The things of your daily existence inure you to the meaning behind them, becoming mundane and unremarkable, until they have little value beyond the objective. I think this is true for all of us, and why for many of us, we crave things like change, travel, newness- a job, a holiday, a relationship- to stay enthralled by life.
From an outside perspective, we often perceive something to be more attractive than it might feel from within. I suspect there are probably people who feel that about my life as an aid worker (although possibly not if they follow this blog for long…). I get to travel, I get to see interesting things the world over. But even for me, the things I experience, after a time, grow commonplace. So commonplace that I often fail to really see what they’re about.
Sometimes, though, you reconnect with something you’ve interacted with many times before and it strikes you in a new way. This happened to me a couple of days ago on a field visit in southern Kenya.
I’m no stranger to field visits. I’ve been variously taking part in them or hosting them for the better part of a decade. There’s a general formula to them, and while they can be stimulating and a real improvement over sitting at my laptop screen, sometimes they can be downright tedious. Courtesy visits, social obligations and awkward conversations where you try to avoid coming across as patronizing, all the while wondering whether these community groups actually want you showing up at all, and whether you’re doing anything useful in the first place.
So too you see the same old stuff. Ask the same old questions. Field the same old queries.
School buildings. Farmers’ associations. Community empowerment groups. Water management committees. Boreholes.
Not to say that some of these aren’t worthwhile interventions, that they don’t produce really positive results for communities, or to forget that they’re employed time and again because, in the right circumstances, they actually work.
Not to say also that you don’t sometimes come across something innovative and inspiring that makes you think again about the cynicism that often plagues this career after some time.
But when I was told that as part of a field trip we were visiting a school to see where we’d installed a water tank, some latrines and a couple of handwashing stations, I have to say my heart didn’t tumble in somersaults of glee. We’re going to get to drive 45 minutes along dirt trails (actually I don’t mind the driving bit, there’s stuff to look at) just to see a couple of concrete structures and some kids washing their hands. Awesome.
I’ve seen this stuff before. Ten bucks says I’ll see it again before very long.
And sure enough, we get to the school. A primary school in the middle of the bush, five hundred kids and change, milling about between classes, staring at the weird white guy and his entourage dismounting from the four-by-four to go look at a big concrete water tank.
It’s a big concrete water tank. And it’s got our logo on it.
Yup, there goes the white guy and his entourage. Looking at the water tank. Now crossing the school ground. Now going to check out the toilets.
Yeah. I don’t feel at all creepy. Checking out kids’ latrine blocks. They’ve got our logo on them too.
And look, they’re pretty nice latrine blocks. Well constructed. Our logo again. Much nicer than the old latrines. And clean inside. Doesn’t mean they don’t stink. They do stink. Pit latrines tend to stink, any way you build ‘em. And five hundred kids using a dozen dry-drop latrines, well, just be glad I can only use words to share my experience.
Outside the toilet blocks, the little portable handwashing stations. A blue plastic tub on a metal frame with a tap at the bottom. Not too different to something you’d take camping. Only the handwashing station has no water in it. It fits sixty litres, but right now it’s empty. On the ground, a damp patch where the sand has soaked up the runoff. Butterflies are flitting above the mud, sipping at the moisture like shimmering strips of windblown tin foil.
Not much use, handwashing stations with no water in them.
Not to worry, the teacher said, that was normal. It was lunch time, middle of the day. They usually run out of water by lunch time. And sure enough, along came a couple of the older girls with a jerry can filled up from the water-tank, to fill the hand-washing station back up again.
And I guess that’s when it all started to click for me.
You see, I know all this stuff. I write it in proposals, I see it reflected in purchase requisition forms, I approve the tender bids or I read about it in reports. Of course, hand washing stops disease from spreading. Sure, schools are nicer to go to when there’re decent latrines to use.
But no, really, stop and think about it for a moment. Five hundred kids, in a semi-arid, water-scarce landscape, spending eight hours of their day crammed together on this one property. That’s a lot of toilet breaks. That’s a lot of poo. That’s a lot of germs.
Maybe it’s because I’ve got a seven-year-old at primary school now. I found myself imagining her in that location. How would I feel if these were her facilities? Okay, I guess. They’re not the nicest, but they serve the purpose. They’re safe, they’re kept clean (by the kids themselves, no less), they work. Not as comfortable as the sit-down flush commodes we’re used to in Australia, for sure. It’d take some getting used to. But okay.
But how would I feel if she didn’t have these facilities? How would I feel if I was sending her off to school for the day, knowing that she had to use a dirty, stinking drop latrine or, worse, had to scurry off into the bush to go to the toilet? How would I feel if she couldn’t wash her hands when she’d finished going to the toilet- especially in a part of the world where toilet paper may not be used? And knowing that she was in that environment with five hundred other kids, all doing the same thing, none of them able to wash their hands, heading off to eat their lunch, sharing all those germs?
I’m not a germ freak. I’m not the kind of guy who has to use antiseptic wipes every time I shake someone’s hand. In fact I’m a big believer in letting kids get exposed to germs from the get-go. Build a good immune system. Don’t polish every surface in the house with disinfectant just so your child doesn’t get a sniffle, or you’re going to be buying hypoallergenic pets for the next twenty years. I believe one of the reasons I have a pretty rock-solid constitution when I travel is because my parents didn’t freak out if I put dirt in my mouth.
But we’re talking real germs here. Cholera. Escherichia Coli. Acute Watery Diarrhoea. Typhoid.
Stuff that kills kids. By the hundreds of thousands. Stuff that, in a water scarce environment, is even harder to treat and to avoid.
How would I feel sending my child into that environment?
And I figured it out. I mean, not just connected the dots in an analytical fashion. I mean, the work we’re doing here actually hit me, emotionally, in a way that meant something.
This is important.
We’re making a difference.
Something so simple: a little blue watertight container with a tap at the bottom. A few simple messages. Wash your hands. And kids can come to school without the threat of becoming infected. Parents can know that their childrens’ practical, physical needs of the most basic kind, are being met.
Health. Dignity. Simple stuff like that.
If I had to, I could send my child here and not be frightened for them.
It’s funny how you forget this stuff. Take it for granted. I guess I’m so used to seeing it in project designs, walking around villages and seeing these activities in place, they’re almost invisible now. So normal.
We take for granted the ability to turn on a tap and get clean water out of it. That doesn’t make it any less a blessing. So too I take for granted that we do things like put water tanks and latrine blocks in schools. Shrug it off.
Yawn. It’s just what we do.
Walking back down to the Land Cruisers, I was still the weird white guy with an entourage, checking out the kids as they queued up at the little blue wash stations to rinse their hands before lunch. But it made sense in a different kind of way. I was actually glad I came. Glad I came to see a concrete water tank with our logo on it, and a little blue bucket on a stand, and a bunch of kids staring at me wondering what I was doing in their school. I’ve seen it dozens of times before. But this time it actually meant something. Refreshing. Like a nice cool glass of water.
I wonder what else we’re doing every day that we’re not seeing, that’s hiding something precious.