A foundational assumption to our borehole repair and drilling program is that groundwater from a borehole is healthier and safer than water from a spring. Any hydrogeologist as or humanitarian worker in the WASH (water, sanitation, and health) sector is taught that the ground surface, and clays in particular, protect against the infiltration of animal and human waste into groundwater, and that the earth acts as a filter, removing toxic contaminants along the groundwater flow path, including dangerous bacteria.
But is this really true? Is that crystal clear African stream less safe than that rusty old hand pump where cows, goats, and chickens are gathered? Is that spring flowing from a hillside actually more of a threat to human health than a handpump where women are collecting water, washing clothes, and cleaning pots?
In the past, I always simply accepted that in rural Africa, groundwater is good, surface water is bad. After almost every talk I have given, the question is raised “did you test for bacteria”? My answer is always a “no.” No incubator. No electricity. Difficult to transport chemicals. Unreasonably strict hygiene requirements for handling samples in the field. It simply was not possible.
In this Uganda campaign, though, largely at the urging of IsraAID's Selda Edris and BGC’s geochemist Kate Robey, we used a relatively new test kit developed by Aquagenx that requires no incubation, no electricity, no difficult-to-transport chemicals, and is relatively simple to implement. At each handpump repair site, including a few of our repair sites from our 2018 Geoscientists Without Borders program, we have tested the water for E. coli.
Meanwhile, at all of the exploration sites where villages lack a water well and are reliant entirely on springs or rivers, I have collected surface water samples also for E. coli testing. I always do this myself as I get the chance to see the area beyond the immediate village, I can pick up a bit of Acholi language from the parade of villagers that always accompany me, and I get a better sense of the level of effort people expend to gather water when they have no village handpump.
The results and conclusions have been clear and consistent. Of the 11 handpumps we sampled for E. Coli, all were within safe limits of between 0 and 4 CFU (Colony Forming Units). This even included 2 handpumps we installed in 2018 and 2 we repaired in 2018.
In comparison, I sampled 9 springs, each of which was serving as the main water source for a community. All of the springs had high to extremely high CFU counts, with 4 of the springs having counts greater than 100 CFU. Most of these water spring-dependent communities complained of diarrhea, typhoid, and cholera.
As bucolic and sleepy as bacteria counting, water spring sampling, and geophysical surveys may seem, field work has its moments. Yesterday, near the village of Agikanyi, hunters set fire to the forest to drive out the small mammals. The forest erupted into multiple walls of flames towering above the trees, first moving away from our survey and sampling area, and then, with a shift in the wind, moving directly toward the village spring, our crew, and the village.
I was watching the smoke, sitting in the village drinking tea and eating my first Acholi donut of the morning while contemplating my second. I was listening to the somewhat panicky chatter on the radio about the flames jumping the valley – but people can run. But I then heard that the flames were within 20 m of the cables, and I was running as fast as I could downhill, donut in one hand and camera in the other. Cables cannot run, and can only be pulled.
A photo of the normally unshakeable Serena showing a bit of concern is posted.
How polite and patient are the famously warrior-like Acholi people? We have divided ourselves into two groups, an exploration crew and a well repair crew. Yesterday morning I was working with the exploration crew in the Acholi village of Teolam. When we run our cables across a walking path or clay track, we trench a very narrow slit in which we drop the cable, and then cover the micro-trench with clay or sand. A massive charcoal-laden lorry or a stampeding herd of ankole cattle could pass over this without damaging the cable.
Yesterday, a man on a motor bike stopped at the cable, graciously asking to pass. His very pregnant wife, on the back, was in labor, and they were rushing to the health clinic. Randy Shinduke and Christy Rouault did not think long, and let them pass.
Personally, I would have asked them to pose for a photo first, but I was sampling Teolam’s existing water source, a 300 m distant spring. There are no better words to describe the spring than filthy and dangerous. Sure, one could be a bit more science-like and call it turbid with a high e-coli count. The unprotected spring is about 6 m X 6 m. Not so much a spring as a seep dug out from the side of the Gulu-to-Kitgum highway. There is essentially no flow, and the water is opaque. Women and children cross the highway in the pre-dawn hours to take water before the animals drink, though this sequencing is likely irrelevant to their health. The villagers are fully aware that they suffer from periodic typhoid and cholera outbreaks, and chronic diarrhea. Teolam certainly needs a water well.
