After receiving the funds raised through Peace Corps Partnership, I went out to the three towns where we’re building wells to participate in community meetings and supervise well placement.
The three towns are spaced out along a rural path that has a trailhead nine kilometers from my town. The towns knew I was coming with the vice-mayor and my coworker from the Missouri Botanical Garden, but we were also supposed to meet up with the well builders at the trailhead at an unspecified time. There's no cell phone reception in my commune, which made communications difficult.
Eager to get a move on, and under the false impression that I was familiar enough with the path to be a guide, the other two struck out on the path and I waited behind with a woman I knew from the trailhead town to secure a temporary storage space for the building materials and find the well builders.
I hadn't yet met them, so once we found a storage space, we waited along the road and yelled out at every unfamiliar male, "Hey! Are you a well builder?"
Since this is Madagascar, this worked well, and half an hour later I was walking toward the towns with the two friendly builders, and (since this is Madagascar) the first town's barefoot and shirtless vice president, who just happened to be passing.
For the village visits, we briefly visited the village presidents on the way out to alert them of our presence, and did community meetings, well placement, and water dowsing on the way back. Due to a combination of African and French cultural influences, formal introductions are very important when you go to new towns.
Who starts speaking first and who introduces who is dependent on age, status, relationships, whether you've visited before, and a host of other factors. Unfortunately, it's not a structure I fit into easily - on one hand I'm an educated foreigner and I handle the money; on the other hand I'm young, female, and have a shaky grasp of formal language and cultural intricacies.
In the first village, I was on solid footing since there were only the two builders, the president, and myself. After the basic greetings, I did the formal introduction of the interlopers, the president did the formal welcome, the builders did the formal statement of their intentions, the president did the formal speech about the importance of development projects, and we were on our way.
The second village was more problematic, since the first president had accompanied us, and while I had been to the second village before, I hadn't met the village president. We sat in the president's house for a little while and stared at the walls until the first president realized I didn't know who the second president WAS.
So he introduced me, and I finally understood that in the second village I "ranked" the first president for some unclear reason, so I started introductions and we were off and rolling again.
The third village happily presented no problems, since we finally caught up to the vice-mayor and my co-worker, both of whom "rank" me and could do the formal introductions and then start the community meeting. Whew.
Community meetings are an exhausting necessity. In smaller towns, everyone gathers in an open space in the center of town, and after the speeches of empty development rhetoric by the VIPs, we get down to business: what we’re doing, when we're doing it, why it's important, and how they need to help.
The well building requires significant community input, just not in the form of money. The town gathers sand and gravel for the cement mix, houses and feeds the two supervising builders for the duration of their time in the town, and transports the building materials (including sacks of cement) through a combination of human labor and dugout canoe from the main road to the building sites.
Most importantly, two people from the town are required to work on the project every day, helping with the manual labor and learning about well building, so they can do repairs and possibly even start a new project later on.
The villagers were excited about the well but their immediate impossible question was - "Why only one? There are almost 1000 people in this village, why do we only get one well?"
I expected this, but it's hard for me to explain, so I was happy that the "other VIPs" fielded the question. It's because there are six towns in the area without wells, and we only have funding for three, so we’re spreading it out to do the most good. It's because we need to make sure the villagers use and take care of the first well before we invest in more.
It's because while there are 1000 people in the area, not all of them, out of habit or convenience, are going to switch to a clean water source, and one well is enough (just enough, but still enough) to support the 500 or so who will make the switch immediately. And most of all, it's because we had to make a choice - we simply do not have the resources or time to build the 12 wells needed before the rainy season, so the decision was to build one each in the three towns closest to the forest reserve.
Once this was discussed (and in particular, once my co-worker made it clear there were other towns who would happily accept the wells if the villages in question didn't have their contributions ready in a week), they were enthusiastic again.
And few weeks after the community meetings, after the well building
was already underway, I was even able to answer the villagers’ impossible question. I received the wonderful news from ARES, the French NGO that supervises our well builders, that they had found money for two more wells, and had enough materials left over for a sixth, provided we could find the funding for the well builders' salaries. Happily, my community partner, the Missouri Botanical Garden, offered to donate the necessary funds.
Now five wells are more or less finished; we’re still waiting on the funds to transfer for the sixth. I’ve been monitoring the well building from afar, but unfortunately haven't been able to see the progress myself: there have been several robberies and assaults along the path to the three towns, and I've been forbidden from going without an approved escort.
Photos of workers with one of the wells are available on Rowan's blog.
Hopefully I'll see the sixth well built—until then, I have a library building project to keep me busy.
Peace Corps Partnership is another website that hosts volunteer projects that need funding.