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African Poverty

by Gabriel Timar

With satisfaction and despair, I noted the concern of the G8 heads of state about African poverty. The task is Herculean and I have my doubts about the twenty-first century society being equal to the task.

“The key to the elimination of poverty in Africa begins with the resuscitation of the health care delivery systems. This task begins with rural water supply and sanitation, malaria control, and the development of primary health care system.”

No, I did not forget about AIDS, because the statement does not come from a G8 communiqué but from the briefing notes I received from the World Health Organization when I took my first assignment from them in 1967.

I spent about twenty years in Africa working on rural water supply development. We threw money at the problem for forty years and made no headway. Are we going to keep doing the same thing for another forty years?

* * *

In a small village of the Sudan, using aid funds provided by a Scandinavian country, I managed to drill a well in the middle of the village and installed a tamper-proof hand pump. We all thought that the water supply problem had been solved and the women would not have to carry water from five miles away.

Two weeks later, I returned to the village to see how they were doing. To my surprise, the locals managed to damage the hand pump and the borehole beyond repair. I inquired about that but did not receive a satisfactory explanation. In the end, the schoolteacher, a CUSO volunteer, dropped a hint: “The men in the village damaged the well, because the women were at home all day bossing them around. With the well destroyed, the ladies are back to spending most of their time carrying water five miles.”

* * *

In another village, I encountered an entirely different problem. We constructed the deep well and again installed the allegedly tamper-proof hand pump. Three weeks later, the inhabitants destroyed the installation. As they had no volunteer schoolteacher in the village, I went to the chief.

“Why did you destroy the well?” I asked.

“Water no good,” the chief said bluntly.

“I tested it myself and found that it met all of the international standards. What was wrong with it?”

“Made us sick.”

“In what way?’

“We all shit hard,” he replied with conviction.

The clean well-water had cured the villager’s endemic diarrhea, a condition they had been accustomed to all their lives.

* * *

The government officials were not much help in the promotion of public health. In a major town of Nigeria, we found adequate quantities of water not too far from the center of the community. While the hydrogeolgists were hard at work, I went to see the military governor to establish the outlines of the project.

His Excellency was very happy with the water distribution system we proposed, but when I broached the subject of sewerage, he got his back up.

“We don’t need it. It is a waste of money,” he declared.

“But your Excellency, at least seventy five percent of the water we bring into your city will turn into sewage. It has to go somewhere.”

“Rubbish,” he roared. “Our forefathers pissed and crapped by the side of the road, and we can do it, too. I am not going to waste a cent of the aid we get from the U.N. on sewerage.”

So much for government cooperation and understanding of needs...

* * *

As a project engineer occasionally I had to assist other experts with their technical problems. Doctor Della Burns, an American physician, had developed the primary health care system in a certain part of the country. A network of small buildings with an attendant trained in first aid, the recognition of malaria, and a few minor but common ailments was the backbone of the system. If anything more serious occurred, she had to refer it to a clinic where a nurse practitioner or a physician would look after the patient.

They were in the early stages of the operation, and Doctor Burns sent an urgent request for technical assistance. Since I was the nearest engineer, the resident representative ordered me to undertake the job. I found the State Ministry of Health and a sullen messenger guided me to the office of Doctor Burns.

“Hello, Gabriel,” she said, “It is very nice of you to come. Please sit down. I don’t have anything else except tepid tea.”

“I can do without it.”

“I don’t blame you. After you’ve rested a little, I’d like to take you out to one of the centers and acquaint you with the problem.”

“Why not here?”

“You must see it with your eyes.”

“Okay, Della, lead the way.”

We proceeded to the first primary health care station, a neat, whitewashed building with concrete floors. The attendant wore the prescribed blue uniform and the sandals. She was an intelligent young woman. After greeting Della and me, she reported: “I had two cases this week, one had malaria and the other, dysentery.’

“It is not too many,” Della said. “What is the population of your service area?”

“Eleven thousand.”

“You should have had much higher attendance. What is the problem?”

“I don’t know, doctor, but allegedly Mr. Olatunde forbade the townspeople to come to the station.”

“Who is this Mr. Olatunde?” I asked.

“He is a practitioner of traditional medicine,” the attendant said.

“In other words, the local ju-ju man. He makes magic and occasionally cures people,” Della explained. “Nobody dares to argue with him.”

“I can understand that,” I said.

“Apparently, the primary health care system cuts into his business, and he wants to make sure of the station closing,” Della concluded bitterly.

As compromises were daily events for me, the solution was crystal clear.

