October 27, 2008

A SODIS Bottle of Potable Water: Half Full or Half Empty?

While the majority of United States citizens are engrossed with the presidential question that will be answered next Tuesday, the local residents of the Kibera slums in Kenya are consumed by a much more fundamental incertitude. Amidst the unbridled crime, disease and pollution in Kibera, home to approximately one third of Nairobi’s total population, the greatest daily challenge remains finding sufficient potable water. However, in a recent article entitled “Kenya: UV Rays to the Rescue," a small-scale initiative for a water purification system was recognized as a hopeful long-term sustainable solution to this critical issue of clean water. The most surprising detail of this report highlighting the SODIS initiative (shown below) and its success, was the absent role the Kenyan government played in its development. With a resource as vital as potable water, whose abundance in the United States goes widely unappreciated, one wonders why the Kenyan government has not put this concern on top priority. Should an unbiased reader assume a positive reaction to small-scale solutions such as SODIS as exemplary of local African empowerment and achievement, seeing the glass half full of freshly potable water? Or, should one consider these grassroots initiatives to be a giant red flag, pointing to the larger problem of an apathetic and inefficient Kenyan government that is incapable of deciphering the elementary needs of its citizens? While it would be unethical to answer on behalf of hypothetical readers, I deduce that it is the absence of governmental action in local development projects that lies at the causal root, sadly indicative of the inefficient and flawed institutions of Kenyan governance.

Although the Kenyan government has extended some assistance to improve the water situation in Kibera, the structures erected have been weak and only offer a temporary resolution. With the introduction of legislation in 2002, under which local entities gained control, the Nairobi Water and Sewerage Company has been responsible for providing its services to the city, including Kibera. However, there are only 25 kilometers worth of pipes in all of Kibera. The huge deficit in supply means the vast majority of residents are forced to buy water from private vendors, who allegedly pilfer it from the NWSC.  In addition, per an IRIN news article, “Kenya: Kibera, the Forgotten City," the few taps in the slum are “made of plastic, ridden with holes and cracks, and are consequently rather inefficient in keeping unsoiled water separate from sewage and waste.”  These local institutions, we can see, have proven just as unreliable as the Kenyan government in establishing long-term structural adjustments. Furthermore, in the recent presidential elections this past December, the two major candidates, Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, campaigned primarily on the issues of free secondary school education and constitutional reform as their respective high-priority commissions. Rather than working to alleviate poverty, improve sanitation and health care, or work to create jobs in both the private and public sector, the two front-runners preferred to focus on issues that, while undeniably imperative, do not solve the life-threatening crises of sufficient nourishment, hygienic conditions and employment. How can citizens be expected to attend secondary schooling or find a job when they cannot even obtain drinkable water? Additionally, these basic issues have been plaguing the country since its independence in 1963, and remain unresolved today. Thus, for over forty years, the government has established its inability to enact solutions with longevity to relieve with permanence the most fundamental of concerns.

Despite the failure of the Kenyan government in finding national solutions to poverty and sanitation, its localized apathy to the water situation in Kibera is based largely on the tribal divisions deeply embedded in Kenyan political culture. In Kibera, the majority of people are Luo, a tribe historically marginalized under colonial rule as well as national leadership since Kenyan independence. Unfortunately for the Luos, every president since 1963 has been from the Kikuyu tribe, a tradition that continues to day with head of state Mwai Kibaki. While in power, each leader has demonstrated tribal preference, particularly visible with the government’s allocation of land, jobs, and resources, which always end up in Kikuyu hands. This tribal conflict was exacerbated to the point of bloodshed after the presidential elections, when controversy over the tallied results erupted into ethnic clashes and violence. These violent attacks unfortunately led to the destruction of one of main water pipes to Kibera (pictured below), heightening the importance of the SODIS program in the daily struggle for clean water. The government’s inaction over sanitary water concerns localized in Kibera is clearly linked to the time-honored discrimination against non-Kikuyus, which has in turn created a general sentiment of distrust of and discontent with national authority among its residents. In spite of the hopeful message of SODIS concerning grassroots development and action, it is hard not to condemn the government’s passivity and lack of concern for meeting basic needs as the culprit of rampant societal disparity.

