Wednesday, February 15, 2012

GWWI Women and Water on Wednesdays: It’s All About Relationships

Lily Dimling of Global Soap Project Shares Her Experience as a GWWI Fellow

When I spent two months last summer as a fellow with the Global Women’s Water Initiative in Uganda, I hoped it would not be what a colleague termed as “drive by” international development. I have a MS in sustainable development, and nothing pains me more than to see Westerners create further dependency in the communities they are trying to help.

I wasn’t sure how the “ripple effect “would play out. But as I sat in the conference room with this group of amazing women talking pee and poo, a subject matter that disgusts most people but excites this group, I thought to myself that the experience needed to play out further for me. I didn’t obsess about this too much. I had work to do- communities to bond with, women to support, latrines and water tanks to build.

Water Testing with colleagues (Ruth, Lilly and Immaculate)

Back in July I wrote about how the Training in Kampala impacted me.

Imagine spending 24/7 with 50 strangers for two weeks of learning, training, building, discussing prescribed topics, sharing our stories, eating, taking walks, having tea breaks, chatting, laughing, dancing, singing, taking shopping and beach excursions, and more dancing and singing. Wow, what an experience! I feel like I have 50 new friends. I have heard so many personal stories that have amazed and moved me—stories of resilience, strength, perseverance, tragedy, joy and accomplishment.
What do we all have in common? Our ages range from 23 to 67. We come from 6 different countries. The truth is, we have bonded over poo, safe water, and hygiene. And female empowerment to make these things happen.

Elizabeth (Advanced Training Participant), teaching pathways of water contamination during the Summer Training

When we started to build a VIP latrine, can you picture 12 women arguing over whose turn it is to saw wood and mix concrete? The enthusiasm and energy were amazing. But the challenges we faced are normal fare here. The most obvious are funding and lack of proper tools and quality materials. We used the equivalent of a nail file to cut through a metal rod. We used a machete to sculpt the wood hole that has curves. I was dreaming about powertools! For ease, for accuracy and to save time, but with inconsistent power, such tools are a distant dream. Adapting is key in these sorts of projects. You make do with what you have.

Lilly and Zeinab helping to lay the foundation of a ventilated improved pit  (VIP) latrine during the Training
All we accomplished was building the cement base of a latrine, but we felt we'd climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro. Me and my awesome new friends.

Completed Rainwater Harvesting Tank at KIDA in Kitojo, Uganda
It all boils down to the relationships one builds. I was one of two fellows who did not bring a computer with me. And though I begged the others to use theirs to check my email, I believe that not constantly being in touch with life back home allowed me to really experience being where I was. In the scheme of things, two months is really a short period of time. But in such a situation you somehow come to know people deeper in a shorter period of time.

As I was preparing to leave after 2 months in Uganda, a couple of the other fellows and I were struggling to figure out just how these relationships would continue and thrive despite the distance. As fellows we were assigned teams to follow for a year to make sure progress was made implementing their water and sanitation technologies. We sincerely wanted to fulfill our promises, but we were not sure how.

Back at home things at my job were going very well. Someone had replaced me for the two months I was away but I slipped back into my role as Operations Manager at the Global Soap Project with relative ease. I decided my first order of business was to raise money for more water tests for the community of Kitojo. We performed them with about 30 community members to see if their water sources were contaminated and, sad to say, many were. They asked me for more tests so they could share this valuable information with more members in their community. We discussed why contaminated water was harmful and ways we could mitigate the health risks. By October I had sent $750 to be spent on more tests. The tests would be purchased from a Kenyan woman who was also at the conference, Mama Solar, who distributes these tests. I was promised that the water testing kits would be accompanied by discussions on what to do if your water source is contaminated, empowering people with solutions.

Water Testing in Kitojo, Uganda

Then the founder of the nonprofit I work for, Derreck Kayongo, was named a top 10 CNN Hero for 2011. As a former refugee from Uganda, he noticed the waste from the gently used bars of soap from hotel stays. Knowing firsthand how many people could be positively impacted by access to this resource, he started partnering with a few Atlanta hotels to capture their discarded soap, clean it and form it into new bars. In the two years since its inception, Global Soap project has made over 100,000 bars that have been sent vulnerable populations including refugees, orphans, disaster victims and prisoners in eighteen countries worldwide.

On relatively short notice CNN told Derreck they were hoping to film him distributing soap in Uganda. Lightbulb! One of the projects I worked on last summer was a VIP latrine being built in a Kampala slum with the guidance of local NGO partner UCOBAC. While there, I promised I would try and get soap for the handwashing station next to the toilet. This turned out to be the way. UCOBAC graciously agreed to assist and Derreck left for Uganda with just over a 1,000 bars of soap for the slum, school and women’s group UCOBAC works with. He discussed with each group the importance of handwashing and hygiene for good health.

Another contact I met last summer who lives in Kenya and has an NGO has asked for 100,000 bars for schools, an orphanage and a female prison her group supports. This is the next project on my list.
And so, although it was a two month experience in Uganda last summer, these relationships will continue……

Lilly Dimling, February 15, 2012

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