thought to collect all the shoes in the area that might have been swept away by the storms and shine them up to sell to the locals. Or collect free water from a local spring (albeit contaminated) and charge the neighbourhood for the privilege of delivering it to them.  I’m pretty sure ‘Only Fools and Horses’ made a mockery of this in the episode where Dell boy sells the water from “Peckham Springs” and set up a bottling plant in his home. However, these are stories that are unanimous all over the world - but I can honestly say that I feel humbled by each and every story that I have ever heard. Perhaps our ‘innovation’ workshops and courses in the UK should involve sending people to see some of these places - I know I have certainly learnt a thing or 2 in the process.
I couldn’t imagine my granddad walking to the end of the road; let alone walking 3km to collect what is essentially swamp water for his 5 children and 7 grandchildren. That’s what a 65 year old man named Willy was doing until three years ago…when he had a pre-paid water meter fitted outside his house…as a result of some of Water Aid’s work. Even amongst the squalor that was around him, the passion he had for this clean water is beyond words. Not surprising when it means that his children and grand children no longer get cholera and diarrhoea.  And not surprising when it means that he can go to work and earn the living that he is so desperate for - only so that he can fulfil his dreams, just like everybody else.
Final thoughts
I’m still not sure if yesterday’s tears were tears of sadness or tears of happiness – probably a mixture of both. What I do know is that it has only been 150 years since the UK’s “big stink” … and since an era when the UK’s inhabitants were all living in the same circumstances. You certainly wouldn’t think it walking through London and other big UK cities today. If we are able to send rockets to the moon, space shuttles on to comets, perform medical miracles in some of the most dire circumstances…why are we not able to provide more guidance and support to some of the world’s poorest people? So as I head back to the UK tonight, and board an air craft that is so out of reach to such a large percentage of the population here, and in so many other places – all I have left to say is that the disparity doesn’t have to be this big…

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

What would you do without a loo?

Perhaps this is over sharing, but I’m going to do it anyway.  I have used the toilet 7 times so far today. Most days I don’t even think about it – but today I did. Even if I had the most water efficient (flushing) toilet, I would have used 21 litres so far – double the amount of water that the average person in Uganda uses for all of their daily activities each day – cooking, cleaning, washing, and so on. So what would you do without a loo?

Chickens or chicken pox? Or both?
I thought about my Grandad a lot today. To put it mildly, he hasn’t been very well for the last couple of years – he has been to the hospital and had access to some of the best doctors in the country, he has a palliative care nurse and a doctor who come to see him in the comfort of his own home, he has oxygen delivered to his door, and he has medication accessible to him as and when he needs it.

As I walked through the local Amuria health centre this morning, I wondered what my friends in the UK who have recently had children would say if they saw chickens clucking their way through their local NHS maternity ward. Or if they saw that there is only one delivery room and the “maternity ward” is actually a general ward with men, women and children, and no privacy what so ever – so god forbid that 2 people are in labour at the same time – unlikely with 120 births per month (4/day)?? Or perhaps if their own relatives had to come to stay with them on make shift mattresses on the floor…next to the chickens. Or better still, if these same relatives had to play their part in cleaning the hospital and the latrines because the starkly available medical staff had so many sick people to attend to. I didn’t take any photos for obvious reasons but I’ll leave the onward journey of these patients to your imagination. One of the key things that this hospital was missing was access to clean water and safe toilets / sanitation. I felt (and still do feel) so privileged to have my grandad’s company to enjoy.

Lost in translation; defecating in public

I didn’t expect to meet the Public Health Minister of Uganda today.  But the story across the road from the health centre this afternoon was much more positive.  Amuria Primary School were hosts to the National World Toilet Day celebrations.  Again, poems, songs, marches, drama presentations – that I’m not even going to try to describe as it simply won’t do justice to them.  Let me just say that it is clear that the weekly hygiene and sanitation lessons have made a huge difference.  I would never have thought that a group of teenage girls would be so proud and so eager to explain how they have been taught to make their own sanitary towels – which means they are able to come to school when they are on their period. Or to hear young children talk so passionately to each other about the importance of sanitation. Doesn’t really echo the local playground conversations in London…

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who does sweep stakes at weddings on the length of the speeches… Today’s presentations and addresses about World Toilet Day however were on another level – four hours later and they were still going. The introductions of absolutely everyone, the recap of the two page agenda each time a new person spoke, the repetition of the last person’s speech which hadn’t been cross checked with anyone else’s…think a slightly disorganised version of the houses of parliament with a few random additions to the agenda here and you’re getting closer...  I’ll be honest and say that we were all pretty jaded by the end of it.

