A lot can happen in three days with no internet

Stacey Travis from Drop in the Bucket

We made it back up to northern Uganda and hit the ground running. The first order of business is to visit the school where we are installing our most recent Eco-Sanitation System. I’m excited to check in with the DITB “Loo Crew” (as we call them) and see how things are moving along. This is the only team in the region (maybe all of Africa) installing this type of environmentally sustainable pour-flush toilet, with our septic system that processes the sewage. I love seeing how proud the guys are of their work. Each time they get better and better with the implementation. There are always so many challenges, struggles and setbacks in the field that this is a great way to start off.

Drop in the bucket eco-sanitation toilets
Side view of Pece Pawel Primary School's new Eco Sanitation Toilets

The system is one day away from being fully connected and is looking beautiful. We take photos, discuss some minor design adjustments and then meet with the school administrators before leaving the guys to continue the work and heading off to Oyam District, just outside of the central part of Gulu.

Three years ago, Joseph Kony and his LRA rebels retreated from this area, after over 20-years of terrorizing the communities with unimaginable atrocities, which included abducting thousands of children and forcing them to be child soldiers. In these past few peaceful years, many charities and NGOs have moved into the area to help with everything from resettling refugees back into their villages, to introducing income-generating projects, to promoting HIV/AIDS programs. So needless-to-say Gulu is a very interesting place. It’s situated on the border of northern Uganda and southern Sudan and is the main hub for the NGOs working in the region. It feels a bit like a town from the wild west or something.

There are many people but it is strangely quiet. 90% of the people are walking or riding bikes. There are small shops that sell limited food, hardware items, cell phone SIM cards and generators (the power goes off every single day). Each morning and afternoon the streets are filled with white double-cabin pick up trucks with the logos of different charities on the side (UN, World Vision, World Food Program). It’s almost like a white uniform or something. During the days these groups are out in the field and working with the villagers but at night they all settle back into the safety and “comfort” of Gulu town. There are many languages that people speak around here but since they were colonized by the Brits everyone also speaks very “proper” English, which means they have a hard time understanding my southern word selection. “Speak slower” is one of the things I seem to hear a lot. I’m trying!!

It should take about 45 minutes to drive from Gulu to Oyam but the roads are in terrible condition and so it actually takes about 2 hours of dodging pot holes, goats and bicycles. It’s the rainy season now so there is water standing everywhere. The flooded ditches often become bathtubs/swimming holes for the kids and it is not uncommon to pass groups of completely naked children on the side of the road jumping into the dirty water. Our driver Fred has a favorite CD of local African music and I get the feeling the only time he gets to play it is when I come to town (the Toyota truck that we always rent has a CD player). So once again, I resign myself to listening over and over to this same CD for hours as we swerve, bounce and bump down the dirt roads. The Sunflower crops are in season and it’s so beautiful seeing the fields filled with thousands of yellow Sunfowers.

No matter how often I come or how long I stay, each time when I return I am struck by the struggle that these folks endure on a daily basis. From the women and girls walking with 40 lb jerry cans filled with water, to the men on bikes transporting everything from beds, to chickens, to coffins, life here is a constant challenge. One minute we pass groups of kids happily bouncing along the road to school with their dirty bare feet and tattered school uniforms and then the next we slow down to avoid splashing muddy water on an old lady walking with a huge bundle of grass on her head which will be used to replace the roof on the mud hut where she lives. We drive for over an hour without passing a single vehicle.

We finally reach the Oyam District Headquarters, which is several simple buildings with pit latrines located in back. It is situated in what looks to be a field. Although I’ve been here before, it doesn’t seem very familiar. I go into the Water Office and can immediately tell that the District Water Officer is very sick. He has Malaria! People here get Malaria all the time. Pretty much everyone gets it once a year, many people get it several times. It’s especially bad during the rainy season when there is a lot of standing water around. I quickly realize that this meeting will need to be brief so he can go back home (I think he only came in for the meeting). I have applications for three schools in the district that need water and I just want to inform him of our plan before we bring the team in and get started. One of them is Ajibijibi Primary School, which is the one a donor offered to fund a well for if we got 10,000 Facebook fans. Before I get too far into the conversation he makes a proposal. He has another NGO who wants to do some projects in this area but they have a smaller rig that is limited in its ability to drill in certain areas. He is asking if we will consider switching two of our schools out to them and taking two other schools which are equally needy but will require a rig like the one we are using to access the water. These situations are often difficult for me because the natural answer is, “of course.” But then we have to explain to the donor that we switched their school. So for Ajibijibi PS, we now have to explain to 10,000 people that we are not drilling there after all. The school will be receiving water, just not directly from us. We will now be drilling at a different location.

