In the 1970’s, it was radical to believe that villagers had any knowledge about what they needed to develop their community. We began the project with a comprehensive participatory planning process that included a cross-section of villagers as well as some Egyptian and international volunteer “experts”. In the mornings, we visited every house and asked people the question of the day – what they wanted to see in the future, what was blocking that from happening, what strategies they could do to deal with the obstacles and realize their vision. In the late afternoon we held a plenary session to bring all the ideas together. The plenary was held in a tent in the middan (plaza) made of bright red, yellow, and green quilted wall hangings. The first afternoon, the men were gathered at the front of the room, and a few village women in black were huddled at the back, present but saying little. A huge gust of wind blew through and knocked down all the chairs and the blackboard. A little sleight of hand from one of my colleagues and suddenly the front of the room materialized where the back had been, and the women were at the front of the room! Several of those women who had the courage to come to the meeting, participate, and push the boundaries later became my preschool teachers.
It was clear from the consult results that the highest priority for the community was clean water. “Maya fee Bayad” (Water in Bayad) became a rallying cry. Bayad is a village perched on a limestone shelf on the eastern bank of the Nile, in a very narrow strip of land that from ancient times had flooded every year with the Nile cycle. This was the only source of water, since it rarely rains more than an inch in any year. Cavities in the limestone that captured the water were refilled by the Nile every year and were wells used for irrigation. When the Aswan High Dam was built, suddenly there was no more flooding, no more refilling of the wells. For more than 10 years, every drop of water for drinking, cooking and washing or for growing food had to be carried by hand or on heads from the Nile. When irrigation ditches were finally constructed, the stagnant water in the ditches became a wonderful habitat for the snail that is a host of bilharzia, or schistosomiasis. Just walking in the water makes one subject to infection, as the microscopic fluke passes through the skin, then lays its eggs in the liver. People are debilitated for years, before finally the liver is destroyed. When woman and children went to the canal for water, often the donkey carrying the water jugs waded into the water, and water next to him was scooped into the jugs.
Educated people said that village people (fellahin) were ignorant about water-borne disease. Village folk knew exactly what was happening to them. However there are no trees in Egypt, no money to buy extra fuel to boil water, and humans cannot survive without water!
So although we began working on strategies to create solutions to a wide range of challenges in the community, the first focus was on getting clean water. Everyone said it was impossible, that there was only rock under the village.
Gene Boivin was a wild, creative older American on our staff. He and a small group of volunteers, both Muslim and Christian, from the village began together to explore ways to deal with the water problem. Gene found a drawing of a hand water drill in a book on appropriate technology, and went off to Beni Suef to get a welder to create it.
The first try was on the edge of the village. Clunk! The drill immediately hit stone. A few days later, the Omda (traditional mayor) of the village came to Boivin and said, “I have a small plot of land that is right on the edge of the Nile. There is sand and clay there. Why don’t you try your well there?” So the ragtag group of men and boys carried the drill down to the Omda’s land. They began by digging a hole by hand. A few feet down, they hit moist sand. “Khudra!” shouted young Khalil. “Green!” or “Fertile!” The men immediately dropped the drill into the hole and turned it. Clean water bubbled out! Excitement flooded the village.
Boivin and the crew set up a donated diesel pump, and long lines of village women came for water. Next a coordinating body of volunteer village leaders and our staff organized workdays. On the one day of rest, after prayers on Fridays, the men dug a long trench in the limestone with their turias (stout short-handled hoes) toward the village. Women brought tea. Our staff pitched in sifting sand into the bottoms of the trench to protect the pipes. When the men got tired of working every Friday on the trench, and the number working began to dwindle, the women got together and threatened that they would not carry water until the men were back on the job. The next Friday they were all back.
A crew laid donated pipe in the trench, and connected it to a faucet on the edge of the village. City folk cautioned us, “You can’t put copper pipes and faucets in a village. It won’t be long until someone steals them.” But the villagers had built this with their own energy, and guarded their precious water.
Weddings are the main festive events in an Egyptian village, and the drink served is called “sharbot”. It is like English cordial, bright red, yellow or green and thick with sugar and flavor. To celebrate the water, we held a community-wide ceremony and festival, with sharbot made with the fresh water. The excitement was so widespread people charged the tables to get their sharbot, and the event has remained in memory as “the sharbot riots”.
Abdel Hamid was one of the pioneers of the water system. He was a felucca boatman, who worked long hours poling, rowing, and steering his felucca back and forth across the Nile to support his large family. The water was so important to him that he put his work on hold to volunteer full-time for the water project. During that time, one of his children died of complications from malnutrition. I asked Abdel Hamid later if he regretted having given up his work for the project. He looked at me directly and said, “Yes, I lost a child because of this project. But because we have clean water, my other children and my grandchildren will live healthy lives.” Abdel Hamid is one of my heroes.