Meanwhile, 2 km away, at the village of Latyeng where the well repair crew was working, there was a party going on – a mega, African bull elephant-sized festivity – something akin to what Moses likely saw when he descended from Mount Sinai and the ancient Israelites were regaling around the Golden Calf.
When I arrived in Latyeng in the early afternoon, the Acholi village women and the Acholi women on our well repair crew were celebrating the repair of their well. I must acknowledge that Tara Coultish, Kate Robey, and Linda Harrison on the well repair team held their own, while Landon Woods threw his lot in with the masterful Acholi drummers.
A filing cabinet-sized speaker and a car battery had been hauled from I don’t know where. Acholi music was blasting with songs about jealous second wives, the strength and beauty of Acholi women, the longing of Acholi men returning from war, and certainly much more than was translated for me.
Chickens were being butchered. Food was being cooked and eaten.
The science was still going on – isotope sampling, water chemistry, field iron analyses, bacteria sampling – but no one except a few Wazungu (Swahili for white people) seemed to care much as the people of Latyeng were now, at least for the foreseeable future, free from relying on their own highly contaminated, unprotected spring as a water source.
We replaced the mongrel mix of cracked PVC and galvanized iron components with more expensive but far longer lasting stainless steel hand pump parts. And as the dancing raged on, the 20 liter jerry cans continued to line up faster than they could be filled until there was a line of more than 60 containers waiting for water.
After waiting out two years of Covid-19 and then an outbreak of the Sudan Ebola virus, 5 colleagues (Landon Woods, Randy Shinduke, Tara Coultish, Christy Rouault, Kate Robey), an astrophysics student (Arnaud Michel), another one of those Invermere B.C. photographers (Linda Harrison), and Paul Bauman are back in Northern Uganda 20 days after the country was declared Ebola free. And while the White Nile offered a physical barrier and some protection for Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army (the LRA), from Ugandan forces to the south, the singular passage across the Karuma Bridge likely helped safeguard Northern Uganda from any Ebola cases.
We are once again funded by the Society of Exploration Geophysicists' humanitarian foundation Geoscientists Without Borders, along with generous support from our company BGC Engineering and its humanitarian foundation BGC Squared, a grant from the Kingston-North Kitsap Rotary Club, and a very generous equipment donation from Guideline Geo AB. Our partner here is, once again, the now not-so-small Israeli NGO IsraAID.
IsraAID has been providing our on-the-ground logistical support and, most importantly, the community engagement. In particular, IsraAID was tasked with identifying at least 10 Acholi villages, schools, or health clinics highly dependent on water wells that are no longer functioning, and 10 villages, schools, or health clinics with no reasonable access to a safe source of drinking water.
The fatigue of moving 50 pieces of luggage across the globe, going from -20 C to +35 C, and trying to accomplish something significant within our first few days has been exhausting. It is all just a warm-up, though, as in two weeks our plan is to be carrying out a water exploration program in a far more challenging and desperate area, near-famine conditions Kakuma and Turkana County.
Who am I to contradict that giant of Jewish legal experts and philosophers, Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon, or Maimonides of the 12th Century? Well, I think his eight levels of righteousness through giving has to be turned on its head for the 21st Century. Maimonides said that the penultimate act of giving is anonymously to a recipient who does not know the donor – and donor can mean money, food, services, an act of kindness, teaching a skill, etc. Well, this is what most of us do, at least some of the time. You pick a charity that fits your values, type in your credit card number, and hope that the Red Cross builds a shelter for someone deserving in Haiti, UNICEF provides 17.6 children suffering from famine in Chad with 22.8 meals, or Oxfam drills a water well in the Turkana.
Yesterday, returning to the airport in Entebbe, Resty of IsraAID (as well as the volunteer Chairman of the Board and one of the founders of Little Light), asked the driver to drop me off at the Little Light Children’s Center in the Numowongo slum in Kampala for a few hours. Numowongo is one of the two sister slums of Katwe (yes, as in the already critically acclaimed, just released Disney film “The Queen of Katwe”). Resty had arranged for Godfrey, the director, to escort me to the home of Elizabeth, a 7 year old slum dweller girl, whom our family supported last year in school. The cost of support is pathetically small, and I was certainly plenty pleased with myself to chalk one up for charity without having to walk across the slum or Elizabeth having to meet me. In fact, I was much more looking forward to having a cappuccino on one of the beaches near Entebbe, or doing a little gift shopping in the Oweino Market in Kampala, but I was too embarrassed to tell Resty that.
