Friday, July 24, 2009

On the way home- Nairobi, London, and Miami

Again, no story here, just photos from the trip home, including stops in Nairobi, London, and Miami...

Juba on the Nile, and Yei

No story here, just a few photos from the banks of the Nile at Juba, and a quick trip to Yei before leaving Sudan for the last time...

Health Education, Water Testing, and Renk

Here's another album- most of this one is from a visit to a health education session, where facilitators were working with the community to talk about how to prevent things like malaria and diarrhea, etc. I also have photos in this one from a visit to a few water sources, and a testing program put in place after the use of filters. Finally, there are a few random ones from Renk. There's a story about the water testing below the photos...

A fresh, and safe, cup of the Nile

Magara, Upper Nile state (Sudan) – Miriam Adam’s two- year-old daughter takes hold of a plastic cup with both hands and tips her head back, taking enormous gulps of water. She quickly drains the cup, putting it down with a satisfied look. Not long ago, her cup of water, drawn from the banks of the Nile less than 200 meters away, could have contained any number of viruses and parasites- now, Adam has no need to worry about what her daughter drinks.

“The kids were sick, but they aren’t now,” she says, speaking in Arabic.

Six months ago, Mercy Corps and a consortium of three other non-governmental organizations came to Magara village to provide water filters for the community, who until now had been drinking contaminated surface water from open pools and the Nile River without any form of treatment. The filters given to the people of Magara, which look like small concrete pillars with a spout protruding from the side, are locally made and easy to produce. When used properly, they provide an easy and cheap way for people to access safe drinking water, an important step on the path to better and healthier lives.

“When contaminated water is poured in, it trickles through and the bacteria, viruses and suspended solids get trapped in between grains of sand. As a result, clean water comes out,” explains Francis Okello, the Water and Sanitation Sector Head for the Northern Upper Nile Recovery and Rehabilitation Programme (NUNRRP). “The filtered water is absolutely safe,” he adds. “It’s obviously better to drink water from the filter than directly from the river.”

This technology, known as the bio-sand filter, was first developed at the University of Calgary (Canada) in the mid- 20th century, and uses the principle of slow-sand filtration to make contaminated water drinkable. The filter contains a bottom layer of gravel, with another layer of finer sand on top. When river or well water is poured through the filter, the grains of sand trap bacteria and viruses, and eliminate turbidity (cloudiness).

While the bio-sand filters are a new addition for families in southern Sudan, the concept of slow-sand filtration is a very old one. “Since time immemorial we’ve been using slow- sand filtration on a large scale for big cities but never at a household level,” says Okello. “We’re simply scaling it down from commercial to household level, but the principle remains the same.”

The filters require virtually no maintenance, only an occasional cleaning, as there are no moving or electronic parts. Simple designs such as these ensure durability in the harsh environment of southern Sudan. The filters come in three varieties, each constructed from different materials, but designed with the same basic structure of an upper chamber filled with sand and gravel, and a faucet or spout. The cheapest filters are made from zinc, and cost approximately 28 Sudanese pounds (11 U.S. dollars) to produce. Filters can also be built from plastic barrels or cast from concrete, but each of these is more expensive, 80 and 42 pounds (32 and 17 U.S. dollars), respectively.

“When the gravel and the sand become dirty I clean it out and wash it,” says Mohammed Ahmed, a resident of Magara, just off the single strip of dusty tarmac stretching more than 500 kilometers from Renk to Khartoum. Ahmed and his wife have four children- before receiving the filter six months ago, water-borne diseases were a constant issue for the family.

“We used to get sick with diarrhea and worms,” he says. “Now that we have the filter there are no diseases to worry about.”

