Gambian villagers find hope in easy-to-fix hand pumps

By Coco McCabe

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Part 1 of a 2-part series.

In a dusty yard under the shade of a mango tree, Abdulie Camara holds out his hands for a visitor to feel. His palms are as tough as leather. He has been cutting trees—countless numbers of them—to sell their wood for cash so he can help feed some of the dozens of people with whom he now shares his mudbrick house.

His neighbors in the Gambian village of Janack are chopping down the forest, too, in an effort to provide not only for their families, but for the refugees who have settled among them. They are from the Casamance region of Senegal.

A push to gain independence for the region, which has pitted the separatist group known as the Movement of Democratic Forces of the Casamance against the government of Senegal, has fueled more than 20 years of fighting. The violence has forced at least 60,000 people from their homes. An estimated 7,000 of them have streamed across the border to seek safety on Gambian soil, heightening the pressure on an already strained land.

As Camara, and residents of other border villages, have struggled with the crush of that refugee flow, Oxfam America and its local partners have been providing emergency assistance designed to help villagers cope. For them—and the land around them—the consequences of the Casamance conflict have been severe.

The tree-cutting deeply worries some environmentalists.

"In 10 to 20 years, all of Gambia will be a desert," said Marcel Badji, marveling at the wood, split and piled, in the yards around Janack. "People are cutting trees for survival. Huge trees are going down."

Badji is the director of St. Joseph's Family Farms center, a local Gambian organization and Oxfam America partner. His words give voice to a grave reality: Poverty is putting intense pressure on the environment here.

A House for 46

Camara leads a visitor into his small mudbrick house. Forty-six people sleep here, sharing beds and straw mats unfurled on the dirt floor. Many of the refugees who have sought safety in Gambia are related to their hosts. Cousins and nephews are among the people Camara is sheltering.

"It's very difficult to handle such a large number of people," Camara says. "Food is number one." As he speaks, a ruckus breaks out in a kitchen hut at one end of the hard-packed yard. A pair of sheep have nudged their way in and are rooting around for something to eat. Alert family members shoo them out and fasten the door.

A farmer, Camara grows millet, rice, peanuts, and corn. But because of increased pressure on the land, it has lost some of its fertility and his harvests have shrunk. The money he would have used for fertilizer to enrich the soil has been spent helping to support the Casamance refugees.

"It's part of the culture. You assist people who need your help," says Badji. "And these people are in need."

Looking for Solutions that Last

In searching for answers to these problems of poverty, Oxfam and its partners are focusing on ideas that will help people exert control over their circumstances. When villagers have the means—training, resources, know-how—to solve their own troubles, those tools become the basis for lasting solutions.

That's the hope for four bright blue hand pumps that now cap wells in some of the border villages. They are part of a $45,000 grant Oxfam provided to Concern Universal, an international partner that has been addressing the needs of refugees and their hosts.

In the village of Oupat, a short distance from Janack and a stone's throw from the Casamance line, Bakary Sonko and Gibril Sonko worked together on a recent afternoon to spin the handle on one of the pumps. After 40 seconds of cranking, they had filled a four-gallon bucket with fresh water. Bees buzz about the stream as it sputters out of the faucet. Next to the pump sits a large metal barrel hooked to a hose—key components of Oupat's brick-making enterprise. With water readily available, new mudbrick houses?homes for the refugees'are on the rise nearby.

"The pumps can be easily maintained by the communities without big fees," explains Zanira Paralta, an Oxfam humanitarian response officer. "It's a technology Concern Universal has been implementing for five or six years. We realized it could be a good way to provide water at low cost."

Inside the blue casings, the pump mechanism is simple: it looks like a bicycle wheel that spins with the help of a rope affixed with tiny washers that pull up the water. The rope, made from nylon, can be replaced easily when it breaks. To show how simple it is to reach the parts that need fixing, Ousman Jammeh, a technician for Concern Universal, untwists a plastic cap at the top of the pump and removes the plastic tubing through which the rope runs.

Nearby, another well signals the importance of Oupat's new hand pumps. This well, dug in 1983, is dry. A tangle of skinny branches covers its opening. Before Concern Universal installed the new wells and pumps, people had to trek to Nyambolo, the neighboring village, for their water.

Working with other local groups, Concern Universal has built about 150 of these wells using manually operated equipment—simpler technology means fewer breakdowns—to bore the holes. And it has experimented with a variety of materials, available locally such as wood and aluminum, in constructing parts for the pumps.

Niall O'Connor, director of Concern Universal, explains that a similar pump is used in Nicaragua and that Concern made modifications so that it could be used here.

"The whole idea is to be affordable and sustainable," he says.