In June 2000 I arrived in West Africa to coordinate AMURT development projects. These last twelve years have been an incredible adventure for me, giving me the special privilege to work closely with the people in villages in Ghana, Burkina Faso and Nigeria. I am very grateful for having had this opportunity to expand my mind and open my heart to the beauty of the human spirit that, in spite of the continuous struggle for survival, shines brightly in the African village.
Lesson 1: Seva Clinic–The community must initiate and own their projects
In February 2002, a group of community leaders in the Mafi-Zongo District of Ghana requested us to help them start a primary health clinic. We called a big meeting in April, and 150 women and men from ten villages attended. The discussion was long and lively with many different opinions about where to locate the clinic and how it should be managed. We made it clear from the beginning that the community would own and manage the clinic, not AMURT.
“Even with good intentions, clever planning and enough funding, if the communities are not empowered from the beginning, we are not likely to achieve true development and the projects will not last.”
At the end of the meeting, the communities agreed to complete a half-constructed building in the village of Seva, to send candidates to be health-care workers to the Domeabra AMURTEL clinic for training, and to obtain official permission from the government health department to open the clinic. Everyone agreed to finish all this by September.
It was not until April 2003 that the building was completed, all affairs with the health department were sorted out, and the local health-care workers were ready. We spent April arranging furniture, equipment, supplies and medicines. The clinic opened quietly on May 1, 2003. From the first month, the clinic has been financially self-sufficient in operating expenses and staff salaries. AMURT has played a supporting role to help improve the facilities and services available to the community.
AMURT helped train women health promoters and Traditional Birth Attendants to educate and assist births in the villages. The women named themselves “Kekeli Women”. Kekeli means “brightness” or “light”. In 2012 we started a new program for teenagers called ”Kekeli Girls’. In Burkina Faso, AMURT’s presence in Deou Department goes back to 1986, when we began construction of a hospital. The safe motherhood initiative there has trained midwives in 37 desert villages. Today AMURT works with the communities on surface water harvesting schemes to make it possible to grow more vegetables in the arid semi-desert region.
These projects are self-reliant and supported by the communities due to three crucial factors:
- The community identified their own needs and priorities.
- They took the initiative and made the commitment to make it a reality.
- And crucially, the community provided the leadership.
In my experience these are the most important factors for a successful community development project. Even with good intentions, clever planning and enough funding, if the communities are not empowered from the beginning, we are not likely to achieve true development and the projects will not last.
AMURT is a partner and a catalyst. Relief workers can play an important role, but we must never consider ourselves to be more important than the community. If we do, we will create financial and psychological dependency. We will perpetuate the debilitating neo-colonial attitude which is exactly what we wish to break down. If we are not careful, our presence could even cause more harm than good.
Lesson 2: Mafi-Zongo Water Project–Set aside western notions of timelines and efficiency
In Ghana we helped start a big water project in Mafi-Zongo. The sources of drinking water the people were using were not safe, were often shared by animals and they dried up in the dry season, forcing the women and girls to trek long distances to fetch water. A local assembly member from Mafi-Zongo invited AMURT to come in. A medium-sized reservoir was planned with a slow sand filtration system to purify the water. This simple technology is affordable to maintain, and the people can learn to operate it themselves. It is also ecologically sound, because it doesn’t deplete the underground water reserves, which are already scarce in this part of Ghana.
The design called for a reservoir to be constructed on top of Kpokope Hill, from where the treated water would flow by gravity to all the villages. The hill is very steep and to bring cement and other construction materials up was a huge logistical challenge. We called a meeting with representatives from all the communities and explained the situation. The communities agreed to collect the sand, transport it to the foot of the mountain and carry it up the hill in three weeks.
It took three months, with men and women from a dozen communities working hard, to bring enough sand to the foot of the mountain. Then we called an emergency day of communal labor for all the communities. That day the hill was alive and swarming with dozens of men, women and children, carrying pans of sand, making the difficult climb to the top.
This delay would have been avoided if we had bought the sand and paid workers to carry it up. But that would have been a mistake. Community development projects are not about meeting deadlines of international donors, but about bringing the whole community along together.
After that the people of each community dug the trenches and laid the pipes connecting them to the dam. In total, a network of 61 kilometers of pipes was laid that now provides safe drinking water to 10,000 people in 30 villages.
AMURT was first invited to Mafi-Zongo in 1993. The work started in 1994. It was not until 2005 that the first ten villages got piped water, and it was not until 2011, 18 years after it began, that the project was completed. The sense of pride and accomplishment felt throughout the villages when the project was completed created a sense of ownership and tied the populations of the 30 villages together. That pride and unity remains today and has been essential to the sustainability of the project. In African villages, people are not bound by clocks and calendars. They are patient, because they perceive time as moving in cycles. Time is vast, like the sky. People have enough time. Westerners, on the other hand, see time as linear–we are always in a hurry, we lose patience and lament if we “lose time”. We could learn a lot from African villagers.
