(Summer ’13) Emily Williamson, G

Emily spent the summer in Cape Coast, Ghana. She worked with the Zongo, a small minority Islamic settlement, to create a long-term community-based strategy for new water systems through processes of engagement, education, empowerment, and sustainability. She evaluated the rainwater collection systems installed last year, implemented 15 additional systems, executed a small pilot project (soap-making training sessions) that had a social and economic benefit, worked with the children to write and illustrate their own folktale about water, and created a booklet summarizing this summer’s work. The goal of the project is to improve the water-livelihoods of the Zongo community.

Fourth Blog – July 14: Breaking News

The last month has contained a dizzying amount of activity – so much so that there was rarely a time to step out of it to reflect upon what this entire project means to both me and the community with whom I’ve been working. Last night though, all of this activity came to an end. The loose ends of the three projects have been tied up, I’ve taken my last photographs, and have said “sai anjuma” (see you later in Hausa) to my partner GHCT and the community members that have become dear friends. While initially I had wanted to use this blog post as a platform for these reflections and next steps, I’ve realized I need more time to let this summer’s work steep. Instead, I would like to use this entry as a “month in review” – to touch on what we accomplished over this month and the impact it has had on the community. More important than words, the dominant component of this blog will be the photographs as they tell the story better than I ever could. Here we go:

Before beginning any of our work, it is tradition in the Zongo community to meet with the elders, primarily the Chief Imam and the Chief Zongo. Only after their blessings, would we be able to begin work. In addition to these meetings, we also met with other local stakeholders such as our community partner (The Ghana Heritage Conservation Trust), The Oguaa Traditional Council, and the Municipal Government.

One of the first items on the agenda after these meetings, was to evaluate last year’s rainwater collection system implementation – what worked, what didn’t and what needed improvement. This process took far longer than we had thought, but it turned into a wonderful way to reconnect with the community members.

We also held an opening ceremony/workshop during which we discussed this year’s plans and asked for community input. The community praised us for last year’s efforts on the rainwater collections systems and expressed a strong desire that we continue this year. In addition, there was a lot of support for a training workshop in which community members would be taught a skill that could then turn into a business. While we provided a number of options, soap-making was the overwhelming favorite.

At the same time as we prepared for the rainwater collection installation for 15 more houses, we also worked with a local soap-maker to organize a series of workshops for the residents. We decided to make both powdered and bar soap. These workshops ended up being a huge success and the residents even decided on their own trademark: Zongo soap! After Radadan comes to a close in early August, there will be a follow-up business workshop sponsored by GHCT in which the trainees will learn how to create a business and sustain it.

As if rainwater collection systems and soap-making wasn’t enough, we also wanted to work with the younger generation at the Quranic school to teach about the importance of water. We ended up developing a series of workshops in which we first, read them existing folktales about water, second, had them illustrate these stories, and third, worked with them to write and illustrate their own folktale! On our last day (yesterday) we gave each child his/her own copy of the book. We hope to also publish the book in the States and give all of the proceeds back to the school! Last night, I asked one of the older children what the younger kids thought about the book. He grinned and said, “This is the breaking news in the Zongo! All of the children will let everyone know about this. Even this afternoon, I went back and lots of adults and kids were all huddled around a single book reading it. This will truly change things.” Though my final thoughts will come at a later date, I just want to emphasize the importance of these smaller scale engagements such as those with the children. Even though the NGO world is so focused on making immediate visible change that can be replicated in mass quantities, it is these highly personalized, creative acts that have made the most difference in empowering the Zongo Community. And, I believe it is these acts that will translate to the large, visible change later on; Creativity and Patience must lead the way.

Third Blog – July 1: Community Voice

The narrative that follows was written by an older teen in the Zongo Community about current water-related issues. Though I had always planned for a community member to participate in the journal writing at some point, the boy who wrote this essay approached me of his own accord telling me he wanted to write about local issues of water. Below (and without any steering from me) is his essay on water that begins with a couple short narratives and ends with his own interpretation of the Zongo Water Project…

1.) It’s Wednesday, the third day of June and Maryam had already woken up at about 3am to begin with her chores. She has to get to the nearest bore hole to fetch water as early as possible in order to avoid being trapped in the long queue. This has been Maryam’s routine for the past two weeks, since the water shortage had started in the city.

Maryam had just begun washing a big pot that she made “waake” (rice and beans) in, when she heard a thundering sound. She looked up into the sky as if she was studying it and continued with her work. Then, she felt a drop of water on her back, then another. Before she realized it, it was raining. She quickly went inside to get her buckets and basins to collect water. She was overjoyed seeing the sight of the rain filling her buckets and basin. “Ah! Almighty God! Water is definitely one of your natural elements that we as humans cannot do away with!” she said and heaved a sigh of relief.

