I’m sitting in a little hut here in South Sudan, with my computer plugged into a generator charging, while I wait for a 3:00 meeting.   I’m going back to Gulu this afternoon.  I have my voltage regulator with me, so I can plug my computer into these generators.  Otherwise it’s too risky.  The sudden power surges from these things can fry your computer.  I can’t go online but I can, at least, power up.

It is so dry and dusty here.  The dirt on my face feels like a mask and I cannot wait to get back to Uganda so I can wash my hair.   Earlier today I had lunch in the village.  We were there visiting relatives of George and were unexpectedly asked to stay for lunch.  So before I know it, I’m sitting under a mango tree, with five, very tall, Dinka men, who are eating goat and speaking their tribal dialect.  The ladies brought me tomatoes, onions and bread, so I made a sandwich.    You really have to go with the flow around here.

People here know us by now.  They also know we do water.   We are always getting asked to provide water to various villages.  But our resources are limited and we have to be very specific in our selection process.  It’s hard to tell people that you can’t help them with clean water, when you know they need it.  I just say that, for now, we focus only on schools and the communities around schools. I let them know that we have an official selection procedure, which begins with submitting an application that is vetted by staff, other than me.

The meeting goes well.   During the conversation, I get an interesting idea for how we might use the new solar water pumps we are being given to help some of these tribal cattle-herding communities here in Sudan.  I’m very excited about the new concept and am looking forward to talking to our engineers about it.

On the way back to Uganda, as soon as my phone gets reception again, I get a call from our Uganda project coordinator, Jacob, saying that one of the drilling crews just finished another well.  The yield is 1200 liters per hour, which is almost double what we require (700 liters per hour).

I check into my favorite Gulu hotel for a couple of days.  I need a shower with hot water.  The place we stayed in Kajo Keji has cold running water, some of the time, but the huts in Nimule have no bathrooms or running water at all – only pit latrines and bathing shelters.

Soon Jacob arrives from Lira, which is about two hours away.  He’s been busy there for the past two months, selecting and mobilizing the schools for the two drilling teams that will be working in the Lango sub-region of Uganda.   One team has already gotten started on their five March projects.  The head driller for the other team, Okwi, is traveling from Kampala to Gulu today to meet with us about his projects.

We meet at our office and all sit under the mango trees to discuss the plan.  It’s much nicer outside and this is where we always seem to end up having our meetings.  We go over the new drilling contracts with Okwi and I show him the hydro-geological survey reports for his five projects.   These reports are important because they indicate the location in which we are likely to hit water.

Lastly, we go over the budget, again.  Okwi is one of our new drillers and, although we’ve already discussed the price, he is concerned about the recent increases in the cost of fuel and certain materials.   Prices are up a lot right now, especially fuel.  Gulu completely ran out of fuel for one week recently.  It’s really not the best time to be negotiating prices.  But the reality is, we have a certain amount that we can pay and there is very little room for negotiations.  Finally, we sign the contract for Okwi’s five projects and I offer to discuss the issue again in two months, once we’ve had a chance to see where the prices are going to settle.

Even though Owki owns a company and has vehicles, he took a 5-hour bus ride from Kampala to Gulu for the meeting.  Most likely this was to save money on fuel costs.  But now there is not another bus back to Kampala until 10PM.  We need to go check on another school, so he comes along with us.

This is a school where we are installing our eco-sanitation system.  But it has an unusual situation.  The school is located where there was previously a very large IDP (Internally Displaced People) camp.    IDP camps are like refugee camps except they are for locals who live in a war zone, rather than people from another country seeking refuge.   There were very many in this area.

During the war, the local government took this school’s well and installed a huge motorized water pump on it and connected it to an enormous water tank that served the people in the camp.   It is no longer in use, since the camp is gone, and the school needs the water back.  We are interested in figuring out how we can tap into this abandoned system to supply water to the school for drinking and toilets.  We examine the pump and decide to approach the local water officials about getting permission to do this.

That night, a woman who is also staying at my hotel comes up and introduces herself.  She tells me she is founder of a UK-based charity that lends seeds to local farmers.  Her name is Allison.   She says she’s been stalking me for the past two days and is determined to find out what I am doing.  She says she is interested in me because I’m a female here working on my own, like her.   I find that interesting, since I never feel like I’m here working on my own.  We have so many people working with us that I’m always with people and it seems like I’m never really alone.  But I’m guessing she means a non-African person working on my own.   I join her for dinner.

I am so tired but it’s really nice talking to her and sharing stories.  Things can get very frustrating around here and it’s good to have someone to talk to who understands the challenges.  We’ve been going for about two more years than her, so she asks a lot of questions about what to expect and the next steps for her organization.  I am happy to share what I’ve learned from being in the field.   People have sure steered us along.  That’s what you have to do around here.  I never feel any sense of competition from other groups on the ground.  The daily challenges, exhausting field work, and cultural learning curve can be overwhelming at times, so it’s important to find some friends.

After dinner I go back and email John with details to wire the funds to Okwi, so he can get started on his first five projects.   We are soon going to have two teams in Lango sub-region drilling ten projects, one team in Mubende district, of western Uganda, drilling five projects and one team in South Sudan drilling two projects.  Now I just hope things go smoothly and we don’t have any delays.  With all these teams busy in the field, we have to keep everybody on schedule to avoid delays and setbacks.

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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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