But then I realised the enormity of what was actually happening. What seemed like a political game of ping pong and borderline slandering match, was actually the result of a very community focused group of people.  The addresses to the political leaders were messages that had been passed up the hierarchical chain within the community.  So this was a massive opportunity for everyone to have their voices heard.  And when I say everyone, I mean everyone – children, adults, elderly people, goats, chickens, you name it, they were there. What seemed like a long and drawn out series of speeches was actually a moment in history, when for the first time in Uganda, there has been an acknowledgment from parliament for the need to put water and sanitation at the heart of national policies - starting with a petition “committing to eliminate open defecation in Uganda”. A seemingly small and specific commitment; but also one which has the potential to save the lives of thousands and boost economic prosperity as people become healthier and able to work even harder than they already do.

Things aren’t always what they seem
Three years ago there was a “shaming ceremony” at a national parliament meeting - the local Amuria councillor was asked to stand because his district was one of the worst in the country for access to safe water and sanitation (38% access).  Today it has been chosen as the host district for World Toilet Day because it has some of the best in the country (88% access). A remarkable feat in only 3 years if you think about it.

I’ve heard people pass comment about “well why are there so many problems if Water Aid are doing all of this work?” The short answer – because it takes time (a lot of time) to get political and inter-organisational buy in and co-operation. Today that was achieved through some of Water Aid’s work, along with the work of many others within the county.

And on that note, we handed over our final bag of pencils today.  The head teacher thanked us and said “these pencils weigh more than the weight of the bag they are in. I hope to see the future president emerge from this bag.” What seemed like a very small thing to me, was so much more than that. Things really aren’t always as they seem.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Heating Heathrow and Cooling Kampala

Arriving safely…

I never thought that landing at Entebbe airport (near Kampala) would make me think “I wonder what would happen if the heating all went off at Heathrow airport?” We were greeted with the usual announcements “Welcome to Entebbe airport..” followed by “the air conditioning in the airport is broken and is leaking all over the floor, please be very careful as you walk to collect your baggage”.  So we disembarked, and low and behold, a group of hard working staff with buckets and mops…pragmatic solution.  Heathrow staff – buckets and mops? Or perhaps an airport closure and headlines of £10 bn revenue losses?

Who knows? But moving on…landed safely – check. Journey to hotel…eventually…check…after a replacement bus was sent.  The one we had, came without headlights, which the bus driver found non problematic – there are street lights right? So a confession here - whilst waiting on the side of the road less than a mile from the airport, I was secretly hoping that the group of old guys across the road having a few beers and playing something that looked like poker would suddenly get up with a tool kit (cue, Blue Peter “here’s one I made earlier”) and fix our headlights – no such luck! Long story short – we made it safely to the hotel, it just took a while.

Worlds apart; the Rift Valley and space missions

Last week, a missile gets sent into space to find a comet in the hope of determining where water and other vital life supporting elements came from - and how life on Earth came to be as we know it today. This week, I’m in the country where part of the Rift Valley sits; the place where all of humanity is thought to have begun. A bit of a surreal thought if you really think about it – which I did during our 7 hour car journey to Soroti. On one side of the world, we are searching for water 300 billion miles away (insert large/correct number here – google currently unavailable) and for mile upon mile all I can see are streams of people walking in search of the very same vital life source, but this time with the lower tech version, aka jerry cans.

Another Nan who rocks

What human beings are capable of never ceases to amaze me. Today we went to meet a family in the Ojolai village; an area where people have no access to clean water and sanitation – so we spent the day carrying out their daily chores to see what life is like.  We met Anna, a 70 year old woman, who carries 10 kg of water, twice per day from the local water source, which can only be described as horrific. That’s after she has weeded her “garden” (insert mental image of small-medium sized farm), re-constructed part of her house, looked after her children and great grand-children, picked the vegetables that she would eat that day and all before breakfast (which is non-existent) and lunch.

The same woman who has had two children and probably did what everyone else did when she gave birth; which is to get on the back of a bicycle when your labour pains start, cycle 15 km to the local health centre, give birth, then cycle back with the baby the next day. So whilst human beings on one side of the world are incredible for their scientific advances beyond anything that I can even pretend to understand…the community we met today are incredible beyond belief for their resourcefulness, resilience and hospitality. 

The less people have, the more they give
I always stand by the fact that “the less people have, the more they give” and this could not have been validated with much more sincerity today. The Ojolai villagers found that their children couldn’t go to school any more as the local primary schools were so far away – so as a community, clubbed together and built their own school. The staff room, consists of 4 pieces of wood and a straw roof…as do all of the classrooms. They have between them, come together to facilitate the education of over 430 children – and this was only set up a year ago. The girls have to go home and get changed when they are on their period because there are no toilet facilities. The students have very few books, pens, pencils and so on. The classroom floors and walls are bare and there are a few blackboards that the teachers are lucky to find chalk for.

And the students…well, it really is the people who make a place – the students greeted us there today with the most loving welcome song and an invitation to join in with their daily classes…a welcome that words simply don’t do justice to, so I won’t even try. But what I saw in this community and in this school today is the story of a group of people who have strived to do all that they can with the resources available, and have immense pride in what they have achieved, as they should. They are not scroungers, they are not begging, they are not asking for anything -  they are just hard working people who want the best for themselves and their families and have dreams of a prosperous future, just like the rest of us. And with that, I’m really pleased to say that this community, who have done so much themselves but just need a helping hand over the next hurdle will be receiving Water Aid intervention in the next financial year - to provide a clean water source and access to sanitation.

