Trip to Zambia: Notes to self…

I’m thinking about increased border controls, about nationalist movements across the western world, crime against refugees and about the future leaders of our world which group has just been enlarged by the new American president. All of these developments seem so distant, yet they will without doubt determine the direction of all our futures.

Me, that’s David,  am sitting in an airplane from Lusaka, Zambia, back to my hometown in Germany after I attended the Practical Impact Alliance (PIA) Co- Design Summit, hosted by the D-Lab of MIT, together with our Network members Marius Weckel from Smart Hydro Power, Kelly Church from SimLab and Ricardo Braun from Brazil. Our empowering people. Network is a member of the Alliance that connects international organizations from the field of technology for development and entrepreneurship.

Their Co- Design summits aim to bring together international experts in the field of development with local population and local entrepreneurs to work on simple and practical solutions that hopefully improve living conditions on the ground: Capacity building in the field. More precisely, my group was working on the questions of how can we build child- friendly latrines. Not toilets, simple latrines.

When I left home, I felt  insecure again – as so many times before –does it really make sense for me to travel around half of the globe to work with people from a culture I may not understand? Isn’t there somebody who could do my work better? Is Zambia dangerous? I couldn’t get around those questions and I didn’t know what to expect from this country and initiative.

The landscape sourrounding Naboye Community

Latrines. A working group is formed with Joseph, a local entrepreneur whose father was a warrior in northern Zambia, and M’honi, a very outspoken local, who is fed up with people defecating behind the bushes and around his house. It also included my other group members Luwodzya of royal Zambian descendent, Peter a local farmer, Chipepo who believes in biogas as one solution to Zambia’s energy problems, Christopher from WorldVision Kenya, Michael and me. Besides English and German, we speak Nsenga, Tonga, Bemba, Swahili and variety of other languages that all sound very similar to me. A multicultural group that sets out to build child- friendly latrines in the local community of Naboye – a place you will hardly find on Google Maps. So far so good.

As we’re settling down and I get more accustomed to the local conditions we spend two days with the local population of Naboye in their village and I see more pit latrines than I have ever seen in my entire life. Why do people not use latrines? Back home at my comfortable desk, I read about the lack of awareness of the hygienic consequences of open defecation and insufficient washing of hands. While this may be true there are things that I never even thought of. A bag of cement to stabilize the pit hole is 63 Kwasha which is roughly US$ 7 and unaffordable for almost 2/3 of the village.

Note to myself: The realities of the economic conditions may be a lot different than you may ever envision.

Well, there’s a simple solution, right? Europeans used pit latrines for centuries, so why don’t you just dig a hole and put wood (timber?) on top of it, so you can easily sit on it? It turns out that the simple answer is that termites gnaw away the wood and especially during the rainy season it  rots  a lot faster, which means that quite regularly pit holes collapse and people end up swimming in their own latrines. Nobody would be happy about that. Besides that there are not too many trees left and the ones with hard timber only grow on top of the mountains.

Note to myself: Grasping all implications of local geographic conditions is almost impossible from afar.

Anyway, we set out to find solutions for a child-friendly latrine which could possibly make children use latrines more, assuming we find a solution that will not collapse and are actually affordable for the local population? Being equipped with all the western knowledge about early childhood development, we are all well aware that just handing a questionnaire to them may not yield the best results.

So I may just let them draw their favorite latrines in order to find out their preferences. Pens, markers, some paper that’s it – easy. While some kids were drawing colorful but admittedly not very insightful pictures, to my surprise many of them were completely unable to properly use a pen and definitely not draw 3-dimensional things such as a hut.

Note to myself: Many children come from families who are obviously not in a position to afford public schools

There was one thing though that was common-sense amongst the villagers, amongst the children and also amongst us; we all would love clean toilets – a very basic form of luxury.

After days of research, we agree that the problem we set out to solve, namely designing child friendly-latrines, is not the actual problem the local population is facing but the pure non-existence of reliable, affordable latrine slabs. As there is no real locally available alternative that is cheaper than cement, we decide that the slab has to be reusable in order to be able to save some production costs over time. Through long discussions with our local team members, Peter and M’honi, we finally design a first model of a latrine slab that could be molded in a community-owned mold and is portable from one pit hole to another once the latrine is filled.

However it is still a long way to go for our local friends until the headman of the village approves the design, the community decides to set up a savings group to finance the community mold and their neighbors will ultimately see the value of the reusable latrine slab. Nevertheless, they are excited and eager to continue.

So I am sitting in the airplane and while we came up with a first idea I am also thinking what it is that I personally learned most: Assumptions and insecurity. Being an economist, I am well aware what a valuable tool assumptions are to grasp and simplify complicated situations, however I learned again that a different cultural context may require to reassess my assumptions about economic realities, geographic conditions, access to schooling etc. however well-educated they may be. The only way to do so is to get in contact with those people and then all insecurity vanishes.

Latrine drawings of a 6 year old girl

I switch on my inflight TV and read the US election results; I read that the Mexican peso drops by 15% as Mexicans are afraid of newly installed borders. I start to think about Le Pen in France, the AfD in Germany, the Brexit and I wonder how many more of our assumptions may be wrong and should be challenged and finally how friendly and openly I was welcomed by the community of Naboye in Zambia. People who are struggling with setting up simple pit latrines.

The latrines team: M’honi, Joseph, Michael, Peter, Chipepo, Chris, David and Luwodzya

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