Tuesday, October 25, 2011

My first week back in Bundibugyo

The journey from Ft. Portal into Bundibugyo was about 3 and a half hours of twists, turns, and many bumps as our vehicle traversed the 70 or so kilometers across the Rwenzori mountain range.  One of the latest development projects that the central government has undertaken is the paving of the road from Ft. to Bundibugyo, but this project is far from finished and as a result the current dirt/rock mountain road has not been leveled in quite a while and with the 70+ inches of rain a year that Bundibugyo gets, you can imagine the conditions of the road.   David, our Ugandan driver, even commented that he hadn’t seen the roads in such a bad condition.  By the end of the drive I think I could count each bump in my joints. 
Stretching my legs upon arrival was like stepping back into a distant memory.  Faces and lubwisi (the little that I remembered that is) flooded back into my memory and I was surprised each time as familiar faces slowly appeared at my door as the “bush telegram” got the news out that I had arrived.  In some ways I had wondered if my friends would remember me and would I remember them.  One of my favorite things about the Ugandan people is there warmness in welcoming – there was much genuine excitement and much genuine thanking me for returning.  It was as if returning was simply enough for joy that nothing else was required.  A favorite memory that I quickly re-acquainted  myself with was sitting under the covering of my neighbor’s house, Bhiawa, and talking with him and his wife Topi.  They are a precious couple who has been friends of World Harvest for a long time.  As we caught up on the years missed, my mind drifted to how much I love this place – the cool breeze in the evening, the crisp clean smell accompanying the many short rain showers, the flowers and lush growth everywhere.  Another special moment for me in the first days was my first day back at the local church in Bundimulinga (the name of the small village that I am located in).  As I walked in my eyes locked with Vincent Biamutra – one of my best friends from my internship.  I think he lit up the entire sanctuary with his smile of brilliant white teeth against his chocolate skin!  I would have run to embrace him immediately had not he been one of the primary drummers in the choir (no guitars / pianos / organs here for church).  Our greeting afterwards was full of joy and I am excited about picking up our friendship right where we left off.


There was a greeting, however, that I could have done without.  The day after I arrived I received that news that were was no water at Christ School.  The region that I live in is one of the top two most populated regions in Bundibugyo called Nyahuka (which had organized into a town council in my absence).  This region is served by an old gravity flow water scheme put in by the UN and Michael Masso of WHM in the 90’s.  The scheme is reaching the end of its design life and was originally designed to water 5,000-10,000 people.  There are now over 30,000 people in the region (estimates vary greatly depending on who you ask).  Since I wasn’t a part of the design of this water line, some of the intricacies of the line are not known by me, but I did know that the line was designed with the Nyahuka Health Center and Christ School being priority receivers of water – thus the news that the Christ School was not receiving water indicated that there was a significant problem on the line (probably one that had slowly worsened over time, but nothing was done about it).  Monday morning I checked the reservoir tanks near the mission, and sure enough, the water was slowly trickling in, only enough to fill the tanks about a foot above the bottom during the night (not nearly enough water!). 
Organizing work in Uganda is a challenging enterprise.  Even more so when you have just arrived – have no means of transport.  Limited tools. Limited knowledge of system as built.  Lots of opportunity for frustration.  I rented a boda (motorcycle) for the day for a few dollars.  This of course came without fuel.  Bambogada (one of my friends and local water technicians who Michael trained) headed to Nyahuka with a jerry can to search for petrol (yes, they use British English here).  2 hours and an unsolved satellite internet problem and rainstorm later, we set out for Ngite, the local water source.  The rain made the roads tricky and slow going as the motorcycle trudged through the mud (Bambo was driving – he’s got a bit more experience on the roads).  We finally arrived at the source.  Upon dismounting a local man (and maybe property owner?) wanted to charge me to visit the waterfall (as I am an Mzungu, there is the opportunity for money for such things).  This of course had to be explained to me later as my lubwisi or luchongo was not tracking with the conversation. Bambo explained to him that we weren’t there for recreation, but work, and wouldn’t be paying.  The man was not thrilled.