Suffice it to say that walking along the abandoned railroad track, across the mountain of refuse to Elizabeth’s home was infinitely more powerful than pressing return on the keyboard. People often ask me to recommend NGOs for donations. Generally, I say small is better than big, but beyond that I am always hesitant as I see it as completely a personal choice reflecting personal values and resources. Nevertheless, riding the wave of Phiona Mutesi and “the Queen of Katwe” (who unfortunately truly is one in a million), having met most of the staff (most or all of whom live in the Numowongo slum) and students and board members of Little Light, having been there twice, and having met a few of the beneficiaries at their homes….you certainly can be confident that any donation to Little Light Uganda http://www.littlelight.ngo/ is massively needed and will be well used.
Over the last few days I have learned to always carry a sharp knife with me in Acholi land. The students, one or two of the IsraAID staff, and myself have been traveling well outside Gulu town, from village to schools to small family compounds, siting wells. And wherever we go, especially the small family settlements, we are offered guava, oranges, jack fruit, papaya, or cassava. Thumbs up for the first four, but the uncooked cassava to me tastes like what it is, a woody root. And with typhoid especially common lately, I am always insistent on peeling and cutting my own fruit. If it was a couple months later, it would be mangoes galore on offer. I have only encountered generosity wherever we have traveled in the Gulu District.
Wednesday, we traveled through an area where several of the students indicated there had been a large number of camps. I pressed them a bit to get a better sense of what the Camps were like, as I still had scant idea of whether they were tents or barracks or Kakuma-like shoulder high mud brick walls with tin roofs. And where someone would point to an area of tall grass or maize and say that there, in 2005, were 10,000 people, I would see only vegetation.
The common narrative seems to be that when the NRM (National Resistance Movement, the ruling political party of Museveni since 1986…..and no, there being no real opposition here the name is not fitting) could not effectively defeat Joseph Kony and the LRA (generally understood to be a few hundred field commanders and a few thousand child soldiers), Museveni coerced 90+% of the Acholi population into the “Camps”. The UPDF (Ugandan People’s Defense Force) claimed the only way to effectively defend the people was to move them into centralized IDP camps where they could be protected, and in this way the countryside would be more conveniently transformed into a battlefield where Kony and his army could be starved out and quickly defeated. Most Acholi would say that Museveni used the LRA as an excuse to destroy their villages, culture, and economy.
Kony was never caught or defeated. Beginning in 1996, 1.7 million people were moved into the camps. The camps were poorly protected. The actual houses were hastily built versions of the typical circular, mud plastered, thatched Acholi houses….except, over an area where typically a village might have 50 houses widely spaced, in a Camp might stand 1000 houses spaced one next to the other. Food and water were scarce, and work even more so. Alcoholism, sexual violence, child abuse, and all the other problems that occur in IDP camps exploded. Not only was the UPDF of little use in protecting the IDPs, but UPDF soldiers returning from interventions in the Congo brought with them HIV and Ebola. Malaria, cholera, and other diseases were epidemic. The IDP Camps in the Gulu area had one of the highest mortality rates in the world. Beginning in 2005, people started to gradually return to their villages. As camps were vacated, the mud brick walls were toppled, and melted back into the African red clay landscape.
Being here in Uganda with IsraAID, I of course have to send my friends and family New Year's greetings full of health, happiness, and peace. I collided with the Holocaust/Uganda connection again a few nights ago. I had a Tusker (I prefer the Ugandan Nile Specials over the Kenyan beer, but the Tusker was colder) with a Ph.D. candidate from Warsaw, Camilla, who has been here in Acholi Land over the last 6 years. She is exploring the process of reconciliation here in Acholi Land following the 24 years of low grade war during the Joseph Kony and Lord's Resistance Army period. Interestingly, she is comparing the process of reconciliation here in Acholi Land to Poland under the Communists, if I understood correctly. It could have just as easily been a comparison of the Holocaust period had her research occurred 40 or 50 or 60 years earlier when there were more survivors, and I certainly do not yet know her conclusions. But the contrast is striking... in the West, we generally pursue reconciliation through justice and education. Here in Uganda, where there are no memorials to the Idi Amin or Joseph Kony victims, and where very few people will openly or even in confidence speak to me about their personal experiences, the path to reconciliation seems to be forgiveness, or at least forgetting.