One day in the field and I’m already off schedule because I do not have the application for these new schools that he is proposing. I now have to arrange to visit them to get the applications filled out and assess the water situation personally. The DWO also asks if we can wait until Thursday to go (giving him time to recover a bit from the Malaria).

On the return drive, I settle into the back seat and wonder how to make this part more efficient. These guys don’t have email and the cell reception is terrible, so the only way to really discuss anything is to go have a physical meeting. But now I have just driven two hours there and two back in order to have an unproductive 20-minute meeting with a very sick man. I have to get going on the organizing of these communities and if I wait until Thursday, I am days behind. Plus I’m scheduled to meet with the drilling team in a few days to go over the plan with them. But first I have to know that the communities are going to participate in the process. We can’t just roll up with drills, punch the hole in the ground and leave, expecting all to go well. There is actually quite a lot of work that goes into things before and after the drilling and construction.

I have to keep my spirits up though and keep pushing forward. There will always be days like this. One thing I am learning from this work is patience. I come from a background of getting things done with efficiency. But here, you have to be flexible. Nobody is in a hurry. It simply is not in the culture. Maybe it’s because rushing is not going to do any good or maybe because they are tired and often sick. I just feel an urgency to help them and do it quickly. But doing things right often means going slowly and carefully.

We go back to the “office” in Gulu and I make calls to re-arrange things for the week and compile a few more field packets. There is so much to do in the four weeks that I’m going to be here and I really I need to be very organized if I am going to stay on track and make it all happen.

Finally we receive a call from the Loo Crew that they are beginning to wrap things up at Pece Pawel Primary School. So we head over to check out the work. The last thing they are doing is attaching the pipes to the water tower that will feed the water, via gravity, over to the toilets. As much as they wanted to finish today, it was getting dark and there is just now way to continue the work. So we wrap things up for the day, planning to go back for a few hours in the morning. I offer to buy the guys dinner but they are too exhausted and opted for the cash instead to buy their own dinner and go directly to bed. The Loo Crew lives in a different district and are away from their families for this project, so they are going to be happy to get finished and return home.

Next morning I stop by the school to see things before leaving for Lira to scout some schools there. When we arrive, the Loo Crew is just finishing the system. In fact, the kids are already playing on the roundabout, which is already pumping water from the well over to the toilets.

It’s so wonderful seeing how functional this system is for distributing water around the school compound and how happy the kids are playing on it!! I stop in to say hello to the head teacher, Walter, who informs me he would like to organize a ceremony for the opening of the toilet. He tells me he wants to invite the local officials to come, have singing and dancing from the kids and speeches. Ahhhhh… as nice as this sounds, I’ve been through it so many times before. These things go on forever and we have a lot of work to do. He wants to hold it from 10-1 on Thursday the 22nd. After a bit of haggling, we finally settled on it only lasting two hours, not three. It’s just me and the guys I’m traveling with, so seems like a lot of effort. But they are insisting so it’s on the schedule.

Now I’m finally off to Lira to visit the three potential schools. I feel a bit of pressure for time because we have to get to Lira, which is two hours away, visit three schools and return home before dark. Although this doesn’t seem like a big deal, it is. First the three schools will most likely be hours apart on those awful roads and I do not want us driving after dark. As you know, the roads are bad and there are no street lights, so you find yourself driving through a cloud of dust and then coming face to face with a bike carrying three people or something. One of my biggest fears is hitting someone on one of these crazy roads at dark (or anytime). So we must get back. I ask the hotel to pack lunch us to take along. I order a local favorite called Rolex, which is chapatti with fried egg in the middle. This along with some cookies, chips and water will keep the guys sustained on our busy day.