Underground water is located far too deep in the area around Renk to drill boreholes for hand pumps, meaning that people have traditionally relied on water gathered from the river or other standing sources, leading to high levels of disease. Since 2007, Mercy Corps and its consortium
partners– the Fellowship for African Relief (FAR), Strømme Foundation, and Tearfund– have provided more than 2,200 filters to households throughout Upper Nile State. If each filter theoretically serves a family with multiple children, more than 10,000 people are likely to benefit from pure drinking water.

“People are much healthier now,” Okello says. “For years they’ve been unable to access safe drinking water, and just getting it from the Nile. Since the introduction of the bio-sand filters we’ve seen reduced rates of diarrhea and other diseases.”

The filters work extremely well, but the organization regularly tests the water to ensure their continued effectiveness. On a recent Friday morning Peter Agok, a Sanitation Supervisor for Mercy Corps, and Charles Primo, a Water and Sanitation Officer for the organization, visit several water sources and families around the town of Renk. Their plan is to sample water from the filters, and see how it differs from original sources such as wells and the Nile.

Agok and Primo’s first stop is at the village of Kolang, where they want to see the hafir (reservoir), located about 20 kilometers from Renk, along a bumpy dirt track. The hafir is
a large pit, dug in 2008 by Mercy Corps. It is roughly 20 meters by 40, and three meters deep, according to Primo, and built on a downward slope. As rain falls, it collects into a carved channel, gradually flowing down into the hafir. Primo walks to the edge of the water and dips in a plastic bottle, filling it just over halfway with brownish rainwater.

“The hafirs are a problem,” Agok says. “The water has a color and a bad smell- this is why we suggest they use filters.”

Following this, Primo and Agok collect three other samples, one from a well where a nomadic family is gathering water one jerry can at a time, and two from filters in Magara. Returning to Renk with the samples collected, they continue to a surprisingly well-organized laboratory at the water- treatment facility at the edge of town, near the riverbank.

Over the next 45 minutes Agok and Primo carry out a variety of tests on the water samples from the hafir, the well, Mariam Adam’s, and Mohammed Ahmed’s house. Primo carefully spreads growth solution onto a Petri dish, placing a few drops of water inside. Agok, on the other side of the room, pours a sample of hafir water into a clear plastic tube, squinting at the top to measure the turbidity. A moment later he takes a small sample of water and pours it into a color-coded meter to measure the pH- walking to the door, he holds the device in the sunlight, looking carefully at the small numbers on the side measuring the water’s natural acidity. Finished with their tests, they note the results in Arabic on a worksheet, close the lab, and lock the door, knowing their work is a small, but meaningful, step in improving the lives of vulnerable people in their community."

Seed Distributions, the Nile, and Renk

Here's another album, most of which is from a visit to a seed distribution going on in the tiny village of Banashewa, near the Ethiopian border. I also have photos in the album from Upper Nile State, including a visit to the Nile, and a few from Renk, one of the larger cities in the region. As before, the story (one of my favorites) is below the album...

Sowing seeds, improving lives

Banashewa, Upper Nile state (Sudan) – Simon Jino, 22, pours two large handfuls of sorghum seeds into a waiting orange-and-white bucket. Hundreds of seeds spill from his hands in a cascading blur of reddish-white dots, hitting the bottom of the bucket with a pinging sound like raindrops falling on a roof. Three handfuls later and his work is complete, leaving a white dusty residue from his fingertips to his wrists.

“I plan to farm with these,” he says in clear English. “I can grow a big crop.” He’s come to a distribution in Banashewa, a small community located more than 45 kilometers off the large marram (a red clay/gravel mixture) road that connects villages and towns throughout this region of Upper Nile state.

In Banashewa and several other villages throughout this region of southern Sudan, Mercy Corps is working to distribute seeds and tools to rural communities, providing the means for people to begin to cultivate again, before the rains come, and Banashewa, on the opposite side of the river
from the nearest road, is cut off. In March and April of 2008 massive floods swept through the area, inundating recently planted crops, and destroying most of the seeds that were to become food for communities such as this.