Geophysics provides no answers to these complex questions. But what I do know, is that when I am out for a long run in the desert in Turkana or through the bush in Acholi Land, and I suddenly burst into a Turkana family compound or surprise Acholi farmers at work with machetes in their fields, and their immediate expression is that of suspicion, invariably a few words of greeting, Ejoka in Turkana or Itye maber in Acholi, will set off the widest grin imaginable. Of course my poor pronunciation may be part of the source of amusement. But I prefer to think that using a few words of the local language immediately demonstrates an effort to identify with the local community, and to show some respect for people that certainly deserve it. And what more could anyone want from a stranger.
The primary purpose of our efforts here in Gulu is to provide the training for marginalized youths who spent much or even most of their lives in the IDP camps created during the Joseph Kony and LRA violence of 1986 to 2009. Our objective is not to find water or repair hand pumps, but to train the students to do so. Being practical in nature, though, the training involves field surveys and field repairs. Myself and my 3 IsraAID colleagues do not choose the sites, as it is up to the students to identify the village (usually their own), identify the problem (broken pump, additional well needed, etc.), organize or identify the community contribution (labor, cash, food, etc.), and direct us to the location (always an adventure!).
Things do not always go as planned. On Tuesday, one of the students, Kagwar, took us on a long drive to a small village in the Omoro District, south of Gulu. Other than the handle having been removed (i.e., likely stolen), the hand pump worked fine, and was located a mere 15 m from a crystal clear alternative water source flowing from a carefully constructed and protected boxed in spring. Before we could become too irritated, though, he said there was another broken pump nearby.
Abili village, in fact, was not so near, but the pump was definitely broken, and the area was certainly high need- 50 households depended on the well, and the only alternative water source was a cloudy puddle that seeped out of a clay wall. The well had been drilled in 2005 or so while almost the entire village had been interned in a nearby IDP camp with thousands of Acholi. The well had not functioned since 2008.
The history of the site was given to us by a very articulate and gracious woman, Joyce, who lived only 50 m or so from the well. Besides the history of the well, she voluntarily told us her own story including 12 children, a widow from HIV, kids lost to HIV, and the challenges of raising a family while living with HIV. The reality, though, is that even in small, impoverished villages, those who acknowledge and directly address HIV can receive drugs, health care, and carry on.
The site was well suited for a geophysical survey. The need for a functioning well was there. And the pump assembly was a mess, with pipe lost in the hole, the downhole pump cylinder needing to be fished, the chain that connects the handle to the pump rods missing, etc. It was a disaster, exactly what the students need to see. Unfortunately, the missing piece was that the village pump maintenance committee had no money, and was completely unprepared to make any contribution of any kind. 3 riser pipes, a pump handle, 3 rods (that connect the handle to the piston in the downhole cylinder), a cylinder (the downhole assembly of pistons and valves that pushes the water to surface)...it all adds up to about 650,000 Uganda Shillings or $200 or so.
Fortunately for me, I just find the water. It is these community mobilization efforts that are completely unfathomable, as well as stressful. Resty, the IsraAID Ugandan field coordinator, did all the negotiations with the LC1 (the community leader), and she is no pushover at all. But given we were there, and the story of the village and what we could see with our own eyes, she decided to carry on. Not an easy decision, but probably the only one. The class had carried out two geophysical surveys on their own, repaired the pump, and shock chlorinated the well before we returned to town. Though Resty and I felt a bit duped, the class was buzzed from a job well done, and we certainly could not have simply walked away from such a wretched situation.
On Wednesday, September 28, we spent the morning in the classroom, or rather a large tent. The Acholi pump mechanic and driller spoke to the class about the business aspects of pump repair and drilling, specifically, preparing Bills of Quantities. If you ever wanted to know how to say “6-inch slotted, thick walled PVC well casing” in Acholi, or to know the cost of galvanized pipe in Kampala versus Gulu, this was not a talk to be missed!
I went over the results and interpretations of our geophysical surveys to date. The technique of 1D resistivity soundings was developed in 1916 by Frank Wenner at the United States Geological Survey, and I may have a Nile Special beer tonight to celebrate the centennial anniversary. Though the method has become somewhat obsolete over the last 20 years in much of the world, it is actually remarkably effective in Northern Uganda for identifying aquifers. And unfortunately, I am old enough to have used and taught the technique extensively.
In the afternoon, we carried out surveys and hand pump repair at the nearby main campus of the University of Gulu, which in fact is short of water. I was grateful to have a day without a long, bone jarring drive to another remote location.
