April 23, 2014
Voss Foundation’s Program Officer Caitlin Rackish recently returned from three weeks in Kenya and Uganda. We asked her to report back on the trip:
Hi Voss Foundation supporters! As mentioned in my trip preview, March 2014 marked the 5-year anniversary of the completion of Voss Foundation’s first water project, a solar-powered water system funded by VOSS Water in the community of Latakwen in Samburu, Kenya. We decided that the 5-year anniversary would be an ideal time to visit Latakwen and spend time with Milgis Trust, our implementing partner, to see just how access to clean water has changed peoples’ daily lives and the community as a whole. While there, I took the opportunity to visit some of the other Milgis Trust projects we’ve funded in Samburu, and to meet with potential partners and visit proposed project sites in other parts of Kenya and Uganda. We even allotted some time to shop for Voss Foundation’s African Bazaar!
Upon landing in Kenya, I immediately headed north to Naro Moru to meet Helen Douglas Dufrense and Pete Ilsley of Milgis Trust, and then to Samburu. Helen and Pete sent me off in a four-seat charter plane with 38.2 kilos of cabbage, 18 kilos of tomatoes and onions, and an array of other provisions and supplies like spare parts for the land rover and motorcycles, to meet Moses Lesoloyia, the Milgis Trust Ground Manager, and Lazaro Letipo, the Water Coordinator. Moses, Lazaro, and several of Milgis Trusts dedicated Samburu warriors and wazee (or, old men, in English) would be my guides and hosts for the first week.
My base while in Samburu was Elkanto, Helen and Pete’s beautiful basecamp on a hill overlooking the spot where the Seiya and the Parsaloi Luggas (or, rivers, in English) meet to form the Milgis Lugga. Staying at Elkanto is what I envision staying in The Swiss Family Robinson tree house would be like, but without the tree. The camp blends into the environment, incorporating the hillside and vegetation, yet there is just about every creature comfort you could ask for, from running water to flush toilets to writing desks.
Elkanto is not just a home; it’s also the base for all of Milgis Trust’s operations. Sunrises and sunsets at Elknato coincide with the cackle of the radio; the way Milgis’ scouts share wildlife reports in an area without any cellular access. The radio is also the way that Helen and Pete were updated on my every move while in Samburu! Apparently I got honorary mentions – I’m still not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing…! Though Elkanto was my base, since some of our project sites are too far away from Elkanto to make it there and back in a day, I spent the middle part of the week in a tent while on a Jeep safari.
Following our first project in Latakwen, Voss Foundation and Milgis Trust have partnered to implement six more water projects. Pete and Moses estimate that when the Milgis School project is completed at the end of April, these seven projects will produce approximately 42.5 million liters of water a year. Currently the projects produce approximately 38.5 million liters. I was worried that the rains, which started a week before my arrival, would make it impossible to visit some of these project sites. To get to most sites, it’s necessary to cross the rivers, and often to drive (or walk) up the riverbeds. Fortunately, none of the rivers had flooded. In fact, most were so dry that it was hard to have believed it had rained hard enough to ground my flight up to Samburu the first day. This region is so starved for water that the sand absorbed everything. As a result, we got to visit five of our six completed projects – Latakwen, Ndonyo Nasipa, Masikita, Seren & Kasipo, and Urra; one project under construction, Milgis School; and two new potential project sites for the third project funded by the 2011 Just Around the Corner Art Auction in Norway – Kileshwa and Likumkum. I didn’t visit Swari, but we flew over it on our way back to Naro Moru the last day.
Each day we set off in the Jeep to visit one or more of the project sites. En route, the warriors and wazee taught me pertinent Samburu words and told me about Samburu culture, as we looked for wildlife like ostriches and zebras, and discussed the changes in environment from one site to the next. One thing that surprised me is how different the ecosystem of each location is. For example, the rocks in Masikita are black but the rocks in Kileshwa are white. Urra feels like a lush, tropical forest in comparison to Ndonyo Nasipa, which has scrub brush.
Although I traveled with four Samburu warriors and wazee, I spent the most time with Lazaro. As the Water Coordinator, Lazaro’s responsibility is to ensure that all projects are properly maintained, which made him the ideal person to show me the projects. Milgis Trust hired Lazaro because, like Voss Foundation, they are committed to follow up and making sure that the projects remain functional. Over the years, the increase in the number of Voss Foundation projects, and the distance between the project sites, make it difficult for Pete and Francis, who are responsible for the implementation of all solar water systems but are not in Samburu full-time, to regularly check on the projects. Lazaro has assisted with the implementation of four projects, and will ultimately be able to complete the installation of the solar water systems on his own. In conjunction, Milgis Trust has trained Lazaro to maintain and repair the solar water systems. He is now able to make repairs without supervision, and has a wealth of knowledge about each project.
