The Africa Sand Dam Foundation (ASDF), Excellent Development’s partner in south-eastern Kenya, has recently expanded their project area, so former Programmes Officer Emma Seal has come to meet the groups and see the result of their ongoing, hard work.

A bouncing, singing mass of Kamba women and men surround the jeep as we pull up at a recently completed sand dam in Mwingi, Kitui county in Kenya. Bright, patterned clothes and headscarves swathe the proffered hands and grinning faces. Everyone is dancing, and with awkward and clumsy moves we join in as directed.

Wendo wa Matoki self-help group was formed in 2013 in response to government devolution processes, leading to county government initiatives springing up for community groups. The region is one of the driest in the country, with the small rainfall that does come being washed away with any fertile soil.

"It (the shallow well) is a source of income for us. Before, when we had issues that needed financial intervention, we had to get money from our own pockets. But now we can get money from there."

Ana Munyoki, Wendo wa Matoki self-help group member.

We are ushered to sit under the shade of broad acacia tree, and the group members join us. Water has been a problem here for decades, but recent years have been close to impossible, with the only water source located 10km away. Group member Japheth Mwangangi stands and gestures to himself. “I am 73. Even at my age, because of the problem of water that we faced, we had to wake up at 3am to fetch water. You can see the faces of our women shining this much now, but if you came during that time, you could not have known the difference between a young and old lady because of the sleeplessness on their faces.”

Another member stands from amongst the crowd, Eliza Makasi Peter. “One night, I woke up at 3am and when I got to the river I found a man who was already in the queue. He had slept across the entrance of the scoop hole with all of his jerry cans... So, I started fetching water while he was asleep.” She grins, and peals of laughter echo around the group as she speaks. “I had eight jerry cans. After fetching the first four, I loaded them onto a donkey and sent them home with my boys and I continued filling the other four. The man woke up when he heard the donkey coming for the second trip.”

“When he woke up he asked me, ‘Have you fetched all the water?!’ My response was, "You are not coming here to fetch water, you have come to sleep. Those who come to collect water have already fetched!” As she finishes, everybody breaks down in mirth. Disputes over water were once common amongst community members and it is not surprising. Exhausted from sleep deprivation and a 10km journey, people struggled to balance usage of the limited water. After forming the group and gaining local government support, they approached ASDF for support to build a sand dam.

Self-help groups are provided with expertise and core materials, such as cement, but communities contribute by providing stones, water and sand for the construction. “That time we faced another challenge.” Explains Rebecca, “If you look around you cannot find a single stone.” The group’s only course of action was to approach landowners nearby who had stones on their property.

Wendo wa Matoki self-help group standing on their finished sand dam.

“There was a rumour going around that we were getting money to buy the stones from them, but we were getting them for free, so it was like we were pocketing the money in the process.” Such rumours often start in communities which have grown accustomed to cash-for-work schemes run by NGOs in the area. “When the worst came to the worst, we started contributing money from the group so we could pay the owners to grant us access to collect stones.” Having overcome challenge number one, the group was faced with a second. “There was no water here.” Group members had to give up more time and resources, some contributing their donkeys to the effort, and walking 20km kilometres to bring back water. “We did it in shifts. If one member volunteered to use their donkey today, they would rest the next day and another member would take on the task.”

Construction was long and arduous, taking the group which contains a majority of women, a month to complete. Prior to this, they began digging for a shallow well behind the sand dam. But again they were presented with challenges. “In the process of digging, the rains came and the shallow well collapsed.” Rebecca frowns in the sun and the group is silent, remembering their painstaking efforts being washed away. Although they continued on, the group was struggling under the weight of successive barriers on top of their everyday struggles. However, ASDF understood and arranged a visit to Kee self-help group in a nearby county. Rebecca resumes, “Before we went for that exchange, we were often told about the benefits of sand dams, but we could not comprehend everything that we heard.” They visited the group, witnessed their sand dams, and were shown the huge changes they had made to the community. Ana Munyoki, a group member, explains, “When we went there we could not tell whether it was a dry or a rainy season because it was so green.” Filled with enthusiasm the group returned and tripled their efforts. “We have to stand out from the rest who are not members, because they were laughing at us during construction and telling us that we were doing a lot of work for nothing.”

By December 2016 they had completed the sand dam (built with the support of Rotary Clubs in Great Britain and Ireland) and shallow well. “One day, overnight, it rained and we called each other from all the villages. We were very, very happy to see water here.”As we have been chatting under the tree, I can see the shallow well in the distance with gaggles of women chatting and laughing as they pump clear water into jerry cans. They come and go, queuing for a few minutes before disappearing off to their homes. “The plan is now to plant vegetables here, as well as to build another sand dam this year and construct two school water tanks.”

Japheth, one of the only men amongst a sea of women, motions for a moment to speak. “The remaining distance that we have to walk together as a group will now not defeat us because we have already done the hardest bit and we will continue.”

We ask about other changes since the sand dam for local people and Ana Munyoki chips in with a grin. “Now I sleep up until 6am. I have sufficient water for the household. We now have more time to spend with our husbands, our families.” Vigorous head bobbing spreads around the group. Women shoulder the burden of water collection in these areas so they feel the changes deeply.

The shallow well, now successfully providing water, has also helped relieve social burdens. “It is a source of income for us. Before, when we had issues that needed financial intervention, we had to get money from our own pockets. But now we can get money from there.” In such poverty stricken areas, people have grown accustomed to sacrificing their own income for others in need. “One of the local community members has been hospitalised and his family asked for assistance.” Previously the members would have found what few shillings they could from their own pockets to help, but now, “we decided to borrow 500 shillings from the proceeds of water sales to help out.”

Wendo wa Matoki self-help group is not unique in the huge challenges they have had to overcome. However, as a group in a new region for ASDF, they are faced with becoming the example for others to follow.

Could you donate today and supply more communities with the tools, hardware, support and guidance they need to build a sand dam, providing themselves with a lifelong supply of water?

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