But on Thursday, one of our students guided us to his distant village of Oboo, in what I was told is the “famous” Lamogi County. We headed north on the road to Juba in South Sudan, and in the direction of where, according to this week's numbers from UNHCR, 400,000 refugees have crossed into Uganda. I was surprised to see only a few UNHCR supply trucks heading in the same direction. IsraAID staff just returned form a "needs assessment" of the camps in the Adjumani area. Medical care, food, educational resources, housing, and trauma counseling are all, of course, in desperate need. What struck me in their photos were the long lines of empty 5 gallon jerry cans neatly lined up near large, black, and obviously chronically empty 5,000 liter water tanks - obviously empty as there were no people filling the containers. We are expecting in our water exploration class next week a few WASH staff from NGOs working in the water supply sector at the camps.
There are no road signs to Oboo, and I doubt if you will find Lamogi on a map. According to the LC1 (Local Council) who introduced the village to us while the students and the one mzungu, me, stood around the faulty hand pump, it was here in 1911 that the Lamogi, armed with only bows and spears, successfully fought the British. And it was only when the British used gas to asphyxiate the Lamogi fighters who were hiding in the nearby Guru Guru caves, that the British gained the upper hand. And so I learned that perhaps the Germans do not have the dubious claim of having been the first to use chemical weapons in World War I, though all Ugandan students learn of the Lamogi Rebellion.
Well, the students quickly pounded out two geophysical surveys entirely on their own. And the water well was in need of far more parts than we had been lead to believe, or had brought. So, instead of returning early to Gulu, I walked the long path to the alternate water source the village was using, and got a bit of a Heritage Park-like tour of Acholi village life! Check out the photos
I am now in Gulu, northern Uganda. What is it like? I can only compare it to Kakuma and the Turkana desert. The previous issue of the Bradt Uganda Guide says "travel in the vicinity of Gulu, Lira, and other areas north of the NIle is highly risky, if not downright suicidal..." Gulu is from where Zika and the evil hemorrhagic sibling of Ebola, the Marburg virus, sprang from. There are diseases here like "Nodding Sickness" that are already epidemic and of unknown origin, yet are unheard of outside of Uganda and even outside of Northern Uganda. The Acholi people here suffered under Idi Amin, and then they were brutalized by Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) from 1986 until 2009. To "protect" the population from Kony, the current President, Yoweri Museveni, moved 90+ % of the population to internally dispaced persons (IDP) camps where they were decimated by malaria and HIV, culturally undermined, and were an even more easily targeted population for Kony as well as the Ugandan army.
What's it like here compared to Kakuma? The town and area are much closer to Ubud in Bali than anything in the Turkana. Fresh fruit and vegetables in the largest produce market I have seen anywhere in Africa, kind people, a strong culture, lush vegetation, cafes, restaurants, badminton matches at the Luo Guest House on Sunday nights, an indigenous architecture, anywhere worth getting to (including the University of Gulu where I teach) is a pleasant bicycle commute, every meal begins with a passion fruit/papaya/banana/avocado smoothie, fesh fish from the Nile or any of the many nearby lakes,,....it is not so bad here. But the Gulu district is very poor, with youth in particular lacking employment opportunities, and much of the energy of village life is engaged in hauling water.
Last November I helped teach a course to about 50 Acholi young men and women on hand pump repair, manual water well drilling, gorundwater, and water exploration. The hand pump repair business has continued, partly due to the chronic failure of NGO installed hand pumps in Uganda, partly due to the excellent training course IsraAID put on, and partly due to the hand pump repair kit donated by WorleyParsons to the IsraAID students. And the students know how to drill, and have been making a business of drilling new wells. However, some dry holes have been drilled, and that makes for unhappy villagers. So I have come back to Gulu with geophysical equipment, donated by ABEM of Sweden, that will be left here, and I will be putting all my efforts into training the Acholi students on planning, executing, and interpreting water exploration programs here in the Gulu area. This week I will be training the 50 students of IsraAID's classes 5 and 6; next week I will work with the 100 or so students of classes 1 through 4. At the same time, Polycarp, a local Acholi master hand pump mechanic, will be carrying on with the hand pump repair training, and learning a bit of geophysical water exploration himself.
Unfortunately for everyone, including my class, my drone was confiscated at the airport, though I hardly consider myself a security risk...but sorry, there will be no air photos of the wonderful vernacular village architecture of Acholi Land.