Saturday, February 21, 2015

A View of Water

A person is never more than six (6) miles from a sizeable body of water like a river or a lake no matter where they stand within the State of Michigan.  We’re blessed by being nestled between four of the five Great Lakes, and that means water - and access to it - are something all Michiganders are blessed with.

As my friend Peter Mukuma used to say, “Water is life, Jordan.  There’s nothing else so important.” 

Peter was right in many of his beliefs, but especially in this one.  Water is the limiting factor here, and Peter as a rural farmer knew the hardships that a lack of water brings.  You don’t know how much you use water until you have to carry it yourself from a distant well, and for some that well can be in excess of a mile and a half from their home.
Peter Mukuma and his family.  The man was wise.  Water is life.  His wife Betty would have to walk about 30 minutes round trip to fetch water.

Receiving less than 750 mms (roughly 30 inches), but as low as 500 mms (20 inches) per year of rain means that the relationship between Southern Province (where I live) and climatic droughts is that of old friends: well acquainted.

An aspect of the project that I work on in Southern Province deals with disasters and local hazards within a community, and without fail droughts and their affects are brought up constantly as a major hazard and barer of misfortune throughout the region.  When a drought sets in crops wither and fail, animals bellow in response to their thirst, and life becomes that much harder as semi-arid living morphs into an arid existence.

But what if you didn’t have enough water to drink… during the year – not just during or because of the dry times?  What if your water came solely from a hole in the ground, and that hole in the ground was not nearby?  That’s an issue that’s been brought up frequently as of late during meetings in the rural communities – the wells are unaffected by the dry spells but they’re so far away that they might as well be causalities of a changing climate.  These are issues faced not only in  Southern Province, but also throughout Zambia as a whole.
A local borehole in the community of Simaubi.  Using a lever, the pump is worked in order to draw water up from an underground aquifer.  Some boreholes are used by multiple villages and hundreds of people.

The United Nations cites these two key points as issues in regards to Zambia’s drinking water.
•4.8 million people (36 percent of the total population) are without access to clean water.
•More than 25 percent of basic schools do not have access to safe water supply.

Typically hand-pumped boreholes remedy this issue of water access.  Although boreholes dot Zambia’s rural and peri-urban landscapes like freckles on the shoulders, there aren’t enough of them.  The problem is remedied by walking and then carrying the water.

This responsibility largely falls onto the shoulders of women to fetch water, as it is part of their daily duties within the rural Zambian family’s makeup.  Carrying the water on their heads or in their hands (often with a baby strapped to their back) women can spend up to an hour walking in order to fetch water, and this may happen two or three times a time in the most extreme instances. 
These three are carrying some of the day's needed water.
This map I made for work shows some of the boreholes near a community called Simango.  The boreholes (small black squares) have rings around them showing distances.  The pink triangles represent known villages.  Like a stoplight the Green Ring is 1 kilometer, the Yellow Ring is 2 kilometers (1.25 miles), and the Red Ring is 3 kilometers (nearly 1.87 miles).  Some women come from villages further outside of these distances.  The borehole information is incomplete as there are more in existence than this map would show, but there would still be areas without appropriate coverage by water sources (anything more than 2 kms, in my opinion).

It would be ideal if women and their families had boreholes, or at least a basic well, near to their homes – somewhere that would serve as a central point for the entire village – but that sadly isn’t a reality.  It’s been pointed out to me that this doesn’t happen for three reasons. 

First, boreholes cost money to construct and with so many other pressing health issues at hand (malaria, HIV/AIDS, maternal/child health, etc.) there isn’t enough money to go around.  A price tag of somewhere around $6,000 per set-up isn’t petty cash.
Animals, people, gardens, and chores.  All are in need of water, but water simply isn't available in some areas.

Second, boreholes are highly political.  Want to win some easy votes?  Build a borehole, even if it’s near a stream or existing well… people eat that up and will cast their vote for you.  It seems like a tremendous misuse of resources, but politicians are the same everywhere.

Third, there are thousands upon thousands of villages in Zambia and just this number makes it nearly impossible to quench the collective rural thirst.  To support the construction of just ten boreholes it would cost about $60,000. 

Water truly is life as Peter told me.  With water a family can have a garden nearby, women will have extra time for other activities, and sanitation can be improved through hand washing because this won’t require an extra effort of getting water.   
These children are using a bicycle to load up on water.  Each container seen here holds about five gallons of water.  Children often help to get water to ease some of their mother's burdens.

