Throughout my working life I’ve tried to maintain a long term perspective, believing that if something is worthwhile it has to be able to stand the test of time and that with the right nurturing, from small acorns grow oak trees. I applied this principal while running World Travel Market for 26 years, and at times my team would jokingly repeat it back to me; it became a catchphrase of sorts. I’ve certainly kept it in mind while running Just a Drop because there have been many times when it was so hard I surely would have given up. But it was during my recent visit to Kenya to review our projects on the ground that I’ve seen this simple philosophy play out with such incredible results that it’s even renewed my, at times, faltering faith.
Muuo Wa Syumbe, is a self-help group located approximately 2 hours drive from Nairobi. I visited the project with Just a Drop’s volunteer Project Officer Jamie Riches, a hydrogeologist from Thames Water and our local partners from African Sand Dam Foundation (ASDF), Kyalo and Musila.
Kenya’s semi-arid climate traditionally has two rainy seasons a year, but with the impact of climate change this has been reduced to 1 and a bit if they are lucky, so the rains are predictably unpredictable. The Muuo Wa Syumbe community live on a very steep hill with undergrowth so thick it had been impossible to create a road. The only access to water was from a river 3.5-5 km away. The terrain was too steep for donkeys or carts so the women would carry their load on their backs, getting up as early as 2am to walk and collect water. It was a tough and relentless life and when they appealed to both the government and local chiefdom for help to access water closer to their homes neither were able to help; it was simply impossible to get there other than by walking.
So this determined community decided to help themselves. They set up a group of people from the community and appealed to Just a Drop and ASDF for help.
A sand dam wasn’t the answer, but below all that heavy undergrowth was solid granite- so the best solution was to build a rock catchment at the top of the hill, therefore when the rains came the water would run down the rock catchment and be directed into two large awaiting storage water tanks that had been built, again, by the local community. The engineering aspect of this is easy enough in principle which makes it a long term sustainable solution so long as the rains continue to come. The hard part was preparing the area to be used, it had to be completely cleared of any vegetation, smoothed down, structures had to be built and areas created to site the tanks.
It wasn’t the feat of engineering that blew my mind, although its simplicity is wonderful; it was the sheer determination of these men and women who really just wanted to better their way of life. They would literally carry rocks up the hill, one by one on their backs. Large rocks would be smashed into smaller pieces to build the walls on the granite face which helped direct the water to a pipe and then into the two tanks. This was incredibly hard manual labour under the searing sun and yet they remained undaunted. They were united as a community because they could see the difference being made to their lives in the long term; to achieve their vision of their future they had to have access to water closer to their homes.
But their hard work didn’t stop there. Thanks to sponsorship from TUI UK the community went on, having benefited from the rains, to build and create terraces on their hill in order to grow crops. Their pride was palpable; they could now feed their families and feel secure for the first time in a long time. They took me on “a short cut” across the hill but really it was a chance for them to show us all they’d accomplished. I watched as community member Elizabeth Mutundu stood by her bananas, which she had tended to carefully to sell at the local market as her grandson picked mangos from the tree; they looked happy.
Due to their achievements, which included clearing the hillside to create a road (for which I am exceedingly thankful!), each family were donated a cockerel and 3 hens. The community were also gifted some cows and as they calved, they in turn gifted these calves to neighbouring communities who have been so inspired to want to also improve their circumstances, starting with the essential gift of water. Additionally the government is now looking to provide electricity which everyone is hugely excited about.
But what the community want most now is a third water tank to ensure that they have enough water to create their own “shamba,” a community market garden for them to grow vegetables and fruit trees to sell as produce commercially in the markets and therefore generating a solid income for the community.
The beauty of this project is that it’s entirely community owned and driven. Yes, they needed a leg up and some guidance, but this isn’t about charity or aid. This has been about team work where we have all played our role: Just a Drop, ASDF, TUI UK with the community at the very heart. We’ll continue to monitor the programme, but the truth is the community are in control, as it should be. From a community who started with nothing more than a tough daily slog, they came together to create what they believe to be a better way of life. It started with having access to clean safe water but it has led to the growth of crops, feeding families, selling produce in the market and even the hope of electricity. So, the next time I find myself losing faith, I’ll look to Muuo Wa Syumbe and find myself re-inspired all over again that from small acorns really do grow oak trees.