Can a water system be beautiful?
In November of 2011, 7 communities in the Tuungane program came together to address a common problem: access to potable water on the outskirts of Minova, DRC. After a thorough analysis of demand, a survey of water sources, and a community led design process, we arrived at a solution: a gravity fed water distribution system, combining 13 water sources into 27 kilometers of pipe, 2 water tanks, and delivered through 21 water kiosks located throughout the communities. This is the largest water system to date for the Tuungane program in South Kivu and will give the communities access to clean water.
For many projects of this scope, NGOs (or sometimes the government), will place signage of sorts on the project site with their name, logo and contact info. This increases the visibility of the organization to both communities and donors. It also provides a self-acknowledged accomplishment on the part of the donor. “We built this. Look at all the work we have done.” Often with water systems, a large water tank is the perfect canvas for such signage.
Unfortunately, such signage places ownership of the project in the hands of the organization, not in those of the people. It also reinforces the sense that Africa is a place of dependence, devoid of its own entrepreneurial drive. For this project, nothing could be farther from the truth. The communities around Minova organized themselves through elections, guided our IRC staff to the water sources, and decided upon the location of the water kiosks. As the construction coordinator, I wanted to find a way to for the community to create its own signage – for its own project.
Innocence, a tall, shy, mid 20 year old is a painter and sculptor in the Biglimani neighborhood of Minova, one of the seven communities working to construct this massive water system. Most of Innocence’s work is in signage. He has done work for local churches, schools and storefronts in and around Minova. He also draws many portraits and landscapes for sale and for his own pleasure. I asked Innocence if he would be interested in painting the community’s water tank as a piece of public art. We briefly discussed his fee for the work (which I placed in the contract going out for bids from contractors) and he produced this rendering: a series of colored stripes that frame an image of a man drinking fresh, clean water.
In his drawing, there is no mention of IRC, no mention of Tuungane, no mention of who funded the project – only color and design created by the community’s own artist. This past Thursday, we held a meeting with the community to discuss the details of the project and presented Innocence’s drawing. I could see the look in many of the committee members’ eyes as they began to visualize a water system that is unique, beautiful, and most importantly, theirs.
I have begun to incorporate paint in the financial estimates for all of our water projects; and I’ve instructed each of my technical supervisors in Kalehe, Mwenga, Uvira and Walungu to seek out local artists, craftsman, and others in these communities. So far, these proposals have been well-received. Often though, we receive comments such as “Please tell us what to paint.” The creative drive has to come from the community, not from me or my office. However, in order to spur the creative juices of the communities, I have produced this small document that illustrates various options (colors, text, hand prints, scenery). We will be presenting this page to communities that show interest creating something unique.
NGOs and developers often overlook the importance of art to the success of their projects. Art can in fact drive success by reinforcing cultural pride, unity, and ownership.
Construction of the water system in Minova will begin within the next month. The contractor will determine the timeline for construction, but we have estimated three to four months. I will be following this project throughout construction, and look forward to posting updates on the construction and the work of Innocence.