“If you can’t beat them, join them. Why don’t you put a wall in the middle of the station and cut another door. Let the ju-ju man practice in the other half. If someone wanted the traditional treatment, Mr. Olatunde would be available, but if the customer preferred white man’s medicine, he or she should just have to go next door,” I explained.

The eyes of the attendant lit up: “This would be an excellent arrangement, sir. Would you talk to Mr. Olatunde?”

“I have to clear it with the Ministry,” Della said. “If they think this policy will work, we shall implement it throughout the district.”

In the end, my suggestion was introduced and it seemed to work well. Doctor Burns proudly returned to the U.S. She managed to beat the insurmountable odds and accomplished something that millions of dollars and several international agencies failed to do.

A year later, I visited the station. There was no health care attendant, just the ju-ju man. He kept dispensing herbs, incantations, and perhaps dried rat’s ears to those who were willing to pay for it. When I inquired at the Ministry, I learned that practitioners of traditional medicine had been awarded professional status and their association had taken over the management of the primary health care system.

* * *

The news is not all bad, as long as the aid agencies keep their hands off the Africans.

During an intermission of the Sudanese civil war, I worked on their water supplies. I saw many villages and small towns with a great variety of properly constructed wells, small ponds, and dammed brooks, but often no inhabitants.

“What happened to the people?” I asked.

“The Northerners either killed them, dumped the bodies in the wells, or the villagers are hiding in the bush,” replied Andrew, my assistant.

On the way back to Juba, stopping for a rest I noticed smoke rising about a mile off the road. Since we just passed an abandoned village, I thought it would be interesting to see who or what was there.

“You don’t want to go there, Mr. Gabriel, they may be robbers or brigands.”

“The people from this village disappeared. There were no bodies in the well. If I were in their place, I would have moved away from the road.”

As we were debating what to do, a few women appeared with 20-liter aluminum cans on stout sticks. Each carried two of those on her shoulders.

Andrew spoke to them and the women invited us to their village.

The Land Rover made it only half way, and we had to continue on foot.

“You’d better bring your rifle,” Andrew suggested.


“I don’t think anybody would attack us, but weapons are the only thing southerners steal nowadays. As I am sure of having to fight again, I have my assault rifle and plenty of ammo stashed in my house.”

The clean, organized village was proof of the practical African way of doing things. The village chief, a big bearded bruiser greeted us as we entered the main square. He invited us to his hut.

“I served in the British Army as a corporal before independence,” the Sudanese explained when we sat down.

He offered us pombe — locally brewed beer — and accepted one of my lukewarm Camel beers.

“As the Northerners with their Egyptian allies and Russian advisors were all over the place, killing, raping, and pillaging, I moved my family out of the village. Soon the rest of the people came, we dug a small well, but not as good as the one in the old village. However, in an emergency it would do,” the corporal said.

“I noticed you had a school,” I said.

“Not much of a school, I am afraid. We have no paper; only a few tablets, a blackboard, and some chalk. I taught everybody in the village to read and write English.”

“Why don’t you come to Juba and ask the government for help?” I asked.

“I don’t trust the government. They made a deal with the Northerners, which will soon collapse and war will start again. I don’t want to move my village again.”

My heart went all out for the old soldier and his people.

“I appreciate your fear,” I said. “I cannot help you with weapons, but perhaps I could get you some medicine and a few books.”

“I would thank you,” said the corporal. “Our needs are most pressing when it comes to men’s clothes. We have three pairs of trousers, one shirt, and a pair of boots in the whole village.”

“I’ll try.”

“In addition, if you could spare a few rounds of .303 caliber, I would be grateful. I could shoot us some meat.”

Before saying farewell to the village, I left my spare box of ammunition with the corporal.

“I wonder if he is going to shoot a few Northerners with those bullets,” I mused.

“I don’t think so,” Andrew replied. “The meat is more important than the enemy. Besides, the soldiers always come on trucks and in large groups, at least thirty of them. One rifle is not going to stop them. I am going to mark the village on my map, and when the war starts again, I will take my commando there. It would be an excellent operating base.”

* * *

I saw many more scary things in Africa during the formative stages of the poverty industry. The G8 wishes to double the financial assistance. The corrupt government officials — the Mugabes, Idi Amins, and many others — will be grateful; they will be able to steal twice as much. If the G8 really wants to help my African friends, get the dictators off their backs.

If they do not, my everlasting love affair with the Dark Continent and its people will end in tragedy. My Africa and the people whose sterling qualities I admired so much will slowly disappear, and if I ever taste the water of the Nile again, it will be like standing over the grave of my first love...

Copyright © 2008 by Gabriel Timar

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