Community development projects start here

I took this photo this morning (it’s actually a composite of ten photos). This is a village meeting with some of the residents of a cocoa growing community near Nsuta. Click to embiggen.

I’ve already blogged about a village meeting – timekeeping issues and the like. The image above acts as a kind of roll call. But it also represents something else. A well attended community meeting is one of the prerequisites for the success of a community driven development project.

We nearly left the meeting this morning before it had even started. Nicholas, as he has done before, politely gave one of the organisers ten minutes to ensure that a quorum was formed, as maybe fifteen people were waiting for us when we arrived. At least ten percent of the community must attend meetings like this; in the case of this village of around five hundred, that’s around fifty people.

These meetings are essential for several reasons.

The chief, elders, assembly man or woman, teachers and other community leaders may be present, or conspicuous by their absence. The most successful projects have been driven by strong, present community leaders; the most difficult projects haven’t.

Communities have protocols, whether they’re prayers, the shaking of hands, the statement of a mission, receiving a welcome, invoking the spirits with libation or just good old eye contact. It’s basic respect.

The meeting is to lay out, in no uncertain terms, what is expected of everyone in the community. If it’s the construction of a kindergarten or a clinic for example, it’s essential that people know they will be required to attend communal labour, usually on a weekly basis, to volunteer their time to assist in construction efforts. When work starts and masons are building latrines for example, families need to understand what is expected of them – to provide water for construction work, to find timber for the door frame of the latrine, other stuff. Families may get into arguments with masons if they expect all of this work to be done for them.

Assurances given are witnessed by everyone. Evidence suggests that there’s a shortage of trust in rural communities here – when a chief, an assembly man or anyone else promises something, there are witnesses to the promise.

People need to ask questions. I have a bad back – can I have a raised toilet seat? Can I have a porcelain bowl? Can I have mine first? What size wood for the door frame? How deep is the pit? How long will the latrine last? Can we have a clinic?

People need to tell you things. I can’t lock my sheep up together at night to stop them crapping everywhere, it just makes them easier to steal. This village has two chiefs. Two of our boreholes are broken. At a recent meeting, a drunk guy started piping up. Everyone else shouted him down but Nicholas let him say his piece. It’s important to listen to everyone in the community, including the drunk – as the drunk might just tell you something that no one else thought you needed to hear.

It sounds so obvious that it’s ridiculous, but communities need to take ownership. We’ve seen examples of communities who have had water pumps fitted, schools built, other work done, apparently without any kind of consultation, and then been left with faulty equipment and no idea who to turn to to fix it, or pumps and school buildings that don’t fully satisfy the community’s needs. When the project is complete, and after a period of monitoring and support, it is important to walk away knowing that the community can sustain its own development.

The photo above is a sign that necessary people were there, that enough of the community were there, that some of these questions were asked, protocols observed and information shared. It goes without saying that it’s no guarantee of success, but it’s a start.