Lazaro and I developed a routine for each site visit: Upon arrival we went directly to the well compound, which contains the water source, the solar panels, and in most cases, the watchmen’s hut. Each project budget with Milgis Trust includes the salary for two water watchmen. They guard the solar system, and oversee maintenance and management. At the compound we would discuss the depth, the amount of water the source produced each day, the pump model, etc. From the compound we would walk the pipeline to the main storage tank, and then to each secondary storage tank or water access point until we reached the farthest point. Usually the watchmen would accompany us. Sometimes the Milgis Scouts would join as well. We looked for leaks at connections and along the pipeline, and checked the functionality of the taps. Often the watchmen had something specific they wanted Lazaro to look at. I talked to the water watchmen and members of the community about topics like how the community handled financial and operation management, how they decided to protect the source, problems they had, and how water had influenced their daily lives.
We diligently followed a routine because no two projects are the same. Although each project provides communities with their only reliable, year-round water source, each has a different layout, a different number of storage tanks and water access points, different uses, and different needs and challenges. Each provides water to different populations; some of the solar water systems are predominately used by the surrounding community, whereas others are regularly used by people who come from a far as 50km away! If you ask the warriors and wazee, we went “very slow,” but taking our time at each project site allowed me to learn about the similarities and differences, and also how Milgis Trust has modified aspects of implementation over the years to make certain project components, like standpipes, more durable.
Over the next few weeks, I will share specifics about each site. For now, I am pleased to report two things: First, the only water I drank while in Samburu was from the six Voss Foundation projects I visited. I had no health problems whatsoever! Second, all solar water systems I visited are functional. However, all projects needed minor repairs, which is not uncommon. Although the community can perform basic maintenance or temporary fixes, they need Milgis’ support for most repairs. Most of these minor problems are with taps and pipes, especially at the connection, which is why Lazaro is a valuable addition to the Milgis Trust team. This was especially evident when we visited the two proposed project sites, Kileshwa and Likumkum. At one point in time Likumkum actually had a solar water system, implemented by someone other than Milgis Trust, but the panels were stolen and the solar pump fell into disrepair. The community didn’t know how to complete the maintenance themselves, and had no one to watch over the system or to help with repairs. Because Milgis Trust not only trains the community on basic maintenance, but also employs dedicated people like the watchmen and Lazaro to oversee the projects, our projects continue to operate.
In fact, Milgis Trust recently purchased a motorbike for Lazaro to use to visit project sites, and provided him with a toolkit and a stock of parts that often need replacing. He will now be able to visit all projects once every six weeks in order to check the status of the water systems and needed repairs. Regular site visits will begin this month! Each community has a water payment system to cover the cost of replacement parts, though some systems are more developed than others. This type of follow up will be invaluable for Voss Foundation.
Although the majority of my time in Samburu was spent visiting sites, we always made time for tea, especially at someone’s manyatta. On my final afternoon, I also painted a mural in one of the classrooms at Milgis School with the help of Cosma. We didn’t have yellow paint, which made mixing colors a bit tricky, but we made do!
Inspired by Milgis Trust’s work in Samburu, I returned to Nairobi for the second week to explore potential partnerships. I met Petra Fitzgerald, the Kenya Program Manager for Nest, one of our partners in Swaziland. We met with three of their artisan groups to explore the possibility of a partnership for a water and sanitation project. We visited the potential partners’ communities as well as their current and/or failed water sources, discussed possible water solutions for each location, and learned about how a water supply and sanitation facilities would benefit both the artisan groups and the communities. In the process, we shopped for the African Bazaar.
I ended my trip with a week in the Mukono District of Uganda where I met a new potential partner who had approached Voss Foundation with a proposal for a solar powered water system as well as another organization who has submitted a proposal to Voss Foundation. I will share more information about these potential new projects after our Board Project Sub-Committee has had an opportunity to complete their review – stay tuned!
In sum, it was an incredible, productive trip. I am so grateful to Helen, Pete, Moses, Lazaro, Petra, and everyone else who hosted me on the trip. Voss Foundation is fortunate to have Milgis Trust as a partner, and we’re excited to continue to explore the possibility of new partnerships. Kenya and Uganda are fascinating countries with no shortage of geographical and cultural diversity; I encourage you to learn more about them, or accompany us on a future trip!