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Finding a well of goodwill – Wells for Zoë
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John Waters

Finding a well of goodwill


“Finding a well of goodwill”

Friday, April 27, 2007


John Coyne is showing African communities how to build water systems, and he’s helping to reinvent Western ideas of philanthropy in the process.

John Waters reports from Malawi.


The new well at M’Bama is contaminated, the women say. There is a strong smell that developed in December soon after John Coyne and his people from Wells for Zoë left, having helped the villagers to build the well. John thinks it might be sulphur from the rock in which the well is set, about six metres down, or perhaps stray sewage from the latrines in the cluster of houses above. The water looks clear, but it stinks right enough. The smell is usually gone by the time they get home, the villagers say, and they always boil the water or use it only for washing clothes.

They still use the well, because it’s easier to access than the old one, which is down a steep hill about 100 yards further away from the houses.

The old well was a mess last year before Wells for Zoë, an Irish humanitarian organisation dedicated to providing safe drinking water and water storage for irrigation in remote rural areas of Malawi, carried out a “spring protection” exercise at the village, near Mzuzu, to make it safer and cleaner. It was foul, mosquito-ridden, the grey sludge that in Africa is called “water”. But they shored it up and put in a pipe. Before, you had to be there early in the morning to get clean water. Now, it is clean all the time.

To western eyes, getting the water up to the houses seems impossible, but Teresa and Jean fill their buckets to the brim and carry them up the hill on their heads, maybe 12kg apiece, walking straight as dies, chatting as they come up.

About seven kilometres up the road is Zambia village, a cluster of houses, with about 15 families, the site of one of Wells for Zoë’s earliest projects. John Coyne first came here in 2005 and encountered a community barely subsisting on a handful of crops – tomatoes, what they call “Irish potatoes” (as opposed to sweet potatoes), cabbage, beans, kasava, rape, and the ubiquitous maize. Maize was introduced by the British and is prone to failure. The village is in a fertile valley with a river running through, but the water simply passed by, bestowing little benefit on the community. Zambia is a cluster of huts poised above what in April, towards the end of the rainy season, is a verdant paradise; the first time John came here he was astonished to find the best-looking crop of maize he had seen in Africa.

The villagers were using a borrowed diesel pump to irrigate the crop. But then Coyne pointed out to them that it was costing them more to run the pump than they were getting for their crops. Loveness, one of the women, issued him a challenge: “If you’re so clever, show us another way.” He said he would help them build a dam. His concept of dam-building was largely based on his experience of working in the bogs of west Roscommon, 50 years ago. But last year they succeeded in building half a dam, mainly from rocks, mud, sand and a little cement.

He was apprehensive, he says, about coming back, because he feared for how the dam might have fared in the rainy season. He was greatly relieved to find it intact. This year he plans to finish it, and then he will bring people from other villages to see how it works.

Coyne comes from a small farm in Fort Augustus, near Ballinlough, Co Roscommon. As a young man he worked as a teacher of science and maths, later qualified as an architect and, having worked with his builder father from childhood, became a builder-developer after moving to Dublin. Wells for Zoë makes use of his full range of experience and talents. He and his wife Mary first came here in 2005, to observe the work of the St John of God (SJOG) brothers, who, under the guidance of Brother Aidan, have in the past decade created a remarkable operation in Mzuzu directed at improving the mental health of the community.

There is the House of Hospitality, in which people with acute psychiatric conditions are welcomed and treated in accordance with the guiding ideas of St John; there is a training hospital; and a scheme to help street children, a growing phenomenon in Malawi, as elsewhere in Africa.

Brother Aidan’s overall emphasis is on prevention, on the elimination of stress and anxiety in the community, and this broadens the SJOG’s embrace to virtually every need of the community.

