Timorous Knowledge

While timorous knowledge stands considering, audacious ignorance hath done the deed.

Samuel Daniel

Blanket cynicism gives the illusion of understanding

Marcia Angell (Harvard professor)

When the facts change then my opinion changes, and you, sir?

John Maynard Keynes


I enter into the last six months of my twenty-seven months in Africa, an ephemeral service; I enter into a quiescent limbo. It is hard enough to motivate yourself at the best of times, now the end is in sight I merely knock off the days. Some topple easier than others. My days don’t build anything. Any pretensions I had of ‘changing’ anything here, of developing anything here, dwindled a while back. I had hopes of transforming the water supply of the village I live in by installing a solar water pump with taps spread around the village to alleviate the dependence on the two hand pumps that are the village’s sole source of water. Those hopes have been partly dashed, partly self-extinguished. I was not able to secure enough funds through Peace Corps grants system to do the project to a scale and standard that would be beneficial to the whole community for a considerable amount of time.

I worry that I have used the funding issue as a convenient mask to other reasons why I have not seen this project through to it’s conclusion. When I initially started thinking about doing a water project I was enamored with solar powered taps as a simple solution to a strenuous labor problem. The village of Ker Sait Maram, all four hundred plus people rely on unreliable water pumps. Pumping is a time consuming, strenuous process. Carrying water from the pumps to the compounds is even more so, and women undertake all this work. Men don’t lift a finger. Working taps solve these problems.

One of my biggest worries was that the solar system would not work, that no water would come out of the taps. A nearby Peace Corps Volunteer had attempted to do a solar tap project and had got everything installed, only for there to be a technical problem with the pump, which the contractor was either unable or unwilling to fix , so now the water tanks and solar panels stand as monuments to a failed project. I saw the stress and anxiety this cause the Peace Corps Volunteer, and I was not envious. Installing a complicated, technical and delicate system into an environment where there is nobody with the technical know-how to maintain it, and where there is nowhere near to buy spare parts, the more I thought about it, seemed a recipe for disaster. Well maybe not disaster, but unsustainable, dysfunctional mess, nonetheless.

I have heard of and seen cases of failed solar projects – broken tanks, stolen solar panels, cracked pipes, leaking faucets. Is this something I wanted to be involved in? If it did work it could hugely benefit the community, but the more I thought about the bigger the ‘if’ seemed.

I also began thinking more about my motivations for doing the project in the first place. I had identified water as a problem for the community, we had had meetings about it, everyone told me it was a big problem. I liked having a problem that I could try and solve; the work involved kept me busy – writing up grants, getting quotes, measuring distances, deciding on tap locations, giving people roles and responsibilities – it occupied my vacant mind. I never really stopped to think whether I should be doing it all in the first place, it just felt good to be doing something. I never thought that as an outsider, a foreigner, that this should not be my role. Should the basic amenity of water be provided to a community form an outside foreign source? If government is not expected to provide this most basic intrinsic service, what can be expected of it? I don’t believe it is a question of money, it is a question of obligation and expectation. The government has the money in it’s coffers to greatly improve the water situation of huge swathes of the population of The Gambia (I look at the recent building of a new multi-million dollar government assembly building and weep). But the population doesn’t really expect the government to provide anything for them, or demand it of them, and the government doesn’t feel obligated to the population.

Outside forces coming in and plugging the holes merely propagate the problem, they further the expectation that government is not there to serve the needs of the community, other do-gooders do that. It diverts government away from public works and make it concerned with power only.

Not doing a water project in Ker Sait Maram does not change that system, but doing a water project would prop up this system, even though if the project worked it would improve people’s lives.

Recently I held a meeting with all the compound heads in the village setting out how much it would cost to install the solar taps, how much funding I was able to provide form grants, and how there was a big disparity between the two figures. We sadly concluded it would not be possible at the current time to do the work. We discussed how we could move forward. We made a list of all the important politicians or government big men in the region and I helped write a request for help to send to them all. I hope the water situation in Ker Sait Maram will improve in the future, and I hope I have learned something from this experience.

A few of the compound heads at the mosque.

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