Small things do make a big difference


So on that note, I just want to end by saying that some of the infamous pencils got handed over today, (with more reserved for some other schools we will be visiting)…and the 70 year old Anna was handed a few t -shirts that I bought with me…I’ll leave the smiles to your imagination but once again, all I will say is that it’s the small things that really do make a massive difference…

Friday, 14 November 2014

My Nan rocks (and other Geography lessons)

At nearly 80 years old (but still bouncing around like she’s in her 20’s), I can safely say that my Nan is one of the kindest and most loveable people you could ever meet. A thought re-affirmed when Nan’s desert offering a few days ago was an Indian delicacy that was given to her by a random lady in Tesco’s that she speaks to every week…the same random lady who had therefore decided to bring her an abundance of ‘sweets’ to try, from her recent trip to India.  Nan, of course, didn't have the heart to tell her that she’s diabetic. 

What comes with being so loving and caring however, is the tendency to worry worry worry...about everything and everyone.  She still asks me now every time I leave the house if I need a pint of milk to take home with me – you know, just in case I don’t have enough....which has become a bit of an on going family joke. So you can imagine the worry when she knows I’m going to Uganda and on the same continent, there is an Ebola outbreak dominating the headlines...undeniably a horrific humanitarian crisis.  
I tried the following:
·         Don't worry Nan, there is (thankfully) no Ebola in Uganda
·         They are being really stringent at the airports and borders with health screenings
·         It's OK Nan, if it spreads to Uganda, we won't be going

All futile responses.  A new plan was needed – so I went to the trusty Google:
Ø  Distance from Liberia (closest country where Ebola is present) to Uganda – 2,980 miles
Ø  Distance from London to Astana, Kazakhstan – 2,960 miles

Having taught Geography in schools for a long time and still continually having 17 and 18 year old students write “in countries like Africa…” (really????), I have to admit that tarring an entire continent with the same brush is one of my little bug bears…Liberia and Uganda are likely to be as culturally different as the UK and Kazakhstan – yet, when many of us hear ‘Africa’, we assume all 53 of its nations that each have their own people, their own identities and their own stories are the same place??? So, here are some 'fun facts' about Uganda:
1.       I’m going there!
2.       Winston Churchill nicknamed it the ‘Pearl of Africa’ because of its magnificence
3.       It is one of the best banana, avocado, and pineapple producing countries
4.       The Lonely Planet selected it as the best tourist location in 2012
5.       It’s in Eastern Africa and borders Lake Victoria

And on that note...people have been asking me...

"What will you be doing when you arrive in Uganda”?

During the eight-day trip, we will visit a number of different communities where Water Aid is working, to find out how the work they do is helping the local people. Starting our journey in the Amuria district in the north eastern part of Uganda, we will get to experience what life is like in a pre-intervention area – one where Water Aid hasn’t yet helped – as well as an intervention area, and post intervention area. Later in the week we’ll travel to Kampala in central Uganda to visit more urban communities.

The Water Aid Supporter’s Trip - Uganda 2014 team:

So Nan, if you’re reading this, I hope it has come somewhere close to putting your mind at ease.  All I can say is that with only one day to go, I’m just very excited...and you will be glad to know that I’ve got hand sanitiser and anti-bacterial wipes packed - and I’ll even come and get a pint of milk when I’m back in Blighty! 

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Pencils with a point

With less than two weeks to go before I head off on the Water Aid supporter’s trip to Uganda, I can safely say that I have gone through the checklist ….
  • got my malaria tablets
  • vaccinated myself (well not literally) against Hep A, Hep B, typhoid and the likes
  • bought enough hand sanitiser, anti-bacterial wipes, paracetamol, immodium and rehydration tablets to supply the local chemist
…you get the idea.

 And then I gathered the 500 or so pencils that I’ve collected ready to take away with me to the schools we will be visiting.  
I couldn’t help feeling a little bit spoilt if I’m honest and that my “pencil offerings” to a country that is so poverty stricken are somewhat futile.  To be quite frank, I felt a little bit pathetic packing bags of pencils - especially when I am fortunate enough to have had vaccinations against diseases that claim the lives of so many without even blinking an eye lid…and there I am with my bag of pencils. So having gone through the “oh god, I should be doing more” kind of feelings for the last few weeks, and trying to work out exactly what “I should be doing more” actually means, I flicked the TV on the other day to  listen to Malala Yousafzai’s address to the UN, which bought new hope to my bag of pencils that I’ve been a little bit dismissive of. 
She said “one child, one teacher, one book and one pen(cil) can change the world”…which just reminded me that actually, those small gestures, those small changes and those small actions are what all mount up to make a really big difference…and that there is no such thing as a pointless pencil.