We arrived at the sedimentation basin located at the bottom of the source.  This tank serves to remove sand, grit, and other small debris from the water before sending it down to the valley through the pipeline.  One of the problems at the basin was that the washout (a small opening used to clean the tank) had begun seriously leaking due to a failing rubber seal and a misplaced bolt.  We opened the washout and examined the remaining material.  The amount of water leaking from the basin was probably equivalent to 2-3 continuously flowing taps in the valley, so any reduction in water leaking would help.  Bambo preceded to use sticks and rocks wedged on the outside of the washout, while I used the leaves of an elephant ear plant, rocks, and mud on the inside to curb the rate of flow leaking out.  As I waded in the chilly water in near darkness, my mind raced.  What am I doing here, what are the odds of there being a snake down here, why didn’t I bring a flashlight? We reduced the leakage slightly, but this would not be permanent.  We also examined the influent pipes to the system, two of which were flowing correctly, one of which had significantly reduced flow due to some type of blockage.
One our way back to Nyahuka, we stopped to examine a major leak on the line that we saw.  As we removed the earth surrounding the line we found the plastic piping unsuccessfully bandaged with black rubber from old tire tubes.  Underneath was a hole the size of a quarter that appeared to be a deliberate puncture by a spear so that the water would be able to be used in a very nearby brick making operation.  Sadness.  The public health and welfare of many people below were sacrificed to make a few bricks- which in total value would not come close to the cost of the repair (probably about $30).  This is one of the chronic problems for water systems in Bundibugyo.  We replaced the black rubber, but would need to purchase materials to finish the repair properly.

The next morning there was no flow at the reservoir tanks above Nyahuka.  I am already exhausted at this point from traveling and attempting to get settled. Was not emotionally or mentally prepared for an immediate water crisis.  I said a silent and brief prayer, “God, please let water flow today.”  I spent the morning organizing more work on the line.  All morning organizing.  Our planned repairs required materials from Bundibugyo Town, about 45 minutes north of us by vehicle.  I had not driven yet on the “one-lane” dirt road at all, much less all the way to Bundibugyo and on the muddy, incredibly rocky road to Ngite.  Today was the day.  Anxiety.  Driving in Uganda is on the opposite side of the road from the US and most of the vehicles are stick shift.  The first time I drove when I was an intern 4 years prior, I gracefully removed the bumper from another vehicle parked on the side of the road loading cocoa, so I had this lingering worry that I hadn’t improved my right side diving skills much.  By noon we finally loaded up the vehicle.  Before departing we noticed that a tire was almost flat, so instead of heading to Bundibugyo, we went south 5 minutes to Nyahuka proper where in the busy market I had to make a 6 point turn with everyone watching to line up the car to be serviced with some air.  Turns out the Nissan Patrol had the wrong tire tubes installed, so the tire would have to be removed to inflate it.  45 minutes later we were on our way.  That is, up to the reservoir tanks to check the size of the gate valve we would need to buy.  We were on our way again, that is to Bambo’s house to pick up pipe wrenches.  We were on our way again, that is until we needed to stop and pick up food for Thembo’s (one of our best technicians) daughter who is in Bundibugyo Town.  He disappeared for ten minutes and came back with an enormous bag.  We were on our way, until we picked up a friend.  We were on our way and did in fact make it to Bundibugyo Town probably 2 hrs after we originally set out. 
Somehow I found myself in the middle of Bundibugyo at a small hardware shop, haggling with the shop-owner over prices for the repair materials.  The shop-owner, if I understand it correctly, is an assistant to the water officer for the district.  Now this shop had many different wares, but I found it very interesting that he had in-stock repair materials for larger piping systems, of the kind you would only find on a large water scheme.  Now it was fortunate that he had it in stock, because it made the repair possible, but it seemed to me a broken part of the system, as these wares were purchased from Ft. Portal, which were purchased privately from Kampala…whereas if supplies were purchased for the maintenance of the GFS systems on a large district contract, they could probably be purchased for 30-50% less than I was able to get it for…meaning more repairs for less.