“When there’s no rain, or when there’s too much rain, it’s a problem,” explains John Wenesa, the Mercy Corps Base Manager at the nearby office in the village of Bunj.

With the support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the organization has purchased some of the remaining seeds from nearby communities and is distributing them, along with tools. Mercy Corps hopes that people receiving the seeds will use
them not only to grow crops for their current needs, but also build a reserve they can use in later years, and possibly sell to other villages in the region. Each beneficiary receives a nearly identical amount of sorghum and maize seed, as well as a set of tools.

“We don’t expect to come back next year and distribute [seeds] again. We expect to come back and for them to give us seeds of the same quality to share with other communities,” says Anthony Mayodi, Mercy Corps’ Business Development Advisor for Upper Nile state, who is managing the distribution project. “We are helping them to increase food security in their community, as well as to have extra so they can sell them and be self-reliant.”

As is the case with most Mercy Corps projects, the organization relied on the guidance of local authorities in selecting the sites for the seed distributions. Representatives from the payam (an administrative division) directed the organization to Banashewa and Bunj, two of the communities worst affected by the floods, where the seeds will benefit between 3,500 and 5,000 families. When finished, the project will cost approximately US $90,000– some of the money will be used for labor and transport, but the vast majority of the funding will be used to pay for the seeds themselves, most of which have been bought in the area.

We bought the seeds locally to inject cash into the community,” Mayodi notes.

As the distribution in Banashewa begins, the omda (chief) is summoned to receive the first buckets of maize and sorghum seeds, as a symbolic gesture. The chief, called Yousef, would likely have been present already but was only able to make a brief appearance, as he was presiding over the village court– at issue was the question of two men who had allegedly claimed the same woman as their wife.

Before taking the buckets of seeds, Yousef, a small older man wearing matching white pants and a shirt addresses the gathered crowd, speaking in the local Mabaan language.

“We will plant these seeds, and if there is rain, I know we will be able to succeed,” he says authoritatively, his voice quieting more than 150 people waiting. “God is the one who will make it possible.”

Finished speaking to the crowd, Yousef moves to the front of the line, collecting a bright green plastic bucket. Dried yellow and red maize kernels are spread out on a plastic sheet; he plunges the bucket into the pile, filling it. Setting the bucket back down on the pile, he brushes his hand
across the top, leveling the kernels at the top of the rim with a smile.

The sacks of maize empty quickly- fortunately, dozens of bags of sorghum seed remain. As people collect the seeds in their buckets, hollowed-out gara (calabash) bowls, and tied-together headscarves and mosquito nets, the piles quickly disappear. Two young men struggle to haul
additional sacks out of the grass-and-mud storehouse, staggering under the 100-kilogram (220 lb.) load before dropping it onto the plastic sheet.

Elizabeth Yelo, 24, is the first woman to come to the head of the line. She has waited for almost an hour. Her orange and pink sash is tied across a red t-shirt- a patterned headband keeps the sweat out of her eyes. She is collecting seeds to plant for herself and her two-year-old son, named Sankwat; as a single mother, she has few means by which to support herself, making the sorghum she receives today all the more vital.

“I’m alone and want to farm so I can help my child,” she says, speaking in Mabaan through a translator. “If I don’t have these seeds, I can’t plant anything.” Placing a plastic bucket on the ground, Mayodi pours in sorghum seeds; as she moves out of line, Simon, a volunteer community mobilizer with Mercy Corps, hands her the metal heads for a pick and a hoe, tools she can use to break up the hard earth and plant. Placing the tools into the bucket along with the seeds, she balances it atop her head and walks off.

Farther down the line, Deng Chuba waits. A blue-and-black knit cap is pulled down across his forehead, and he carries a large bucket. He has only recently arrived in Banashewa, and the seeds will be a critical first step for him, his wife, and their four children.

“It’s very helpful to us, since we just arrived here,” he says in a gravelly voice, speaking Arabic. “I can grow a crop that will multiply and get bigger.”