Furthermore, while the SODIS project is by no means of seamless composition, its inconsequential setbacks are hardly deterrents for its continued practice. It is true that it cannot be performed on days without sunshine, and the solar energy only works effectively on amounts of water less than three liters. Additionally, SODIS makes no impression on water that has been tainted by fecal matter or chemicals. However, since its initiation in 2004 with the help of the Kenya Water for Health Organization, clinical cases of diarrhea are down by 41% in Kibera, and the deaths of young children from water-born related diseases have decreased in certain neighborhoods by 80%. The water project has grown from three staff members to twenty-four, reaching 65,000 households and fifteen schools in Kibera. Its indisputable success and achievements, especially in an impoverished area with few alternatives, overshadows these negligible drawbacks. The expansion and continued success of SODIS also stems from the responsibility and commitment of the local residents to the initiative, reflecting positively on the potential of the Kibera inhabitants to work outside of the government to improve their own standard of living.

Although I find stories of local action and empowerment hopeful in terms of Kenya’s future, I am also concerned about the revolutionary implications they have on society. As more systems similar to SODIS are introduced to marginalized communities, its citizens will become increasingly self-sufficient, finding solutions to rudimentary issues without governmental assistance or support. I worry that it will be only a matter of time before the lack of discourse between leadership and said communities erupts into a larger problem, where the administration’s inactivity, particularly in crucial areas, becomes increasingly indicative of its illegitimate governing abilities, which could potentially lead to a revolution of the masses and a sweeping regime change. Before the Kenyan government can reform the educational system or the constitution, the enduring misery of widespread poverty, lack of sanitation, and ongoing ethnic clashes needs to be countered with a viable and impartial answer. In order to achieve the prosperity desired by those who appreciate Kenya as a country with so much to offer, the government must prioritize problems, rid the government of corrupt institutions, and instigate a nonpartisan approach to provide all citizens with an evenhanded opportunity of survival and success. Projects such as SODIS, while not a panacea, reinforce both the country’s ability and willingness to work towards a more sustainable and equitable Kenya.

October 10, 2008

Afro-Connections: Internet Resources for Development and Change in Africa

With my recent realization of just how expansive the world wide web can be, I took the time this week to journey into its darkest corners in search of credible and useful resources to provide auxiliary information regarding the issues I tackle in individual posts, as well as to facilitate the further investigation of developmental matters in Africa. By employing both Webby and IMSA criteria to assess each website, I have selected twenty remarkably informative and intellectual sites that harmonize with and expand upon the nature of my blog. Within this collection of web-based resources, there are links to news sites, academic journals, aid-based organizations, and individual blogs in order to offer diversity of both perspective and subject matter. Each site functions with a high level of legitimacy and integrity, demonstrated by their stimulating and scholarly subject matter, clever visual design, and clear and logical website structure. Along with a general description and evaluation of each link included in this post, the twenty chosen websites have been posted on my linkroll (located on the left-hand side of this page).

The first websites that I happened upon, without too much exertion I might add, were the well-established, high quality news websites of the International Herald Tribune: Africa and the Middle East and BBC News: Africa (as depicted in the graphic below). Both sites provide their viewer with a clean yet stimulating visual layout, and offer a comprehensive range of global issues comprised from credible sources and scholars. The International Herald Tribune provides useful links to blogs, discussions, and special reports that supplement the major headlines. BBC News offers similar features, while also including links to audio news programs with an African concentration, such as "Network Africa" and "Africa Have Your Say". Both sites are excellent starting points for research on current issues in Africa, however their breadth is typically too expansive for the nature of my blog, which requires a certain level of specificity. In addition to the two sites aforementioned, I also uncovered "The Economist: Africa and the Middle East", a facile site to navigate with useful tools to find scholarly articles from current or previous editions, by country or by subject.  Another valuable news website is "World News Network: Africa", dividing resources into two categories, siting general newspapers, such as "Renewable Africa", as well as regional and national newspapers, such as the "Sudan Times". What makes World News Network unique is its visual content, replete with stimulating graphics that entertain and entice its visitors to further explore its erudite content. IT News: Africa is another excellent resource, which concentrates on technical and developmental news on the continent. However, it lacks organization, and can prove more challenging when trying to locate articles within a specific subject or location.

