The Little Workshop That Could

It should have happened at the beginning of June. Then it was pushed back. And again. I went to Malawi – it waited for me. Eventually we stopped waiting and planned around the damn thing, at which point things came together and the dates were set. I’m talking about the elusive CLTS training workshop that HAD been the bane of my JF placement – until last week that is.

The Big Idea: Our CLTS team is 3 members (about to be 2 as I go back to Canada) and our catchment area has 200-300 villages in it. We’re strapped for active and well-trained facilitators to help trigger villages – thus increasing latrine coverage and usage, so that water-borne diseases (diarrhea and cholera in particular) decrease.

Who: We invited some of all 3 “ropes” in the 3-rope approach:
(1) Technocrats (4 Environmental Health Technologists and 4 Community Health Workers) -> highly trained people who know their stuff and whose job it is to work on preventitive measures.
(2) Civic Leaders (9 Councillors, Mayor, Deputy Mayor, District Commissioner) -> elected representatives whose job is to spearhead development initiatives for their constituents.
(3) Traditional Leaders (Senior Headmen, Both Chiefs) -> high authority, high respect, existing structures that have a headmen at each village.

What: Intensive 5-day workshop including 2 full field days. Theory, practice, reflection, experience sharing, debate, skill sharpening, action planning.

… If it sounds a little too good to be true, and too easy you’ve got good intution. Rewind two weeks back and let the panic settle in. It has been an extended session of chaotic and opportunistic hopscotch. Ultimately I think the results came less from logical logistical plans that were followed to the T, and much more from energy, excitment, adrenaline and eyes wide open like a cat that’s about to pounce. And pounce we did…

So it’s Tuesday July 21 – the day before I take off to Livingstone and leave Alfred alone to plan a massive week-long workshop with 40 participants from all corners of the district. We’re desparately trying to hang onto the ripping coattails of my “Impact Plan” – which featured 3 intense weeks of full-out triggering by a small team of facilitators. We don’t have fuel money or a vehicle, and we’re going to Itebe Ward to trigger 2 villages in one day. But we’re not totally sure if the chief actually got the message through either. Inter-NGO collaboration comes to the rescue, and we catch a ride with the WatSan Co-ordinator for another local NGO – in fact the same one which was planning a major 5-year toilet construction subsidy programme in our area until Alfred convinced them to stop completelyl in favour of CLTS. We get to the village eventually (this is the worst road I’ve seen in all of Mazabuka district – in the rains apparantly you CANNOT pass – cut off completely). Turnout is about 5 people from a village of over 100. Trying to actually trigger with such a low turnout is like firing a cap-gun underwater in the middle of a gunfight – no point even trying. Instead we have a quick pow-wow and switch gears. We need about 12 villages to  be set-up and really ready to go for next week’s workshop (called Pre-Triggering) so we interview the headmen and find out the population, water points, latrine coverage, common diseases, existing village committees, currently working NGOs and more. Then we firmly set the date for next week and take his phone number.

So far it’s a fairly standard case of Plan A fail, settle for Plan B – but we keep our eyes peeled, and stumble upon the fact that the Chief is coming to Itebe to hold a meeting with all headmen from the entire Ward this afternoon, because they’re opening a donor-funded school the following week. Jackpot!! Alfred and I throw caution to the wind and tell our other friend that we’ll find our own ride back and we set off walking for the school. We manage to arrive early and then proceed to interview 11 headmen in the space of an hour or two, and firmly set all the dates, times and have phone-numbers for follow-up. Oh yeah, and then in the big meeting, we decide to sit in and then get a 5-minute spot from the chief to advertise the meetings – which he heavily endorses. We had no ride home – but just as we walked out of the classroom, a big Canter truck was dropping someone off and we flagged it down. With 3 bicycles, 10 cartons of fish, 20 passengers and their luggage – there appeared no room for 2 giddy friends like me and Alfred. But wait, we’re in Zambia!! So our seats are on the roof of the cab of the truck, adn feature frequent ducking to avoid tree branches.

Now it’s Sunday July 26 – hours before participants arrive and we’re scrambling to finish programs and handouts on a pain-in-the-ass printer (they suck just like in Canada) when we find out that half of the facilitation team we’d arranged to help with the workshop weren’t going to be coming at all. Alfred’s sweating, but I’m pretty confident – it just means more exposure for him, and I’ll be out of my comfort zone a little more than usual.