Lesson 3: Ebonyi Maternal Health Program–The emergence of new leadership
Nigeria has the ninth-highest maternal death rate in the world. In 2010 AMURT chose to work in Ebonyi state, the poorest and least developed state in southern Nigeria. In partnership with the communities, local NGOs and the government, we have set up three primary health care centers with outreach programs to serve the people of Ekumenyi, in the Abakaliki Local Government Area, where the maternal mortality rate is double that of Nigeria’s national rate. Our special focus is to reduce infant and maternal mortality, saving lives. We also work with water sanitation and hygiene committees elected by each village, to drill and manage boreholes.
We needed a baseline survey at the beginning. We trained a dozen health workers to go from compound to compound. They registered 5,000 women of child-bearing age, 15-49, in 36 villages. We were shocked by the results, because the surveys reported there had been 31 maternal deaths in the last three years. We decided to verify each one. The unenviable task fell to Paulinus, an unemployed health worker from one of the villages in the project area. Visiting the different compounds and asking about the mother who had died in childbirth, he met suspicion, and at times hostility. One man who had lost his young wife threatened Paulinus with a machete! Often his questions brought anguish. The father-in-law of a woman who died started weeping openly, and as a result all the men, women and children also started weeping. Paulinus verified all the heartbreaking details of 31 maternal deaths from 2009 to 2011 from a population of just over 20,000.
Our outreach health education program includes home visits to all pregnant women in the area. Only by maintaining staff on duty 24 hours a day in the clinics, can the maternal health program work. All the planning and investment would come to naught if we had failed to recruit dedicated staff from the nearby communities. They communicate well with the people, and so there is a high level of trust and understanding. As the women’s confidence in the health centers grows, the numbers coming for prenatal care and delivery is steadily increasing. The health centers are owned and managed by the local committees, and the com- munities feel that the health care centers are their own.
Blessing was only 17 when she first volunteered on immunization days at her local health post. Since then she has trained and worked at a number of clinics and health centers. Because she came from a poor family, she never had the chance to go to nursing school. When the AMURT clinic at Offia Oji opened, Blessing was 23, but the government health department did not pick her to work there. Still, she came and worked as a volunteer.
It was impossible not to notice Blessing’s dedication. She has helped at the clinic almost every day, always volunteering for weekend and holiday shifts. Of the 150 deliveries at the clinic, she has assisted in more than 100. In community meetings, local traditional leaders and the women leaders sing her praises. It’s moving to see how this young woman, without formal education or position, has earned such respect through her dedication, sacrifice and positive attitude.
The success of the maternal health program can be directly traced to the emergence of new local leaders, such as Paulinus and Blessing. In West Africa I have found that genuine leaders, who have the welfare of their people at heart, can be found in every village. They are like scattered jewels. Our challenge is to invite these dynamic people to come forward and take charge. Community development projects are opportunities to serve for those who truly have the welfare of their people at heart. The best hope for the future of the neglected communities lies with the new leadership. They are more important than us, more important than any money or technology or clever concepts we have to offer.
Lesson 4: Thinking in terms of all-round growth
Community development is the micro-view of PROUT and can play an important role in social change. By working at the grassroots level, from the bottom up, keeping PROUT’s key principles at the front, work for the poor takes on a revolutionary character. In one’s spiritual life, a meditation mantra leads to self-realization and helps to morally guide our choices. In a similar way, I believe that before undertaking any new project, we should think Proutistically and decide whether or not this action will promote the good and happiness of all. Ask yourself:
- Does it increase the living standard, quality of life and security of the people?
- Does it promote moral leadership? Does it train sadvipras?
- Does it promote the economic self-reliance of the community? Is it environmentally sustainable?
- Is it practical and replicable?
- Is it based on cooperative principles and collective decision-making?
- Does it provide everyone with the chance to develop their full potential?
If the answer to the above questions is “yes”, then, as is done with certification for organic agriculture or fair trade projects, we can declare that an undertaking is a “Certified PROUT Project.”
Ideally every action we undertake should have these goals. Continue your life’s work, but for each choice, ask yourself whether the action directly or indirectly promotes these aims of PROUT. If the answer is yes, do it. If the answer is no, don’t do it. If you don’t know, then study until you find the answer!
P. R. Sarkar urged everyone to accept this challenge:
In every age the dominant class first governs, then starts to exploit, after which evolution or revolution takes place. Due to the lack of sadvipras to lend their help, the foundations of human society fail to become strong. Today I earnestly request all rational, spiritual, moral fighting people to build a sadvipra society without any further delay. Sadvipras will have to work for all countries, for the all-round liberation of all human beings.
– From “Shudra Revolution and Sadvipra Society”, Human Society Part 2
Excerpted from After Capitalism: Economic Democracy in Action by Dada Maheshvarananda (Puerto Rico: Innerworld Publications, 2012): www.aftercapitalism.org