As the supply of seeds begins to dwindle, Gaga Goofoe comes to the head of the line. A wizened-looking old woman, she has a few wisps of thin white hair, a pair of metal hoop earrings, and sunken brown eyes clouded by time and cataracts. A middle-aged man, possibly her son, waits with her; Goofoe holds his shoulder to keep herself steady in the blazing sun.

“My son will cultivate for me,” she says in a voice barely above a whisper, when asked what she plans to do with the seeds. “I can grow a big crop with this.”

When the seeds are exhausted, the distribution comes to an end. As Mayodi, Wenesa, and the others fold the tarps and sort registration forms, a small boy who looks to be about three- years-old walks up, carrying an empty plastic water bottle. He grabs one of the few remaining handfuls of sorghum seeds in his small fist, and drops them into the mouth of the bottle. Filling it just under halfway, he gives a small smile and trudges off determinedly away from the rest of the crowd, heading away from the houses, and towards the waiting fields.

Schools, Malualkon, Juba, and the Goat

There are a few different things in this album, but the main element is a series of photos from a visit to a school construction project I visited near the town of Malualkon. You can read the complete story below the photo album.

I also have photos later in the album from air travel between Malualkon, Juba, and Yei, as well as the fate of a rather unfortunate goat...


"Pariak/Riang-Aketh, Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal state (Sudan) – Angelo Garang, the Deputy Headmaster of Pariak Primary School, picks up a small slate chalkboard, carefully draws a large capital ‘F’ on it, and holds it next to the trunk of an enormous palm tree.

“F!” He shouts. “Repeat!”

“Eff!” Shout the 40 students of class 1C at the Pariak Primary School. The lucky ones with a seat on the upward-sloping edge of a fallen log have a clear view, while the rest stand in a crowd around the tree and Garang, jostling for position. In their first year of school, and between about seven-and-nine-years-old, they haven’t graduated to using notebooks; each holds a similar slate, and some clutch bits of chalk in their small hands.

“Eff! Eff! Eff! Eff! Eff!” The children chant, as Garang smiles in approval. A small boy begins to draw a rightward-leaning ‘F’ on his slate.

This could be primary school in virtually any village in southern Sudan. Decades of civil war destroyed what little infrastructure existed previously, and for many students, the only place they can go to learn is in the shade of a large tree. When the rains come to Northern Bahr-el-Ghazal state in June, however, school is often put on hold, as students have no place to shelter.

“When it starts raining the students won’t come, and the teachers won’t teach,” says Angelo Garang Adjo, a teacher, and a cousin of the Deputy Headmaster.

With the help of Mercy Corps, however, this is changing. With funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the organization has partnered with communities such as Pariak to build needed infrastructure such as community centers, clinics, and in this case, primary schools. Mercy Corps typically contacts the leadership of each payam (an administrative division), and on their advice, approaches communities throughout the area to propose new construction projects in these selected villages. Mercy Corps typically provides expensive and difficult to procure items, such as cement and tin sheets, while the community is asked to contribute locally-made materials for the project, such as bricks, creating the sense of partnership and self-reliance that is a key step for sustainable development.

“Mercy Corps is promoting development where it hasn’t previously existed,” says Apollo Nelson Atiba, the organization’s Economic Recovery and Development (ERD) Project Manager at the field office in the nearby town of Malualkon. “This way they have ownership and can feel proud. They’ll feel like, ‘We struggled for this on our own.’ If you just give something to someone, they won’t take care of it.”

In Pariak, and in the nearby village of Riang-Aketh, Mercy Corps has funded the construction of two school buildings, each at a cost of approximately $25,000 USD. In Pariak, the new three-room school building is still a series of deep square trenches, surrounded by piles of tan-red bricks. A long rectangle of bricks, the beginnings of a foundation, sits in one of the trenches as laborers in torn t-shirts chip away at the brown soil with shovels, sweat dripping down their foreheads.