Two years ago, when John and Mary first visited Malawi, they were struck by the absurdity of people dying for want of something that was just a few metres under their feet. “It’s extraordinary when you watch the rain coming down here,” he says. “There’s more than enough to keep them going all year round, but hardly a drop of it is stored.” On returning home, John tracked down a simple plastic pump that could bring water to the surface from about 20 metres down. When the Coynes come here, about four times a year, Mary, also an ex-teacher, teaches the children in the special-needs class in the remarkable SJOG centre in Mzuzu, while John goes out to the villages identified by SJOG as in need of his particular kind of help.

In Africa, he finds, again and again, little bits of know-how and experience come back to him in his search for solutions for a people whose core problems centre on knowledge and technology. “I wasn’t even a good farmer,” he says, to the delight of the villagers. “I escaped from the small farm.” But now he finds that his remote recollections of how things were done back on the farm at home can come in useful.

The people here have forgotten things they once had in their bones.

The teaching experience is also proving handy. At one point he takes a stick and draws a diagram in the dust to show Benedicto how to build an A-frame level. “My mathematics are coming back to me,” he says.

He talks to the locals about crop rotation, composting, pest control, inter-cropping and irrigation. John persuaded the people of Zambia village to diversify into carrots, peppers, mustard, mangetout and lettuce. This year he proposes introducing soya, to feed chickens, which will provide manure for the crops. He sees no reason why they can’t grow the soya between the rows of maize to keep down the weeds. The farmers are disappointed because some of their new crops have not done well. The mangetout have gone to seed because they didn’t know mangetout have to be cooked whole. They were waiting for the beans to sprout. That’s okay, says Coyne, they need the seeds anyway. He tells them how to cook them and they pick a bowlful for their dinner.

The maize has done particularly badly, because government-sponsored fertiliser coupons didn’t come in time for the farmers to buy fertiliser. With coupons, the fertiliser costs 950 kwachas (about €5), but five times that without them. Nobody can afford fertiliser without coupons, and growing maize without fertiliser is not worth the trouble.

Coyne assures them that error is part of creating successful crops. They must learn from experience. Here in Zambia village, he established a system whereby Wells for Zoë employed six of the local people to tend the garden, in return for 170 kwachas a day, roughly €1, about the average daily pay for labouring work in Malawi. He lent them money to get started and they pay him back when they can on an interest-free basis. He regards hand-outs as among the chief obstacles to an African recovery. “There are two great problems in Africa,” he says. “One is called Aids, the other is called aid.” Aid creates dependency, which results in learned helplessness. Wells for Zoë is not an aid organisation, but a sustainable-development organisation.

In the next year, John intends to establish a factory in Mzuzu to manufacture pumps, and also a house to accommodate volunteers wishing to contribute their expertise or labour. To date, the Coynes have been using their own money but Wells for Zoë is now open for donations, volunteers or anyone with an idea for a scheme of their own who wishes to piggy-back on the operation, just as the Coynes piggy-backed on SJOG .

In the nearby village of Elamuleni, it turns out, the well they put in last year, their very first project, dried up for a couple of weeks in December – it wasn’t deep enough. Rather than reopening it, John decides, they should shore up the old well. He proposes creating a model garden, so others can learn from it. For this he needs to find a suitable piece of ground, 20 by 20 metres. “You can grow more food in a 20 by 20 plot than you have in the whole of your lands here,” he tells the people in Elamuleni. “You can grow more and better crops, make more money, be healthier. You will think: didn’t we do wonderful things? And I will be gone and you will forget that I ever came. And that is exactly what I want.” They lead him around possible sites. He is drawn to a very wet piece of ground. The water, from a spring, is dispersed through the nearby land, turning it into a swamp. John thinks a levee will shore it up sufficiently to dry the land out and hold enough water to irrigate the garden all year round.

The village headman owns the land, and is afraid of losing some of it. In Malawi, virtually all the land belongs to the village headmen or chiefs, who rule over groups of villages. Most people have little or no land, which means young people have no incentive to remain in the village. The district adviser, a smart young woman with a good way about her, asks questions. How high will the levee be? How do they stop the water escaping underneath? John answers: it will be as high as herself and by digging down and putting in a solid base, possibly with concrete, they will hold the water in. She nods. They will all have to have a meeting, she says. They have to have meetings about everything. In the end, everyone, including the headman, signs up.

