“We came to your village because people in America wanted to share the love of Christ by helping you build a protected well, so you and your children would have good water to drink.”
We were there at that village because, somewhere in America, a church or a family had donated (or will soon donate) $400 to pay for the cement, pump, pipes, and skilled labor to build the new well. The villagers themselves had dug the well, molded and fired the bricks to line the well, and gathered local materials including sand, clay, and gravel. They also had contributed about $10 in local currency or maize to fund spare parts, and had committed to make a similar payment each year. Every well had “Glory to God” in English and the local language inscribed on the top slab, along with the construction date.
We, the American volunteers, helped the installation crew install the pump, gave a short speech that included an explanation of the community’s responsibilities, and took a digital picture to send to the donor of that well. Often the women danced and sang praises for their new well while the crew finished the installation. The village headman or water point committee chairwoman gave a short thank you speech, invariably describing the bad water they had been using, and often stating that other nearby villages also needed help to build a well for good drinking water. Then we drove away to the next completed well to install the next pump.
But what happens after the truck drives away and the singing and dancing stop? Traditional African culture has evolved over thousands of years. It has enabled the people to survive under very difficult circumstances, but mechanical devices like hand pumps are not part of the traditional environment. Published research has found that half or more of hand pumps in rural Africa can be out of service within four or five years, because communities lack the understanding and expertise to maintain them. How does Marion Medical Mission ensure that its wells are sustainable by the local communities?
First, MMM shallow wells are simple and affordable to maintain by the local people. The pump and its spare parts are manufactured in Africa, usually by MMM itself in its own workshops. Each community contributes an annual maintenance fee, equivalent to about $10, which is affordable for them and sufficient to pay for the needed spare parts.
Second, MMM Field Officers help the local communities organize to sustain their own wells. Each community chooses a volunteer water point committee that is responsible for managing the well and keeping it in operation, including collection of the annual maintenance fee from community members. At least half of the members are women, because it is the women who fetch the water for their families. Communities in an area are formed into a Zone, and they choose a volunteer Zone Management Team (ZMT) to oversee the maintenance people, manage the maintenance fees, and buy the spare parts to have on hand whenever a repair is needed.
Third, MMM trains maintenance people to repair the wells and the pumps. Each maintenance person is responsible for about 10 wells. He knows the wells because he helped build them, and he is known to the people because he is from their village or a nearby village. He is a volunteer, so villages are expected to give him a chicken or similar gift when he repairs the pump.
Lastly, MMM Field Officers continually follow up to monitor the condition of the wells and the performance of the ZMTs in their areas. When a ZMT runs into problems, the Field Officers can provide coaching and training to improve its performance.
It was a wonderful experience, fresh and exciting and rewarding even though it was my sixth year to help with the installations. But, we volunteers are there for a short time, and then we go home. It is the Africans – Coordinators, Field Officers, Installation Supervisors, well builders, and others, – who organize the communities, build the wells, and, along with tens of thousands of community volunteers, ensure that the wells continue to provide good drinking water for many years.