2.) This year the rains had been delayed and the Kakum River has gradually dwindled in quantity. Since the water company needed to shed water across the Cape Coast Metropolis and there wasn’t enough, people in the city had to rely heavily on boreholes, wells, and a few taps. The situation also made people turn a blind eye on the safety of the water they drank since the water was scarce. One potential outcome of this is an outbreak of diseases.

The poor water collection and storage facilities in Ghana is a situation which needs to be taken seriously if the water crisis is to be brought under control in the near future. Steps must be taken by the government to address this situation.

3.) The Zongo community and specifically the “Kotokuraba” Zongo has been worried about this water problem for years now and have long lost hope in their leaders for any turn around of the situation for the better. Emily Williamson has studied the Zongo Community for some years now and realized the need to initiate a Water Project in the community. Emily, together with some members of the community, formed a Committee on water and are working very hard to restore the hope that has been lost in the community for years. Workshops were organized by the committee in order to engage the members of the community.  The purpose was to discuss relevant issues, difficulties they might be having, and to educate the community on plans to improve lives and hopefully accelerate development on water projects in the community. The committee brilliantly communicated with members of the Zongo community and introduced the water collection and storage systems in the community that has so far benefited 25 houses.

Like a light in darkness, Emily is gradually restoring hope in the community and improving the standard of living of people in the community. She is doing a great deal of work and I think whichever institution or people are supporting her should continue to do so and perhaps increase the support so that everyone’s dream in the Zongo community will become a reality one day.

Water is life and conserving our water bodies is our utmost responsibility. The earlier we put an end to our irrational behaviors and start a new page of collectively restoring, protecting, and conserving it, the better for us and the generations that are yet to be born.


Second Blog – June 23: Preparing the Ground 

It’s been over ten days now since we’ve been working with the Zongo community here in Cape Coast. We’ve met with almost all of the local stakeholders including the Ghana Heritage Conservation Trust, the Oguaa Traditional Council, the Chief Imam of the Central Region, the Chief Zongo of the Central Region, the Water Conservation Committee, the residents of the Zongo, the Municipal Assembly and of course the children. After evaluating last year’s rainwater collection implementation, we are now deep into the planning of fifteen more systems to be installed over the course of the couple of weeks. Our collaborating local partner, the Ghana Heritage Conservation Trust, has been delightful to work with and together we have been strategizing how to sustain this project once we’ve left this summer and partner in the future.

While the goals for this year’s project and their methods are always shifting based upon conversations with the community, historical documentation, and new observations, I felt confident about the direction of four out of five of these goals: Evaluating and monitoring last year’s implementation – check. Implementing 15 new rainwater collection

Systems – check. Increasing Communication – check. Working with Ghana Heritage Conservation Trust on forming a long-term partnership and long-term planning strategy – check. What about the last goal, Developing a Pilot Project with Social and Economic Benefit? As an architect by training, it was easy to imagine new constructed landscape and built systems needed in the Zongo, but how would any of these ideas actually become a long-term investment for the Zongo community? Yes, stairs, gardens, bathrooms with composting toilets, terraced hillsides, among other interventions would temporarily improve the quality of life for the Zongo community. But, then again, how would the community know how to sustain such systems if the design and funding does not come from them? Even if the residents did know how to maintain these systems, how would they pay to sustain them? Furthermore, what would be the incentive to maintain these systems?

The rainwater collection systems are simultaneously spatial and performative as they provide a simple system for the collection of water when it rains. Since the residents are able to use this water instead of purchasing water from the public pipes, the system also provides economic benefit. Furthermore, the entire community benefited from these systems because the water was shared between houses whenever it rained. The rainwater collection systems, therefore, became the seeds for incremental economic, environmental, and social change. What then, could be inserted this year to boost the community further and prepare the ground for change? It needed to be something small as the bulk of the funding would be directed towards the rainwater collections systems. In addition, it ought to provide the community with some sort of economic and social benefit while still supporting the project’s mission of water. Since education has been brought up time and time again as an important issue in the Zongo, we thought about developing a pilot project that taught community members a skill they could employ and a product they could replicate.

What form could this take? A walk through the market revealed that almost all products sold were made outside of Cape Coast and many were made in China. In the end, we came up with three options to present at our community workshop and hoped the residents would provide additional insight. These included the following: to learn how to make soap, to build raised planting beds for cultivating crops, and to filter water that could be sold in safe storage containers.

Before the workshop, however, we also talked about these pilot project options with the leaders in the community. When we mentioned it to the Zongo Water Committee, they were thrilled and suggested that we encourage the women to participate in such training as they are in need of additional skills. “Women Empowerment! Yes, this is exactly what we need here.” one of the members exclaimed.  When we shared the idea again to the Chief Imam and Chief Zongo they both full-heartedly agreed that this was one of the most basic needs of the community. The Chief Zongo even said, “Yes, this is even a very basic part of our religion. We all need to empower one another.” While I knew the differentiation between the role of the man and woman is less pronounced in the Cape Coast Zongo community compared to some of the other West African Islamic communities, I was still very much taken with the remarks and thrilled that the community was not only willing to take on such a project, but that they were actually very taken with it. The response from the residents at the workshop echoed the comments we had heard earlier and soap-making was clearly the favored option. In fact, the chairman of the program even raised his hand and with a shy smile asked if he could participate alongside the women. “Of course,” I had responded, “This training session is open to anyone who is interested!”