Monday morning -> We forgot stationary. Alfred has borrowed my bike to get to the shop, and leaves the main conference room to go there exactly wn the workshop is supposed to start. 25% of participants are here, and they’re already growing impatient. After an hour, I start the workshop – of course forgetting that when it comes to Self-Introductions, you need to introduce the Chief. Ouch! His Royal Highness… nonetheless Alfred arrives and by the end of the day, at least half of the expected participants have been given two head’s worth of knowledge on CLTS triggering – and are geared for the field

Tuesday -> Unbelievably successful day of triggering. Itebe has less than 2% sanitation coverage (aka NObody uses toilets) and also high diarrheal and cholera cases to match. Couple this with really strong turnouts, and we are 6 for 6 on our first round of triggering -> including strong reflection and debrief when we get back to workshop

Wednesday -> Enter passion, politics and energy. The house is lively as discussions on past-subsidy programmes stir up the councillors and EHTs. Challenges on not inviting every single key person in the district start coming our way, and Alfred stands tall to put the ball right back in their court. Group problem-solving on major CLTS challenges proves semi-useful, and an exercise I lead on facilitation quality really brings out some fantastic best practices and stories from the previous day’s triggering. Our strategy to split the 2 field days with a refleciton/learning day is really paying off now 🙂 Not to mention the presence of the Mayor and District Commissioner – and calls from the participants to visit the council and see the quality of sanitation/toilets there! Blood pressure is rising, and momentum is building.

Thursday -> To the field again, but with some big-time visitors. Alfred is triggering with his boss’s boss’s boss (no pressure man),  and we also have a group from Lusaka joining us – which features the donor’s boss’s boss who is in charge of 20 countries for WatSan. Gulp. They both attend their first triggerings, led by 2 differnt facilitators, and both are blown out of the water. Alfred was at his usual highly energetic best, and Edmond was leading the donor’s group through another 3-vomiter triggering. End of day session reveals huge praise and excitement – mostly aimed directly at Alfred. The Mayor has really internalized the concept – and is showing key signs of natural leadership and driving the program forward.

Friday -> In a final “Way Forward” session – facilitated by my good friend Angela from Choma – the commitment making ball gets rolling. Councillors are stepping up to take control of their wards – and the chiefs are calling meetings to include both councillors and senior headmen. Technocrats are locked and loaded – taking it all in with shining eyes. There is such a buzz in the room, and before the close we have presentations from leading members of the villages triggered in the workshop. 7 out of 12 made it into town and presented their action plans for becoming Open Defecation Free (ODF) in a one month time frame. The deal is sealed with some top-notch closing speeches. Shit, shame, disgust and cholera are heavily used terms, but this doesn’t take away from the importance of the moment. I did have to hide my head when a couple people mentioned my leaving and gave me way too much credit for just being here (haha and calling me Muchindu all the way).


It’s been quite an overwhelming and exciting experience -> but it has reconfirmed in me the huge benefits of being present to the opportunities that exist, and not playing captain to a sinking initial plan. We hopped from one boat to the next amidst a swirling storm of uncertainty and looking back on the experience I feel a little shell-shocked. Things went so late on the Thursday night that I stayed at the lodge and shared a room with Alfred – we both were in agreement that it couldn’t have gone better if we’d planned it – a common phrase over the summer. Flex, bend, weave, duck and spring forward.

First with the head, then with the heart.


~ by mikeklassen on August 3, 2009.

3 Responses to “The Little Workshop That Could”

  1. This is gangster bro! Really great to here about the positive outcomes – always brings motivation and inspiration to the work that we’re doing here in Canada! Keep rockin’ it out, looking forward to hearing more stories from the month of August – August already, I know!

  2. sounds like some incredibly intense experiences. i’m so glad to hear that they are energizing and inspiring you. as a so-called ‘planner’, it makes me really happy to hear of how often you’ve said that you couldn’t plan things better. 🙂
    i’ve got an amazing TED talk for you when you get to a more reliable internet connection – i found it really helpful for keeping both the “i’m amazing” and the “nothing i do is good enough” voices at bay. your comment about getting too much praise made me think of it. but time enough for that once you’re in these parts. for now, of course, be in the moment.
    big love and hugs from oxford st.

  3. Your writing is so clear and visual Mike. I am enjoying your stories very much.

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