After leaving Bundibugyo town, we traveled back to Ngite the source for three main gravity flow lines in order to clear one of the primary source lines to the sedimentation basin.  The overgrowth of the basin had already been slashed (that is, machetes were used to cut down the growth so we could work).  Bambo and I climbed up the side of the 25-30ft water fall (not a technical climb, more of a scramble, but it was wet).  We then made make-shift harnesses out of rope before working on the intake which is on the precipice of the waterfall (note: need climbing harnesses and rope).  We cleared sand and small stones out of the intake, but there didn’t seem to be any major occlusions of the line.  The guys were also hammering the metal line with the large wrenches to free up any clogs farther downstream (note this line is about 25-15ft in the air at any one point).  And here’s where things get weird. 
As we are working on the line that is failing to flow freely, we manage to clear the line of a plug of sand and sediment. Now, SIMULTANEOUSLY, the second GI pipe line clogs and stops producing.  What?!  What are the engineering odds of this?  I ran through my mind possible “non-clog” scenarios, like perhaps the intake is not capable of feeding all three lines simultaneously and causes sort of a vacuum in the intake box causing not enough flow through one line – but I’m pretty sure that all functioned properly at one point, and we even shut off the working line to see if the other would flow.  No dice.  It was getting dark.  Time to call it a day.  Frustrated at not resolving all the issues at Ngite, we headed back toward Nyahuka. 

The next morning. No water in the reservoir tanks.  I was beginning to wonder if there was any hope for the line.  I was also beginning to wonder if anyone really cared that the water wasn’t flowing.  The women and children are just sent to the river if there is no water on the line.  Began to experience more sadness, despair, and exhaustion at the lack of water.  I had discussed with Travis, the team leader and a doctor the principle of Ockham’s Razor, which paraphrased states that when a patient is ill, it is more likely caused by a single explanation than multiple pathogens or diseases.  In passing, he made the comment that it’s not always true here due to chronic malnutrition, poor living conditions, etc.  I was finding that this principle was not at all true of the gravity flow water scheme.  A GFS is an intricate design that relies on proper flow and pressure throughout the whole line to function properly.  The lack of water wasn’t a single cause, but a system-wide failure due to multiple independent leaks and no preventative maintenance. 
Somewhere in here I was ready to pack my bags and head back to the US.  Frustrated, tired, emotionally drained, I began to pray more desperately for God’s intervention and for a miracle.  Too many leaks to fix, but to be led to the most crucial ones.  Thursday we fixed 6 major leaks.  Cost: $250-300.  Time: All day.  Had to send boda drivers to Bundibugyo town for more spare parts.  Heard some taps downstream of our repairs were beginning to work.  Checked the air-release at Simbia Secondary school (the final high-point in the line where there is often an airblock when the line is turned back on).  Had a successful release of air and enough pressure to force out water – a good sign for this high point that is usually a struggle for the line.  Started getting excited.  Jumped in the car and drove down to the reservoir tanks.  Nothing.  Not a drop.  We began to excitedly discuss if there was a blockage in the line that we had dislodged and it traveled down the line and became clogged again.  We also were debating if we had traveled faster than the water.  Hard to know.  Time passed. Nothing and it was getting late.  We started walking up the line checking taps.  Nothing.  And then there was a drop.  I think I strained my eyes so hard staring at the tap examining every aspect to see if this was actual flow.  The line slowly start dripping – this was NEW water and the line was filling! Praise God! We went back to the tank and the line we had detached slowly started to flow.  We let it run for about 20 minutes before hooking it back to the tank – a big test as there needed to be enough pressure to force flow into the tank.  Water poured into the tank slowly at first and then began to steadily increase.  That night it became twice the diminished flow I found on my first day of arrival.  Enough to fill the primary tank halfway overnight. 

My tanks are full.
This morning (Sunday) I received an excited phone call from Bambo – the flow had continued to increase and completely filled the primary tank overnight.  GFS schemes can take a while to reach full flow potential as air is purged from the line.  We praise God for enough flow for today and pray for His wisdom as there is much more work needed, on this line and elsewhere (and in developing sustainable management of the line).  God has also provided for some physical and emotional rest – I remember thinking when I arrived in crisis mode if I would ever be able to rest, laugh, and find peace again.  He did this weekend.  My tanks are also full.

Back in Bundi

Hey! I'm back blogging.  If you followed me before here is a brief update/segway.  After my internship with WHM in Bundibugyo, Uganda in 2006-7 I returned to FL to start and finish a Masters/PhD in Environmental Engineering with the intent of moving back to Bundibugyo.  Now I'm here.  Praise God, He is faithful.  I'll do my best to keep life updated here.