In a village in Sonda, on the other side of Mzuzu, the village headman, Mahoney, is breaking stones. He shows us around. There is a good well with plenty of water, though it could do with cleaning up.

Mahoney has several acres of land, with plenty of water. John ferrets around, trying to figure out where the water is coming from. There is a spring over here, says John, but you are letting it escape. He shows Mahoney that there is already a natural dam, a huge bank running between two sections of his land, but the water is leaking through a channel underneath. They will have to dig down and find the leak, shore it up and create a pool. Then he’ll have water all year round and he can have fish if he wants.

John offers to provide the cement and help create the pool. In return, he wants a plot of land so some of the villagers, probably women or young people, can set up a model garden. Again, the headman is reluctant to give up land. He wonders about “capital”. John tells him that there is a micro-credit scheme to enable the villagers to start a garden, but he prefers to lend to women, as they’re more likely to pay the money back. The headman lapses into silence, thinking hard. He shakes his head. John tells him to think it over, he will come back another day.

As we’re about to leave, Mahoney comes up with a suggestion: the group village headman, Chief Unyolo, may be willing to give a piece of land a little distance away. He offers to take us and we pick up the chief on the way. The land is swampy, uncultivated, but there is a stream running through it. John is delighted because now he can involve several villages. Chief Unyolo is delighted and immediately agrees to John’s proposals. Can John bring hoes? “I can bring hoes if you can bring handles,” says John. They will start on Monday.

The African personailty (this is a generalisation) does not appear to be angry about what has happened to Africa. It seems to regard the colonial relationship as inevitable and natural. Malawians talk about the relationship between themselves and their employers and benefactors almost as a child-parent relationship. Their employer is their “father” who looks after them, solves their problems, gives them “loans” and in effect takes charge of them. In these relationships they often seem to sacrifice what we would think of as dignity, replicating the colonial conditions many years after independence, as though by choice.

Of course, there is no choice. Though nominally free, Africa remains under the Western thumb, mainly through the benign tyranny of aid. The Western view of Africa continues to be defined by Western needs. They have something that we need. Once it was copper or diamonds, now it is victimhood. They offer us an opportunity to feel good. We feel good by giving them a little, but that little is both so little (for us) and so significant (for them) that it risks becoming a habit for both sides. One consequence of this unhealthy relationship is that the people appear to lack the capacity to project themselves forward by means of concepts or visions. Their thought patterns remain present-centred: enough to eat today, my problems solved for now. There is widespread dishonesty and corruption, not just at the governmental level. These symptoms are fatal to any hope of creating a long-term viable future and literally fatal to many Africans who, because they lack hope that things can change greatly, perpetuate a culture that in many ways is destroying them.

Hitherto, the powerlessness of the African was mirrored by the powerlessness of the ordinary Westerner, who, other than by occasional, haphazard fits of charity, did not know what to do. Now, new technologies – mobile phones, broadband, cheaper air travel – make many parts of Africa accessible to direct intervention. Africa is not a desert, nor is it any longer a remote problem.

The Coynes are among a growing band of pioneers reinventing Western philanthropy to create a new relationship between the first and third worlds. In the past few years, many Irish people have started travelling to Africa in the same spirit as the Coynes: eye-surgeons doing cataract operations, ordinary people building houses or doing a stint of voluntary teaching. The idea is that, as human beings, we can move beyond merely throwing money around as a way of quieting our consciences. We can offer concrete help, based on our own experience of recovery from want, to provide the initial stepping-stones to take these people to a better place. We can put ourselves out a little.

But the transformation of Africa, as opposed to the containment of the problem, requires a change of emphasis, away from traditional forms of aid to a kind of booster-rocket approach that intends, ultimately, to burn out. “The test of success in this,” says John Coyne, “is not if they do what you tell them, but if they use you as a way of learning how to do things for themselves.”

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