As usual the meetings are going slowly. I should be used to it by now but when you have so much to do it can seem like time is just crawling along. There are customary courtesies and explaining things takes time. We have to go slowly so they completely understand their commitment to the project from the very beginning. This first meeting will be to physically assess the location to make sure the information provided on the application is correct. Then we will ask the head teacher to arrange a second meeting with the village chief, chairman of the PTA and himself a week later so we can all go over the entire deal, further explaining the commitment we need from the community. There are many things we ask of them but it is all designed to get them invested in the process so that when we leave they take ownership of the well and maintain it. The community has to agree to provide meals for our crew (who will be sleeping onsite during construction). They also have to provide some of the bricks, sand, and other local materials, as well as have people there help unload the trucks when the team arrives. Organizing this part always takes a lot time and effort but it’s a big part of the process. They call this the “Software” and then the actual constuction and drilling is called “Hardware.”

After finishing with the schools, I stop in to say hello to my contact at the Education Office in Lira. Twice a year, he helps me put ads on the radio instructing the head teachers from all of our schools to come into his office and fill out our follow-up forms so we can monitor how our projects are doing. Last stop is the office of one of our crews in Lira. Then back on the road.

We do get back to Gulu before dark and because of a booking confusion I have to switch hotels from the Acholi Inn, which is owned by a UPDF commander and is guarded by soldiers, to the Peace Hotel (interesting choice of name) which is located in the middle of the village with mud huts surrounding it. The rooms are pretty much the same at each (I just like the Acholi Inn because it’s in town). In Kampala (the capital city) they politely ask you if you have any ammunition before they allow you to enter the hotel gates. It’s funny they don’t do that in Gulu (maybe it’s because they assume most do).

That night I try calling the Oyam DWO to confirm our meeting for the next day but his phone is off. I finally reach him in the morning only to have him tell me he is in Kampala for medical treatment (Kla is 5 hours away). I guess he is as sick as he seemed in the other meeting. He offers to call the District Education Officer to get him to arrange for someone to take us to the new schools. Of course, I spend a long time waiting for the DEO. We do a lot of waiting around here.

The plan has been to move to another district after the Oyam projects and I’m happy for the change. Aid work in this region is complicated. Most of the people have been living in the refugee camps for years where they have relied on aid for everything. Unfortunately, this mentality sets in and it is a struggle to change the attitude. This is why the software is so important to the project. We can read the applications and data but you really have to go into the field to get the real story. Often people stretch the truth on applications. Another issue is getting the community to commit to our requirements. Even though the need is huge, some communities are not willing to make the effort. It is a tough situation. Although you would like for everyone to have water, we are responsible to our donors to ensure that their money is well spent on the neediest communities, who are also eager for the water. In order for the project to be sustained, it absolutely requires involvement from the villagers. It is so frustrating when you have a plan to help a community and they are resistant to participate, causing us to unfortunately have to switch strategy. But we must feel confident that the village will take care of the well, otherwise it is a complete waste of our donor’s money. There are an unbelievable number of broken wells in these regions. Some districts have more broken than working ones. Our donors work so hard to raise the money for these projects and they often tell us about the process. Frequently young children send us letters along with the money they have raised. Knowing this puts a lot of pressure on us to make sure every penny is well spent. On a matter of principal, we have to do everything we possibly can to make sure these wells stay working long after we are done with the project. Oyam has been a challenge. None of our wells are broken, we know this because we do annual follow-up. Although many, many others are. I am thinking it may be a good plan to organize a well rehabilitation project where we get one of our teams only working on repairing the broken ones, but with the condition that the community meets our requirements for sustaining it. But for now, I have specific donors’ money and it is designated for new wells and sanitation systems. That additional campaign will have to wait.

So now I am in the planning stage for the next district, Amuru, which has very low water coverage. First thing, I contact my friend at ACF, the French organization, Action Against Hunger, and ask him to share some data with me that they recently compiled on the schools in Amuru. In one hour’s time I meet with his American assistant, who is amazing, and she gives me an awesome, comprehensive spreadsheet with schools Amuru. The data includes which schools need wells, which ones need latrines, the distance from the school to clean water, the enrollment, everything. Next we head over to the UN OCHA office to pick up the most recent maps of Amuru with the locations of the schools.

Then somehow miraculously my internet modem, which has not been working for the past two days, comes on. So I’m putting the finishing touches on this blog entry and posting. Tomorrow we are back to the UN to pick up a few other maps they’re printing for us and to also discuss our plans with them. They have a branch that coordinates the NGOs working so they don’t double up on projects. Then, we’re off to Sudan for a few a week of scouting there.


Author: Stacey Travis

Founder and Executive Director of Drop in the Bucket a water charity building water wells and sanitation systems at schools in Africa.

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