In Kenya, consultation and partnership are factors for success in development

KALIMANI, Kitui District, Kenya - Under the hot sun, the women slowly and deliberately carried their heavy loads up the steep and dusty path from the river. Some supported their burdens on their backs, braced with a cloth band around their forehead. Others used sticks to cajole donkeys, bowed with the weight of double loads.

On most days, the women of Kalimani village tote water up from the Mutendea River like this in plastic jerry cans. On this day in May, however, they were hauling up bags of riverbed sand. Their hope was that if they carried enough sand, they would soon no longer have to carry water.

"It takes a lot of time when we go for water and it tires us to carry it home, so when the water is nearer, it gives us time so we can do other activities in the home," said Lydia Kitheka, who is 28 years old and a member of the Kalimani Women's Group, which has organized a project to build a new pipeline and pumping system here that will bring water up the hill from the river to the village. She herself has carried many bags of sand, which is used to line trenches for piping and storage tanks. "We will have more time with our children, more time for gardening and more time to work for income."

There are many village water projects in the world, but what makes this one unusual is the degree to which the villagers themselves - in this case the women - have identified their needs and organized themselves to collaborate with outsiders to design, build and maintain the system.

"Quite often we talk about community participation, but we don't always see it," said Dr. Eliab Some, head of strategic planning and monitoring for the African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF), which is providing technical assistance to the Kalimani water project. "But this is active community participation. They are not just sitting and watching others work. The community was responsible for identifying the problem, seeing a solution, and now they are providing the labor. This is the ideal."

As such, the Kalimani Women's Water Project, along with a series of other projects that have been operated by women's groups in this semi-arid district some 150 kilometers east of Nairobi, makes a powerful statement about women, community participation, and the importance of multiple partnerships in development work.

The story of how the Kalimani Women's Group came to help build a water system that promises to provide safe drinking water year round for some 6,000 people in two villages is a complex one, with partners at many levels. This is made more so because it relies on sub-surface dams, an innovative but appropriate technology that seeks to create a reservoir of underground water. But the story is inspiring and instructive.

For one thing, not only have the women here provided most of the labor for the project - they have also convinced their menfolk to shoulder much of the burden. As women struggled up the hill last May to carry bags of sand, their husbands and sons worked with mattocks and picks to dig foundation holes for a storage tank.

Traditionally, men almost never carry water, and it would be rare for them to work directly for women. But here, the women are clearly in charge. The men, like the women, work for a "payment" of two-kilograms of maize per day, provided by the German development agency, GTZ. "The brains behind this are the women," said Dr. Some. "The men are just providing the muscles."

International attention

The project - along with a group of other projects run largely by women in this district - has drawn international attention for its innovation and success. The Kalimani Women's Group, along with the Matinyani Women's Group, has been selected for exhibition as a "worldwide" showcase project at the Expo 2000 World's Fair next year in Hanover, Germany. Another exhibition, put together by Epcot Center at Disney World in Florida, USA, as part of an exhibit celebrating the millennium, will also feature the Kalimani project and others organized by women's groups here.

Elizabeth Dowdeswell visited the project two years ago while she was executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and said she believes it represents "sustainable development in its real, not academic, sense."

"The thing that struck me was the ingenuity and the uncommon enthusiasm and energy of the women," Ms. Dowdeswell said. "That is what is driving the success of the project … in terms of realizing what the community needs both in the short term and in the long term."

"They linked environmental, economic and social needs and sought responses that considered and balanced all three," Ms. Dowdeswell said. "Witness their concern for an environmentally appropriate development of water resources, their attention to health and education concerns, and their vision to find an activity that would make their community sustainable economically."

The water project is worth examining in some detail because it is among the newest and most active of the projects here, and it focuses on community development more than merely income generation. Genuine group consultation has played an important role in helping the women to identify their needs and goals.

The Kalimani Women's Group formed gradually as smaller groups consolidated in the late 1980s and early 1990s, inspired partly by the successes of the neighboring Matinyani Women's Group, which is based in Matinyani village about ten kilometers away. Josephine Mailu, a member of the Matinyani group but a resident of Kalimani, was instrumental in helping women here organize themselves into a separate group, which now has about 600 members.

