Sit back, shut up and just watch…

For approximately seven years I rated myself very highly on the “I know these people, I have lived with them” scale. A year in the Sudan and two and a half years in Bangladesh as a volunteer then a few years in Ethiopia as a consultant meant I had mastered the art of sitting with locals drinking their tea, sharing their stories and generally buffooning around. I understood them and most importantly I understood their needs and was perfectly placed to assist them in changing their lives for the better. I had for all intents and purposes done my time and surely it was time to give back. Then along came Azaletch. A young, female, upstart engineer who knew better. Fortunately, I did have the grace to agree to her taking initial control of the field trip at which point I was told in effect to sit back, shut up and just watch how it is done.

In contrast with this particular piece of ‘Participatory Rapid Appraisal’ work I would general hang around the selected village, note book in hand, pen and paper at the ready, holding a few of the latest gadgets (of which there were few in the early 90s) and start my survey pretty much in isolation. I have 75 double paces to every 100 linear meters on average and this was a surprisingly effective form of measurement when conducting a basic topographical survey. Using a compass, abney level and referencing the sun, moon and stars, rivers, roads and all other landmarks, I could spend up to a week producing a good map of the area highlighting the majority of water sources, schools, churches and mosques. During down periods I could add to all this hard data, detailed information gathered during my tea and lunch breaks which was ultimately what separated me from the lazy oiks working for the UN and other wishy washy NGOs back in their comfy offices. Another week gone by and my picture would be practically complete, a near perfect map, rough population figures, most of the major water sources identified and indigenous problems identified, analyzed and in general ready for ‘my solution’. Oh and by then I would be covered in the obligatory film of dust, sun burnt and look particularly rugged; very Indiana Jones.

And so here she was, confident, sure of herself and ready to show the old hand how it should all be done. Taking up the challenge I sat down on the grassy bank and watched as she and her team drew in the crowds. On any average day nothing much happened in those long, TV free days in the central highlands of Ethiopia between the sowing, planting and harvesting seasons. So whether or not Save the Children were actually going to deliver there would be a spectacle to behold and everyone could have a good day out, listening, watching and most of all mimicking the outsiders and ‘forenges’.

The social map was first described to the crowds. Using anything to hand, anyone who cared could get involved, placing various objects on the ground to represent their houses, their farms and gardens, the roads and pathways, the schools and places of worship. Individual families would then show where they collected water and mark up the water sources. A teacher might leave 56 stones in the school room to show how many pupils he had. Doctors and medics would show how many beds they had in the clinic and would happily complain about the drugs they did not have to cure this, that and every type of illness. Muslims would criticize the Christian for burying their dead too close to the shrine of the old imam. Christian would complain about the incessant call to prayer hovering over their part of town and so on and so on. And all this information was gathered in no more than an hour or two and when the map looked like a Leonardo Da Vinci everyone was happy to have had their say and to be represented clearly and emphatically in such a solid, tangible and visible way. Thereafter we broke up for lunch and returned to our investigations using various other PRA tools which were equally incredible to see.

Siraj the evil genie who lived in the banyan tree was my favourite story and has been ever since that first day with Azaletch and her team. He was the reason we needed a roof on the water point since he spent his lazy days up in the branches with one eye looking up into the clouds and one eye looking down to see what pretty women were passing and could be abused. Children were especially prone to his attention and evil desires and coincidentally he was most active just when the women needed to fetch water and when the children were coming out of school. Siraj was a complete pain to the villagers but here were Save the Children ready and willing to provide safe clean drinking water from the perfect water source at the bottom of his Banyan tree. There was far less interest in the potability of the water than its collectability and the obvious engineering solution put forward by the women of the village was to have a roof – safety indeed. A simple solution I would never have come up with, let alone approve of within our tight budget. The installation of a roof was the critical parameter which would ensure success of the project and it was all related to an evil spirit that none of us could have even conceived of before the PRA exercise.

That field trip was an epiphany for me. No longer would I be the expert coming in to impose my solution on the poor, wretched and uneducated villagers. Vague recollections of Lu Ban flooded my memory and I was grateful for one of the most powerful lessons of my life. And I have been ever grateful to Azaletch and her team for their patience that week and for teaching me so much.