Teachers at the Pariak school expect that approximately 60 students will be able to use the classroom. And while this is a good start, it is only a first step- Pariak Primary School enrolls 404 students, just over 100 of whom are girls. While the new building cannot accommodate every student, the Deputy Headmaster still sees the construction as a good start on the way to positive change.

“It’ll be important because it’ll increase [the students’] morale, and when there is rain, they can be there. The textbooks and materials will be protected too,” he says.
 And while not everyone can fit, Garang has a strategy for making the best use of the new building.

“The small children will be inside because they can’t control themselves and pay attention,” he points out. He may be right- many of the children of Class 1C seem to focus on everything except the letter ‘F’, following birds with their eyes, shoving their classmates, and chewing the pumpkin-like peel off the orange deleb fruits that fall from the overhanging coconut trees.

In the past, schools have been built in the area using local materials to create mud-and-grass tukuls (huts) where the students could learn. The tukuls would often collapse in the rain, dust, and heat common to the area, making them a short-term solution at best. Additionally, responsibility for the construction typically fell to the parents of the students, a time-consuming task.

James Wiik Tem is a member of the Parent-Teacher Association in Pariak. An older man, he wears a white short-sleeved golf shirt with blue flip-flop sandals. His deeply callused hands are rough to the touch, the result of a lifetime of manual labor. He has three children, each of whom finished school in Pariak a few years ago.

“It is a positive change to move from local infrastructure to permanent buildings,” he says in the Dinka language, speaking through an interpreter. “It will be a pleasure for the children to do their exams inside.”

Mercy Corps and the community are in the early stages of a similar project in Riang-Aketh, approximately 25 kilometers from Pariak, on the way to Aweil, the state capital. Far off the main road, the village is little more than a collection of tukuls in the midst of a few sparse palm and acacia trees. Rounding a bend in the dirt track, several piles of sand and gravel are suddenly visible, bordered by stacks of bricks.

The new building will be a major improvement, not only for the school itself, but also a first on the road to development for the community. “This is the first time a concrete building has even been constructed in Riang-Aketh,” says Atiba, the Mercy Corps Project Manager.

As in Pariak, classes in Riang-Aketh operate under the trees. According to the Headmaster, Mr. Carbino, the school has six classes, with 250 students enrolled. In a worrisome trend, however, only 10 of the students are girls. The students cluster in the shade of a thorny acacia, against which a large improvised blackboard is perched. The lesson on the board is in Christian Religious Education (CRE), a mandatory course in school systems throughout East Africa. “Christians do not offer sacrifices” reads a line.

Both Carbino and James Geng Rel, the Deputy Headmaster, attended the school themselves, which has operated since 1996, the height of the civil war. They sit with a group of other teachers under the shade of another tree near the site of the new construction. A pile of English textbooks and a dictionary with the cover ripped off are stacked on the ground in front of Rel, next to a bar-coded box of UNICEF chalk.

As is the case in Pariak, the new school building in Riang-Aketh is in the beginning stages. Trenches have been carved, clearly marking the spaces for the school’s three new classrooms.

“We need to finish the construction soon, because when the rain comes, vehicles can’t come through,” says Carbino.

Despite this concern, Rel shares Mercy Corps’ belief that the new building will be a major improvement. “[It] will be an important improvement,” Rel says. “We’ll expect more output from the children.”

At the site, Atiba walks through the trenches, carefully inspecting the work and jotting figures in a small notebook. Mercy Corps expects each building to be completed in a maximum of 70 days, hopefully less, given the coming rains. As he walks through, he notes the progress, and reflects on its importance to the community and the motivation it provides for other similar villages hoping for future construction.

“They’ll have enough time to study, and won’t have to run home because of the rain,” he says, looking at the gathered students under the tree. “Other communities lay their bricks, and hope that [we can] come one day to help them too.