Every issue, every hardship is connected somehow – one hardship here affects a person in so many ways, but in a dry - and increasingly drying world - water’s inaccessibility is continually being felt more and more by those that already have so much hardship in their lives. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Access to a Better Life - A Good Road, Please.

How far away from a main road does a village have to be to go from access to limited access, to no access?  That should be a Master's project for some well-meaning and interested graduate student.  What I mean by this is in some areas of rural Zambia there are tremendous issues resulting from a lack of access to resources, and this - of course - hampers the livelihoods of those in these communities; so how far from a town, a good road, a market does a rural village have to be to have greatly reduced access to a better life.

The road to Livingstone, Zambia.  It's tarred, smooth, and a thing of beauty.  The rest of Zambia's roads - even the primary roads - don't follow this tarmac's model.
Some of the resources that can allow rural Zambians to access a better life in rural Zambia are as follows: fertilizer for fields and gardens (this is one of the most important resources, because without it their favorite crop and food staple [corn] would yield considerably less), seeds (how else could you plant corn if you didn't have seeds), plows and other tools (forget tractors and cultivators - rural Zambians typically couldn't afford that, but they could afford a plow to be pulled by oxen or a new hoe blade from time to time), clothes (no one wants to be naked - typically), food (if you can't grow it yourself then you'll have to buy it), and a bunch of other things that have to come from the outside (radios, buckets, building supplies, etc.).

Directly off of most paved roads are these kinds of roads... secondary roads that aren't much more than two-tracks for miles and miles.  This is where accessibility diminishes within a few hundred feet.
But, the transportation system here in Zambia, specifically to rural areas, leaves a lot to be desired and roads are part of that issue.  In Michigan we have enormous issues with snow and ice destroying our roadways; yet Zambia faces issues resulting from monstrous rains, overloaded vehicles, poorly engineered surfaces and substrates, and a lack of general upkeep that sometimes borders on non-existent.

This road is just outside of my office.  During rain events the water rushes downhill carrying grasses, stones, soil, and the road with it.
When I was younger I used to want to be an engineer.  Mainly I wanted to build roads... roads all over!  I don't want to do that now, but being here occasionally takes me back to that time when I look at busted up roads and think, "Why didn't they put a culvert here." Or, "How come the road seems so thin... I bet it'll break apart in a year or two."  I have no idea what I'm talking about when it comes to roads, but it doesn't stop be from second guessing someone's work.

This road went from freshly graded to defunct within two rainstorms.  Now it features an ever growing gully and stands as impassable.

We're lucky in the United States to have the resources and, at times, public outrage to propel our government entities to fix our roads when they break down.  Moreover we're lucky to have a system in place that allows nearly unlimited access to anything we could possibly desire.  We've got stores that carry everything a small army could want to remain operational, a variety of vendors producing the same types of products so that we can have a variety to get choosy about, and all of this is made available to our collective purchasing powers in either a physical store or through online centers like With the click of a button your order can come straight to your door.

The road outside of my old village in North-Western, Zambia.  It's a beautiful road, but with no traffic coming through access wasn't there.  Notice the two men walking down the center without a worry of a car coming at them.  I used to see people sleeping on this road regularly.

But, sometimes it isn't just a simple matter of a crappy road.  Throughout Zambia there are issues regarding available resources, and no to ease these pains.  In Southern Province it wouldn't be hard for a farmer to find plows or pumps for their farms.  In the country's North-Western or Northern Provinces finding these same items would be tedious.  So, people do what they do best... they get by.  Often this means having a slightly different method for making a living then their fellow countrymen in other parts of the country.  I notice this most when I consider where I used to live as compared to where I reside currently.  Here, livestock is a large part of a families livelihood and with that comes animal draft power for larger farms and even increased access to meat.  There, all farming was done through a strong back, stronger will, and a hand hoe.  Meat was an issue, labor continuously limited the amount of land to be cultivated, and in the end there are two systems that share common similarities but also differences all due to access to markets, resources, and the next place (wherever that may be).
Our truck in the midst of being stuck in mud.  Notice the women on the trail further ahead carrying their water and watching us.  They ended up dropping off their water, coming back, and pushing us out of the mud.

I suppose that, in the end, access to resources is like real estate all over the world - it relies on location, location, location.  Living nearer to the more populated areas brings typically better roads and more resources, but living in the bush allows for access to more land and more room to settle.