"Such groups are a natural thing here," said Ms. Mailu, explaining that the harsh climate and living conditions of the region has always forced people - especially women - to work together in the villages. "We must help each other to survive."

In the early 1990s, the group began its collaboration with Rehema, a Kenya-based, Bahá'í-sponsored, non-governmental organization that had also been working with the Matinyani group. One of Rehema's founders, Geraldine Robarts, knew of the Kalimani women's desire for help.

Sharing ideas

Rehema offered workshops on health and hygiene and also on consultation - a group-oriented, non-partisan, non-adversarial decision-making process that is used by Bahá'í communities worldwide. According to some women in Kalimani, the principles of consultation were important in helping them to set goals and priorities.

"It is easier to share ideas together," said Patricia Munanie, a 42-year-old Kalimani woman who is vice chair of the group's water committee, speaking of the impact of Bahá'í principles on the group. "They help us to listen to each other and to get the good ideas, regardless of who got the good idea in the community."

About the same time, one of the group's members had a visionary dream in which she saw a hospital in the village, where medicines came in food containers and were readily available. Inspired by the lessons on consultation and the dream, the women decided to build a health center.

Rehema helped them to make contacts with development funding agencies, providing seed money for building materials. The women themselves provided the construction labor and even made the bricks. Gradually, over a period from the early 1990s to the present day, the center gradually took shape. First, a two-room birthing center was built. It was completed in 1995. Two more rooms and a veranda were added in 1996 and 1997. A storage area and laboratory were finished in 1998. In all, the center cost less than $10,000 in outside funding.

Ms. Mailu, who has training as a nurse, nutritionist and community health worker, is in charge of the clinic. She said the facility treats from 50 to 80 patients per day. But the completion of the health center building gave the women more than better medical care. It also became a focal point for the group and its main gathering place - imparting by the simple fact of its existence an enormous new sense of self-confidence.

According to Mailu and others, it soon became clear that many of the village's health problems stemmed from a shortage of clean water - indeed, any sort of water - during much of the year.

Annual rainfall here is 600 to 1000 millimeters, but that comes mainly in two rainy seasons in October-December and March-May. The rest of the year, average rainfall is less than 200mm, and as little as 25mm during the June-September dry season.

During the dry season, the Mutendea River dries up entirely, forcing the villagers to dig down one or two meters into the riverbed in search of water. The digging process creates dirty, open wells, which are shared by humans and animals alike.

Through consultations with Rehema, the group learned about an appropriate technology known as a "sub-surface" dam. Essentially an ordinary dam, it has extra strength and thickness and a special shape to catch and hold sand behind it. Over time, the extra sand becomes a repository for sub-surface water, creating an underground reservoir in the riverbed that resists evaporation during the dry season and can be more reliably "harvested," over a longer period of time. Ideally, each year, the wall is built higher, catching more sand and expanding the reservoir.

Designing and building such a dam was clearly beyond the financial capacity and technical expertise of the local women, but Rehema helped the group to line up several other partners, including the Canadian-based International Development Research Center (IDRC) and the Community Development Trust Fund of the European Union, which provided funding; the German development agency (GTZ), which provided support through its innovative "Food for Work" program; and AMREF, which had already been involved in setting up the health center and now began to assist in designing the water system. The World Health Organization, the Kenyan Ministry of Health, the International Women's Club of Nairobi, the Spanish-speaking Women's Club and others have also contributed to the project.

In 1998, the women successfully built two dams and a manually operated pump system and storage tank at the health center. By May 1999, they were working on an improved pumping and storage system to bring more water higher up the hill and nearer to the village. They are also adding a new dam, which will be higher, so as to catch more sand and hold more water.

"In our plan, when the water comes up we will go put a medicine in it, so it will reduce diseases like diarrhea and bilharzia," said Ms. Munanie of the water committee, referring to the use of chlorination to kill bacteria and the worms that cause schistosomiasis. "The children will be healthier."