Living in a Spark

Description of the events of Friday, July 12, 2009.

So this approach of Community-Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) that I’m working with revolves strongly around an event called “triggering”. A number of factors have resulted in me attending only a small number of these so far, but we had ran one last Friday that I want to illuminate.
Alfred and I jammed ourselves into the remaining “spaces” of the back of a regular sized pick-up truck. We were passengers number 19 and 20, wedged between the luggage, maize bags, chairs, plastic containers and people. Basically my left leg was extended, climbing under one bag and over another, while my right leg was pinned so close to my chest that I could comfortably eat off my knee, albeit uncomfortable from cramping. I took video of the passengers, but upload sucks (let’s talk in Toronto in September).

We arrived just as the artistic sun splashed its final buckets of purply-orange pastel-paint on the horizon, and my good friend Edmond was there to greet us. This incredible man deserves a proper introduction – his home is in Chivuna, one of the wards furthest from Mazabuka, and Alfred and I stayed at his house once before (to cut down on travel time to and from Mazabuka town). He is currently a ward councilor, coming off 2.5 years as Mayor which ended in April. He is a big man, with massive, warm and contagious laughter – especially as I bring a new phrase of Tonga each time we meet. We greeted with a typical handshake-of-friends: a few shakes, then continued hand-contact until someone says something good/nice/funny and then more arm shaking, all the while still holding hands. It’s pretty sweet once you get used to it.

Edmond is a man of dedication – his father died when he was young, and his mother struggled to pay for 3 children all in high school at the same time. The result was Edmond having to take a gap year after grade 10 due to a lack of funds. He pulled some strings and had his fees paid for by a American missionary, but had to transfer to a cheaper school – 15 km from his home. So he would wake up at 4am, and start the trek with no breakfast. I asked him what happened when it was the rainy season and he just shook his head with a look that spoke mountains of the challenge. He described his foray into politics at each step (from schoolteacher -> councilor -> deputy mayor -> mayor) as other people pushing/encouraging him to “go for it”. I asked him what he thought was his strength that got him where he is today – and his humility meekly poked its head out to say “I really don’t know Mike!” I’m hoping to do some video interviews with him over the remaining few weeks.

So enter Edmond, Mike and Alfred – we were “triggering” a community just a 20 minute walk from Edmond’s house so he knew the area well.

The sun had past its apex as the meeting space filled out – a distinct divide between the male youth who joked, chattered and pushed each other playfully to my left and the group of 10 or more old women (bacembele) on the right who sat on the ground shelling maize cobs, with babies in their laps or tied to their backs with chitenges. We opened with introductions, and I greeted them in Tonga with my increasingly built up introduction (I add a bit each time as I learn more). Needless to say they laughed heartily – even before I could finish! I guess they thought I only could say 5 words, instead of the 8 or 9 I’m capable of.

The mapping exercise was fascinating – the 35 or so people in attendance in one big circle, while the headman of the village drew the village borders with a stick, and someone covered it in grey ash to show the outline. Next people identified the main roads (aka paths) and marked them with leaves… but not without some serious arguing – which was eventually won by a middle aged woman. The main stream was marked with a path of dried long grass, and water points (all open wells, with one borehole) marked by plastic containers. Then each person grabbed a white card and started to locate their own house. It was a bit of mayhem, but using the help of their neighbours we got everyone marked on the map. Those with toilets used yellow cards to show these facilities. Now the fun part – shelled maize-cobs to mark your shitting areas! The place erupted with laughter and ribbing, and some people were more shy than others in showing where they do their business. One youth was tossing his a few feet from where he stood – over the village border, and grinning a wide smile, while talking out of the side of his mouth to his neighbours.

When all was said and done, we interviewed the map – noting shit-heavy areas and asking questions about the use of toilets. The core point to be brought out was that a huge amount of the defecation areas were in or right beside the stream. Also, all the open wells were within a few feet of the stream. It was quite amazing the effect of such a simple, visual tool – people could see with their own eyes that their own behaviours were contaminating their own water.

Fast forward to the group walk (Walk of Shame), which only lasted 2 minutes before a shriek and some yells from a nearby bush confirmed a sighting. One of our over-zealous co-facilitators quickly picked up a pile of the shit and brought it back. As he carried it back to the meeting area, people jumped back from him. Very similar to the fleis when you walk close to the pile as it sits on the ground. Microcosm? The sight and smell of the very stuff itself was overpowering. 2 women immediately vomited upon sight, and a third ran behind the house and threw up really loudly. The demonstration of cooked chicken scraps placed by the shit seemed to take place in slow-motion, as people were quite obviously in shock. As the meeting drew to a close, there was a long open discussion from community members. One of the vomiters wouldn’t even look into the center of the group, where the shit was still on the ground. She angrily raised her hand and said “we need to put that STUFF – somewhere!!!”

Two old women totally dominated the conversation – first calling for others to act on their behalf, and eventually even committing to dig pits themselves (pretty impressive commitment from 60+ year old women). We took photos of 3 groups – those with toilets, those planning to build them, and those who hadn’t made up their minds. After a group commitment to build toilets and use them, and to tell their absent friends about it as well – there was a change of energy.

Spontaneously, one of the two leader ladies started clapping slowly and rhythmically. Right on beat, she started dancing and chanting as she moved into the center of the crowd. “Ni Chali Bobo, Ni Chali Chibotu” the first phrase became a kind of call-out by the dancer, and the second phrase was repeated back by the crowd. She danced her way to me, Alfred and Edmond. Edmond joined in, as he knew the words and the rhythm well. As he stepped back out, my eyes met the old woman’s and I just went for it. I jumped in and started dancing and the place went absolutely crazy! A crescendo of shouts and cheers was followed by booming laughter from everyone as myself and the old woman danced aruond each other. I will never forget that moment. The words mean “If it was like this, then it would be good”.

I reflect back on it, and it was a pretty charged and emotional couple of hours. I led a debrief with our facilitation team afterwards, and we definitely were pushing a little too much – there was a lot more facilitators talking than community talking. Participatory approaches are actually pretty difficult in practice – and it takes explicit time to address what is required from facilitators to create that space. My current headspace is around trying to create some simple tools to evaluate “how well are we facilitating” that can make debrief faster and more focused. It will also help me understand how the facilitators themsleves perceive their own performance – a pretty important prerequisite to any interventions to change their style.


~ by mikeklassen on July 19, 2009.

3 Responses to “Living in a Spark”

  1. Thats pretty fascinating! It’s interesting how strong the responses (not in terms of shock-value, but an acknowledgement of the need for toilets) were in this session. I’m assuming there are more regular meetings to follow-up on this one? Would someone like Edmond be facilitating that independently?

    And, how’re YOU doing man?

  2. Absolutely fascinating. The approach sounds powerful, as does your willingness to jump in and dance. No kidding that will stay with you.

    Thanks so much for taking the time to record your experiences for all of us over here. It’s amazing reading this blog.

    Like the facial hair 🙂

  3. Wow, that was a pretty sweet description you got there! I’m honestly a little surprised at the response it received. I would’ve expected it to be less out-there, I guess.

    Keep up the good work.

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