Community Champion sets high standard
In my work as a Peace Corps Volunteer assigned to the Akros WASH Program, I was recently sent to the Chiefdom of Nalubamba in southern Zambia. We knew from our mHealth database that nearly 80% of the population there was living without adequate sanitation, meaning they did not have any form of toilet or hand washing facilities. I was with one of our community champions named Chris Malambo. He is in his mid 30’s and has the slender build of a Zambian farmer, working most days in the hot maize fields of his small patch of land in Chona Chiefdom. Chris had come along on this visit because there had been difficulty convincing the traditional chief of his villages’ sanitation problem. “We have our own reporting methods showing we have good sanitation and your reports are flawed!” the chief argued when we presented him with our data. Chris had shown a certain gift for changing minds and we would soon see his talents in action.
We arrived in the village and, after all the formal introductions so important in Zambian culture, Chris convinced everyone in attendance – almost 150 village headmen and ward councilors – to do what we refer to as “the walk of shame,” that is, strolling around the village until we find a fresh pile of human excrement. This approach is a key tenet in Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) which is an integrated approach to achieving and sustaining open defecation free (ODF) status.
Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS), an intervention designed and funded exclusively by UNICEF, has been the only initiative to show profound progress in mobilizing and empowering rural communities in Zambia to build latrines. This has allowed the CLTS program to make significant progress in achieving Millennium Development Goal 7 (water and sanitation), and indirectly combating major diseases, particularly diarrhea (Goal 6), improving maternal health (Goal 5), and reducing child mortality (Goal 4).”
It didn’t take long to find the fetid pile, and after Chris had convinced a reluctant crowd to gather around, he took a freshly baked loaf of bread from his bag. He tore off some small pieces, passed them around to some of the leaders in the audience and waited while they enjoyed the treat. He then took what was left of the loaf and set it down near the pile of feces. The crowd watched as flies swarmed back and forth between the feces and the bread – back and forth – carrying with them disease-causing bacteria… After a minute or so, Chris used a stick to skillfully scoop the bread onto a clean piece of paper then again offered it to the leaders in attendance, who unanimously refused. Chris then explained that without an adequate latrine flies are free to go between your feces and your food, contaminating what you eat with your own excrement. He then said plainly, “You are all eating your own feces. Even the Chief is himself eating his own and everyone else’s feces.”
That moment was extremely powerful, and later that day the Chief, with all of the headmen, committed to becoming 100% open defecation free (ODF) in just two months.
What is even more amazing is that in a culture where one’s place in the community is very much respected, where villagers very rarely interact with chiefs and almost never dictate the course of events in the chiefdom, Chris, a small farmer from a completely different chiefdom, stood confidently and unwavering as he steered a whole chiefdom onto a path of improving sanitation and health through virtually one activity. It is clear that Chris cares so much about improving sanitation that he is willing to stand for his own and nearby communities to challenge them in new ways to help people improve their health. He is a champion of his community in the true sense of the word, and a great representation of how these Community Champions all across Zambia are working from the village level to raise the level of sanitation health.
Over the course of the year that I’ve been working with the Government of the Republic of Zambia (GRZ) and Akros on the CLTS program, I have had the pleasure of working with nearly 400 of these community champions. They have a vision of how things could be and are willing to sacrifice for it. An average champion will spend seven to ten days per month traveling from village to village, sometimes up to 60 kilometers by either bike or by their own two legs to encourage and guide people to build latrines and improve their sanitation. For those days of working they receive no money and are often met with hostility or indifference as sanitation issues are culturally taboo to address, talk about, or in some cases admit to even existing.
Chris has worked to gain the support of the traditional village leadership, recognizing that these chiefs are the best agents of change in their communities. From there, he formed sanitation action groups in every village. These groups promote proper sanitation behaviors and complete reporting forms by going door to door. Working in concert with the village headmen, Chris manages close to 200 village-level volunteers reaching 943 households and affecting some 6,200 people. He has never failed to submit a single progress report on any of his villages through our mobile-to-web reporting system. His strategy of identifying key stakeholders and his tireless enthusiasm and drive has led Chris’s villages to become some of the first certified ODF villages in all of Zambia.
To learn more about how Akros works in Water and Sanitation Health, click here.
About Scott Russpatrick
Scott Russpatrick holds a Masters of Public Health from the University of Alabama-Birmingham in Environmental Toxicology. He is currently serving as a Pease Corps Volunteer working under the Akros Water and Sanitation Health program as a Surveillance Officer, primarily in Southern Province, Zambia.