In addition to the larger and internationally renowned news sources, my online quest has also revealed a few hidden gems that are equally informative with content more unique to Africa.  All Africa is one of the largest electronic distributors of African news worldwide, highlighting topics such as "Sustainable Africa", which is of particular relevance to my blog content.  Despite  a visual layout littered with low quality graphics, distracting advertisements, and poorly categorized tabs, this site is teeming with articles and information on issues that are often overlooked by the mainstream media.   The Africa Resource Center is a credible academic resource, and includes scholarly essays, peer-reviewed journals, art and music information, and a diverse assortment of columnists who discuss anything from African rastas to social issues affecting children. In order to attain humanitarian news and analysis, IRIN News is a particularly educational website, offering film and radio footage, as well as "Hear our Voices", a forum for marginalized individuals to express themselves and call attention to their plight.  I have also included two Kenyan news sites to provide African perspectives on local issues from both regional and local levels: the Daily Nation, a popular Kenyan newspaper that focuses on events of the East African coast, and Coast Week, which deals with local issues confronting Kenya's coastal province.  While Coast Week is a more difficult site to navigate, mostly because of its low quality graphic design and layout, it presents compelling issues lying below the national level from a local point of view.  

Furthermore, I uncovered many websites for aid and development based organizations, such as the United Nations Development Programme: Africa, an informative source of new developmental programs, in particular those in place to empower women and reverse the marginalization of Africa. I also found the World Bank: Africa to be similarly educative, focusing on current projects set up to generate long-term, positive change to empower the African people, with a particularly helpful section entitled "In Focus", which discusses the major current problems and the efforts made to combat these issues. However, the World Bank website focuses largely on statistics and percentages, and lacks the personal accounts and engaging visuals that are offered on other sites. Mercy Corps, an organization which works to create lasting positive change in transitioning countries, is one of my preferred resources with its very personal and small-scale approach to change, and the added bonus of a user-friendly website that allows for easy searching and access to information. Another personal favorite is GlobalVoices: Sub-Saharan Africa, which displays and promotes online global communication, and shines light on issues that are skimmed over by the media. Other similar organizations include Africare (as pictured to the left), an aid-based organization dealing with HIV/AIDS, food security and development, as well as Transform Africa, a consortium of NGOs from the United Kingdom that are working to improve the effectiveness of local African organizations. Both sites are easy to navigate and informative, yet lack an explanation of the successes and/or failures of the programs and projects they have implemented.

Finally, I have unearthed several academic blogs that provide alternative perspectives on the issues I tackle in my own postings. One in particular, Afrigadget, a news and collective blog site highlighting new development with African initiative and innovation, has been one of my main resources in previous entries. Afrigadget is a particularly engaging blog and informative resource, displaying the successes of pragmatism with a simplistic approach, and focusing on creative development stemming from within the African community. I am also fond of The African Uptimist, where Lawrence, a program manager at United Nation's Environment Programme, explores the success of technology in Africa with an optimistic perspective, as well as Kenvironews, which investigates political and environmental news in Kenya.  However, Kenvironews' entries frequently reference an entire article with little opinionated commentary, which can prove frustrating if one is searching for a more personal perspective on a subject. Another great resource in the blogo-sphere is Kenya Unlimited, a website devoted to Kenyan vision and voices with a collection of blogs written by Kenyans, which again has personal significance to me and to my recent entries regarding Kenyan development. Overall, each website I have discussed offers creative, credible, and unique approaches to the delivery of their information. The diversity of perspective and subject matter creates a comprehensive list of resources that will promote further exploration of change and development in Africa, for both my readers and myself.
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