An aid workers impressions as she travels the world building toilets.
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April 17, 2012

A little awesomeness

I enjoy participating in “blog-action campaigns”. They are for causes I believe in (like good science and good aid) and they give me motivation to tell a quick story. 

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This year some of my favourite aid bloggers are organising the second annual “Day without Dignity” campaign aimed at highlighting the dignity of people aid is trying to help. The theme this year is Local Champions and you should check out the call to arms and the other contributions, which are generally more awesome than my own. 

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Sometimes I joke that I measure the awesomeness of a project by the number of sacks of cement that were used, but in all seriousness the awesomeness of most water and sanitation projects is derived from the local masons. Masons are the dudes who mix up the cement, who slap it around on broken trowels to build up foundations and to build down wells. But they do a lot more than play with cement.

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Meet Joseph. He’s a mason. He’s organized. He’s short and he smiles a lot. He likes meeting new people. He’s also a beneficiary of aid: he’s been labelled an “internally displaced person” and lives in a crowded camp in a crappy tent. When I met him I worked for an NGO building toilets, showers, and such things in his camp in Kenya. 

He is what made our project awesome. 

He helped us with our toilets: made sure we built enough, made sure they were easy to build, and made sure people would use them.  He helped us with the shower grease traps. He helped us find more good masons. 

But he did more than just build stuff and play with cement.

He initiated a successful system whereby any of the IDPs could borrow the NGO tools if they needed them for work they wanted to do on their own plot.

He got involved in health promotion activities and trained others.

He started his own NGO or masons cooperative to help with building up the resettlement areas, especially championing the importance of sanitation.
For months after our project was finished he called me to tell me about what he was doing and it was always awesome. 

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Meet Nur. He’s a mason. He’s also short, and more rotund than Joseph. He has a round face and wares a beanie. He doesn’t speak much English and I don’t speak any Somali, but we liked each other. I met him in Mandera in Northeastern Kenya and I got to know him over several years.
Telling you about Nur and how he made the projects awesome is harder than for Joseph because he was subtle. I had great affection for Nur because he treated me as technically competent in a world where the engineering advice of a young white woman was not always welcomed by teams of old black men (understandably). When he needed to talk to me he would sit with someone who could write in English and write me a letter, then he would come to my office and deliver the letter to me by his own hand. He continued to write me letters even when I was based in Nairobi.

He started as a daily worker mason, but soon it was clear that he was a quiet leader, that he was technically competent and smart, and that he was honest. He was soon running several sites, keeping track of materials consumption, and basically doing more than his share of work and sometimes doing it better than his superiors. Needless to say, as our team grew over the years he was hired as the only full time mason position.

He was what made our projects awesome. 

He improved the well and tank designs. He taught other masons how to improve their works. 

He trained lay community members on hygiene, maintenance, and use of their water supply. 

He helped ensure that the community feedback was incorporated into the project properly by interpreting it (not the language, but the ideas, which is harder than it sounds).

He was a community leader himself. 

He was awesome and he made our programs awesome. 

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Water and sanitation projects generally build things, which is part of why I love my job. I get dirty. I stick together piles of rock and sand with water and cement powder – but really I don’t. 

I don’t build anything. 

The masons do. 

They build everything. 

They also build the community and are often the key to how sustainable a project is. 

And they’re awesome.


  1. Amazing post and very interesting stuff you got here! I definitely learned a lot from reading through some of your earlier posts as well and decided to drop a comment on this one!

  2. Thanks! Keep conf back. I am trying to be more regular in writing - but failing. Your comment has motivated me! New post a coming !

  3. I meant keep coming back... Tiny keyboards.