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John Waters

A drop of sense in a small world


“A drop of sense in a small world”

Monday, January 8, 2007

Wells for Zoë, water for life. Zoë we’ll come to. “The other key words here – wells and water – are in Africa synonyms for life. Wells for Zoë is an Irish charity, established two years ago, to bring water to some of the poorest people in Malawi. It is one of a wave of Irish-run initiatives now transforming the relationship between the world’s richest and poorest.

I first heard of it a month ago, days after returning from making a TV documentary about the developing relationship between Ireland and Zambia through Irish Aid. That film will be screened in April, but meanwhile my head was full of impressions from my first real immersion in Africa. Like many people in the “first” world, I had hitherto met that continent’s problems with vagueness, evasions and occasional generosity, but overall regarded them as intractable and remained secretly grateful for their distance.

I returned from Zambia convinced they are neither intractable nor distant. The problems are indeed many – poverty, disease, lack of education, poor infrastructure and, always, the corruption and inefficiency that seem to make impossible any attempt to treat these problems in a systematic way. But in the communities and townships, the difficulties are more elemental. In the Zambian villages we visited, what is termed “water” is usually a most awful disease-carrying substance, between a liquid and a sludge, and everywhere people tell you that, if they had clean water, they could deal with most of their other problems themselves. The ridiculous thing is that, in many parts of Africa, the water is just a few metres under the ground, but the people lack the technologies or resources to get it up. Often all they need is a little help joining the dots of their own capacities to get started.

Something else I came away with is that Africa is not immune to changes in the wider world. New technologies – mobile phones, broadband etc – make many parts of the continent increasingly accessible to direct intervention, offering the possibility of dissolving the guilt-infested immobility of outsiders who might help if they could find a meaningful way. Hitherto, the powerlessness of the African was mirrored by the powerlessness of the European, who, other than by occasional, haphazard fits of charity, could see no role for himself. It seems unthinkable that the avoidable daily destruction of African humanity should continue while, through the spread of technology, the continent is drawn ever nearer to the developed world.

Two years ago, John Coyne and his wife Mary visited Malawi and, like others before them, were struck by the absurdity of people dying for want of something that was just a few metres under their feet. John searched around and came across a stunningly simple plastic pump that could bring water to the surface from 22 metres down. They have returned several times and have initiated a water project, Wells for Zoë, concentrating on a small number of remote areas where they have created what they hope will be lifelong relationships.

Wells for Zoë is not an aid organisation, but operates on the principle of “a hand-up not a hand-out”. You might call it a sustainable development organisation. The deal is this: the village chief must donate a piece of land for use as a village garden, and there must be equal participation by men and women. When these conditions are met, Wells for Zoë supplies pumps, tools, irrigation and farming know-how, and pays the villagers to work, to enable a community to establish a commercial organic vegetable operation with which it will eventually repay the cost of the pump and materials. The first crops are due in early March and next month Wells for Zoë will establish a micro-credit, interest-free loan scheme to enable participants to jumpstart their own initiatives. A manufacturing facility will be established in Mzuzu in April to make the pumps there at a radically reduced cost. To date, the Coynes have been using their own money but Wells for Zoë is now up and running and is open for donations, volunteers and even those looking to piggy-back on the operation with a view to establishing their own initiatives (check out Wells for Zoë operates a principle of everyone paying their own way, so all financial resources go directly into the projects.

Half a lifetime ago, John Coyne was my science teacher in school. Today, he is one of a growing band of pioneers in a newly-forged relationship between the first and third worlds, in which two forms of powerlessness are dissolving into a virtuous cycle of mutual self-mobilisation. Africa is no longer a remote problem, but one in which we in the prosperous north can intervene on a personal basis, to create partnerships based on equality and co-operation rather than charity and condescension.

Zoë was the only daughter of Richard and Sue Cansdale. Richard is the inventor of the amazing Wells for Zoë pump. Zoë died in a motorcycle accident, aged 22. Her name, too, is now a synonym for life.

© 2007 The Irish Times


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