Excellent Development's former Programmes Officer, Emma Seal, meets an inspirational woman whilst working on a sand dam in Kenya, who illustrates how her role in her community has evolved since the introduction of sand dams.

It is hot and dusty as I slowly mix sand and cement on a narrow soil ledge. A chain of women and men trails down to the sandy riverbed below as they fill bags with sand and heave them up to the cement pile I’m working on. Further down, their sand dam is beginning to take shape inside the wooden shuttering that forms the shell. This is Ngao ya Kiome self-help group’s third sand dam which they are completing this year alongside a water tank for a local primary school. Their previous two sand dams were completed in 2015 with support from the UKAID and Medicor Foundation.

"When the training came it was an empowerment. It showed us that we can also do what our husbands do."

Teresia Mwini Joan, Ngao ya Kiome self-help group member and community health worker.

The group takes a break to chat to me about their work. In total, the group has 57 members and today most of them are on site. We discuss their collaboration with Excellent Development’s in-country partners, the Africa Sand Dam Foundation (ASDF). “We’ve been trained about... proper drying of food, both for humans and livestock. We’ve been told that if they got contaminated... then that can have an effect on us as a result of infested feeds,” explains Teresia Mwini Joan, a member and community health worker.

Photo: Ngao ya Kiome self-help group’s third sand dam in mid-construction. Sand dams are the most cost-effective method of rainwater harvesting in drylands. They store up to 40 million litres of water.

Such techniques are vital to ensure longevity of harvested crops and provide families with food stores. Teresia adds, “We’ve been trained on hygiene.” As a community health worker, Teresia has access to local statistics on the impact. “We’ve experienced a drop in the number of cases (of water borne diseases). For those who have been through those trainings, both in the group and outside, they have seen a significant drop.”

Community members apply the training at home so their children learn improved hygiene too. Peter Kamuta, another member, explains that this has helped change the lives of their children: “They used to be very sick but now the sickness has stopped. They go to school more.”

The implementation of agriculture training has also clearly impacted their lives, not least in the area of gender equality. In a culture where the tradition is for decision-making and leadership to be a male role, women are seeing a change. Teresia stands to speak, “We came and we were trained, we now do it communally. Both at the sand dams and the farms, we joined hands and did the terracing together, and we did the tree holes together.” She gestures to the brightly clothed women seated around her, “When the training came it was an empowerment. It showed us that we can also do what our husbands do.”

A common trend being observed by ASDF is the attendance by non-members at trainings, and the spread of knowledge from members to other local people. I ask if this has also been the case here with Ngao ya Kiome group. “They are learning from our group. A good example is the hygiene trainings. After we go through the trainings, those who don’t have pit latrines go and excavate. They also install the hand-washing stations in their homes.” Teresia explains that she has first-hand experience of this: “My brother, he learned by seeing and developed that willingness to also have what he sees at my farm.”

Her sibling lives in South Africa and is developing a large farm. Upon visiting Teresia he has begun to implement ASDF’s terracing methods along with other farming techniques he learned from his sister. It is becoming less unusual for men to learn from women here and Teresia is clearly proud.

Before we wrap up and the group go back to work, a jeep pulls up, discharging a hearty man in a suit, followed by a group of young women dressed in khaki and green berets. It transpires that the man is Jackson Molaison, a staff member of the local Sand Conservation and Utilisation Authority. They have come to assist with construction of the sand dam. “We want to conserve the environment. We can also work manually together.” Local government assistance has been coming in many forms to such projects as the impacts of self-help group activities become clearer and reach further.

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