The road leading out of Windhoek, Namibia.  Namibia, like much of South Africa, had amazing roads that I could only dream of here in Zambia.  Roads are key to access and a betterment of livelihoods.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

1,000+ Days: What I've Learned

I was asked about a year and a half ago during a presentation I gave on my home leave how my time in the Peace Corps had changed me and I gave some mumbling answer that I can’t remember a single piece of.  In short, I had no idea then how the Peace Corps had changed me, but I knew that it was doing so, I just couldn’t explain how.

Now, I’ve just surpassed my third year anniversary as a Peace Corps Volunteer within Zambia (February 9) and now I’ll be fast approaching my final day (May 29) as a volunteer.  I’ve spent over 1,000 days as in the Peace Corps, so I’ve decided to put down my thoughts and try to understand, as best I can, how the Peace Corps has changed me and to provide at least a semi-insightful answer to that great question from over a year ago.

First, I would say I’ve learned how blessed I am to be born somewhere that’s not here.  It’s nothing against Zambia, but I’ve learned from my time here how lucky I am to have been born into the circumstances I was in the United States.  I truly won the lottery.  I have a family that’s not rich, but they’re doing well enough.  For a reasonable price I earned a great education.  I have worthwhile and meaningful opportunities on the horizon.  I have lived the American Dream.  Opportunities abound for me – largely because of where I was born.

No matter how calloused an individual is I have a hard time believing that living in Zambia for 1,000+ days doesn’t provide some perspective as to how great an American’s standing is within the world.  Context and perspective are two invaluable lessons I’ve learned here.

However, not everything I’ve seen of America from afar has been beautiful and glistening.  I’ve learned that America is fallible and still in need of much improvement.  At no time is this more readily seen than during our senseless acts of crime.  In my time here in Zambia the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, the death of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, the Boston Marathon bombing, and even the enhancing of a divide between the nation have all occurred.  America is a beacon of hope and promise for many people around the world, but if we look into a mirror we’ll quickly see that our reflection isn’t at all that beacon of equity and understanding we profess to personify.

Yet the issues that we continuously debate in the United States are issues that a country like Zambia could only dream about: unemployment below 9%, an average income of over $30,000 per year, life expectancy in excess of 75 years, and other important demographics. 

How lucky I am to be born somewhere that’s not here.  In America there is a struggle for a better life, but here there’s often a struggle for life.  

And maybe all this means shows that I’ve not seen those dark parts of America where these issues do exist, and that would be my own fault, my own ignorance.  But it certainly isn’t as widespread and pervasive as it is here.

The realization that most people aren’t blessed with the opportunities that I’ve had in my life is extremely difficult to reconcile because of what I’ve seen.  I’ve known Zambians that far exceed my work ethic, my natural intuition, and intelligence – yet they struggle.  The circumstances that most people face here (at least in rural communities) have caused an empathetic reaction in my bones to the plight of people in need.  I’ve never faced hunger, the potential of a crippling disease, or even the lack of an opportunity so simple as going on to an education after secondary school.

In college I studied an agricultural system called conservation agriculture.  Essentially this method allows small-scale farmers (like those that make up the vast majority of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa) to increase yields, while using their fertilizers more efficiently and natural resources more thoughtfully.  I came to Zambia thinking this is the answer – everyone should do this.  But no, what appears on a paper doesn’t always translate to practicality in the real world.  This method is hard, it’s demanding of time and effort, and although it is proven to be effective it’s not easily adopted.

A sense (more like glimpse) of the hardships people face has made me far more understanding and empathetic to how challenging the world can be, because simply put – life in Zambia’s rural communities is challenging, it is difficult, it is a world apart.

Hands down, the most important lesson I’ve learned in the Peace Corps is how wonderful people can be.  I entered the Peace Corps being expected to work in a professional capacity, but looking back I failed far more than a “professional” ever should.  I was more of a professional student as compared to a teacher.  The people I’ve had the opportunity to meet here have given me an education second to none – even the one I paid tens of thousands of dollars for – and all for free… it just took my coming here.

As time passes and I go from being 1,000 days in the Peace Corps to 1,000 days out of the Peace Corps I’ll gain more of an understanding of what I learned and how I changed.  It’ll take time to decompress and decipher all of this, and yet I’ll probably never fully understand because it developed over time, not all at once.  As I was asked over 18 months ago, I know I’ve changed and I’m gaining an understanding of how, but I’m not entirely certain of every point of change – at least I can still definitively say now that it is for the better.