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Wells of hope:
The Namibian Red Cross
in action

by David Lush
It hardly ever rains in Kunene. This sparsely populated region of north-west Namibia is prone to recurrent drought, with an average rainfall of just 300 mm per year. The Namibia Red Cross is helping the nomadic Ovahimba tribe living there to make the most of what little water they have, and cope with what is a constant potential health threat.
As the first rays of sunrise begin to warm the mountainous terrain of Okanguati, Maetjituavi Tjiposa follows a well-trodden, dusty path to the village well. For centuries, her ancestors have gathered water from natural springs and wells dotted around the region's parched and rugged landscape. Maetjituavi belongs to the Ovahimba tribe, one of the few remaining clans in the world that continue to live according to their ancient nomadic tradition.

The path is worn by cattle as well as humans. As they have always done, villagers and their livestock share the same watering holes, the animals' needs taking priority, as cattle are the Ovahimba people's livelihood; the source of their food, clothing, jewellery and even their cosmetics.

Until recently, villagers would draw water with a rusty, hand-made bucket. The water would then be emptied into a wooden trough, from which the cattle also drank. It was a constant source of contamination.

Now, Maetjituavi and the other villagers have a new water pump, thanks to the Namibia Red Cross Society (NRCS). They sang and danced when the first water gushed out. "Now the water in the well is clean," says Okanguati village chief Karee Mbinge. "We do not have to keep scooping out sand from the well as we did in the past," says the chief.
A village affair
"Drought and massive unemployment are the major disasters facing Namibia," NRCS Secretary General Razia Essack-Kauaria explains. "Therefore, there is a more developmental aspect to our work. The water project in north Kunene aims at strengthening a very marginalized community to cope with a pending disaster."

The Federation launched its first appeal to support a drought relief operation in Kunene in 1992, just two years after the country gained its long-awaited independence from South Africa. The National Society responded by distributing emergency food relief. But it then decided to turn its attention towards helping the Ovahimba communities make the most of their scarce water resources.

With financial and technical assistance from the Netherlands Red Cross, the Federation and the Namibian government, the NRCS began a programme to rehabilitate traditional wells and springs used by the Ovahimba people. This involves covering the once-muddy water sources with concrete and installing pumps to keep the water clean. It also makes it easier for villagers to separate water intended for human consumption from that to be drunk by animals.

The Ovahimba communities are involved in the scheme from the outset, identifying the water points they want upgraded, and then approaching the government's Department of Water Affairs for assistance. The department relays the communities' requests to the National Society construction teams, which then liase with the villagers.

Everyone from the village is involved in the construction work, which has a remarkable air of festivity and excitement about it. Women carry sand and mix cement, while the men help the construction team to dig the foundations and to lay the cement. Even the children help out wherever they can.

Once the construction work is complete, the pump is assembled and installed. Designed in Zimbabwe, these 'bush pumps' are manufactured in Namibia, which means spare parts are readily available and are relatively inexpensive. "You often find pumps previously installed by other donors, which have broken down because of a lack of maintenance and the unavailability of spare parts," says Alex Bor, one of two experts seconded to the project by the Netherlands Red Cross.

To date, 114 water points like the one at Okanguati have been rehabilitated, and the NRCS aims to meet its target of 140 by the end of 1999. An estimated 8,500 people in a region of around 40,000 inhabitants now benefit from safe water drawn from the rehabilitated water points.

As a result of the programme, the National Society has recruited and trained almost 800 volunteers, developing extensive volunteer networks in the vast and desolate region, that other institutions - government departments in particular - can now tap into. "We have come across villages that are not even marked on the map," says Lydia Nisbet, head of programmes at the NRCS.
Better hygiene for better health
The primary objective of the water-point rehabilitation programme is to shift the emphasis from a relief-orientated approach to a developmental one. However, the provision of safe water alone has not been enough to ensure a reduction in water-borne diseases such as diarrhoea, scabies and eye infections. "I have three small children and they often complain of diarrhoea, headaches or vomiting," says Mukakatumbo Mbendura, from Ovikange village in north Kunene. "I have to walk 15 km to the clinic whenever a child is sick. It's difficult for me to know what the cause of the disease is."

A baseline survey of ten communities using rehabilitated water points conducted in late 1997 showed that water was still being contaminated; villagers used dirty utensils to carry water while, during the rainy season, they reverted to pools and natural springs, from which their livestock also drank. "The survey clearly pointed out that we had neglected health education," Lydia explains. "There was no clear understanding within communities of the relationship between safe water and health."

The National Society set about devising educational materials to teach people about the link between contaminated water and the diseases affecting their communities. Red Cross volunteers now use these materials - mostly illustrations - to stimulate communal discussion around health issues. "By making communities aware of their poor health practices, we want to encourage them to take responsibility for their own health," says Lydia.

North Kunene is one of the least-developed regions in Namibia, and the Ovahimba are among the country's most marginalized people, which is why the NRCS considers its work here so important. Inevitably, the Ovahimba cannot remain isolated forever, and already some of the less attractive symptoms of modernity, such as HIV/AIDS and alcoholism, are visible among these nomadic people.

David Lush
David Lush is an independent journalist based in South Africa.

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