In the few days following the workshop, we have been able to secure a soap-making trainer, enough ingredients for the workshop and startup capital, a location (the garden of our partner, Ghana Heritage Conservation Trust), and the timing…We start tomorrow and will keep you posted!


First Blog-June 12: Take Off 

“9 hours, 51 minutes with the wind at our back”… It sounded like we’d touch down in Accra a half hour early this time. In many ways preparing for this project felt like old hat – I knew the basic supplies I would need, where to stay, and who contact. As we pushed off the runway for my 5th trip to Ghana though, I still felt uncertainty, apprehension, and the pressure to “succeed”. My itinerary would change day by day depending upon the community’s needs and I would be required to adapt design concepts sensitively and quickly.

To step back a bit, let me give you a quick background of the project I am about to embark upon. It’s called the Zongo Water Project and it’s about using water as a way to improve the quality of life for the Zongo community, a small Islamic community in Cape Coast, an urban coastal settlement in the Central Region of Ghana. Even though this migrant community has lived and traded in the city for over a century, the residents are still treated as outsiders and most of the buildings don’t have access to the city’s public infrastructure. While the problems of f!ood and drought, sanitation, hygiene, and erosion are germane to the entirety of Ghana’s Central region, these issues are of particular concern for the visibly impoverished Zongo community. Rather than developing a master plan to be executed by the government, this community-based approach creates a new water infrastructure through the processes of engagement, education, empowerment, and sustainability.

Perhaps less similar to other water infrastructure projects you might be familiar with, the Zongo Water Project is a community-based effort that keeps larger economic, environmental, and social systems in mind while working at the local level. By community-based, I mean entering the community with an open mind – with the flexibility to adapt ideas and create new ones by listening to the residents needs. The approach also aims to empower the community to make change themselves. This involves consistent long-term engagement, trust, and education so the community proudly takes ownership of the project. As an architect by training, it is sometimes difficult to let go of the desire to control the design process from beginning to end. I’ve come to realize though that the real design work here is in creating a flexible process that deepens and expands the capacity of the community. While some of this process is tangible such as the rainwater collection systems, much is also intangible such as the thickening of social networks. It is about preparing the ground for change: keeping in mind the short and long term, the large and small scales, and changing needs of the community.

This year my main community partner is the Ghana Heritage Conservation Trust (GHCT), a not-for-profit organization that has become a leader in local and regional Cape Coast community development, planning, preservation, and natural resource conservation initiatives. Since the organization serves as neutral, shared ground in both its mission and physical location among different ethnic, religious, and social groups in the city, GHCT will be able to provide an accessible and comfortable environment for all.

Now 2 hours and fifteen minutes from our destination with 6,539km behind us, I am eager to get on the ground running. Though I won’t leave Accra (the capital of Ghana) for Cape Coast until tomorrow afternoon, I will coordinate meeting times and locations over the phone, visit the National Public Archives and Records Office in Accra in hopes of finding historic maps of Cape Coast, and begin overall planning strategies with Katherine Lai, an architecture student at the University of Virginia and the project’s first fellow. Over the course of the next month, we will be both continuing efforts begun last year during phase one and introducing new methods in community mapping, oral histories, and interviews to more effectively understand the needs of the residents. There are five specific goals of the project that include the following:

1. To facilitate communication among local stakeholders including the Municipal Government, Oguaa Traditional Council, Ghana Water Company, University of Cape Coast, and Residents of Cape Coast by hosting educational workshops, performances, and community forums at large and small scales.

2. To continue last year’s initiative of providing rainwater collection systems to households in which we supply the materials + education about the system and in return the community provides the labor and long-term stewardship.

3. To develop and execute, with the community, a small pilot project that will test out a specific concept relative to water quality, sanitation, hygiene, or erosion that will also have a sustainable social and economic benefit.

4. To create a long-term planning document for a sustainable community-based water infrastructure for the Zongo residents. This document will include not only the community’s historic and current relationship with water as understood through its policies, laws, behavior patterns, geography, infrastructure, etc, but also a set of strategies and sequencing of goals through which to achieve an ecological, economic, and socially sustainable water infrastructure.

5. To monitor and evaluate the progress and results of the project through quantitative and qualitative analysis.

I continued to imagine what these goals might look like as I sat impatiently watching the minutes tick by on Delta’s outdated digital screen. Finally, a couple ginger ales later, we had a smooth landing in Accra and I stepped out into the familiar thick humid and smoky air. I felt right at home again and was ready to dive in!

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