New technology eases African women's age-old workload

Before dawn, the crisp air in this West African farming village is broken with a rhythmic pounding, a deep-sounding thump ... thump ... thump. Women have begun the daily grinding of millet, slamming long, heavy sticks into hollowed-out tree trunks to crush grain into a coarse powder for their family's next breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

In between cooking meals, taking care of children, helping with the farming, and drawing water, most of these women will continue pounding until after sunset - just as their ancestors have done for generations.

But there is a new sound here competing with the age-old thumping of millet - the sound of a motorized water pump - and it's the pride of this village. It's also helping to lighten the women's workload.

For centuries, hand-grinding grain and transporting heavy loads of water have been two of the most time-consuming and back-breaking chores for the women of rural Africa. Slowly, this is changing in Senegal and other African countries. Increasingly, foreign and African governments and private aid groups are paying for wells with pumps and for motorized grinding mills in villages.

Here in Missira Wadene, about 250 miles southeast of the capital, Dakar, women used to draw their water by hand from a 200-foot well, using buckets fashioned from old inner tubes. But each bucket was so heavy that it took two or three women - or use of a donkey, cow, or horse - to pull it up.

Then, three years ago, Caritas, a relief and development agency funded by Catholic churches here and abroad, installed an above-ground water storage tank that is pumped full daily by a large motor, which draws water up a narrow, 400-foot shaft. Now, water gushes out of taps in the storage tank, from which the women of the village fill plastic buckets that they carry home on their heads.

But, as a two-night visit in this village and interviews with rural development experts in Senegal show, using such equipment to lighten the heavy workload of Africa's women is proving to be more complicated than many experts first expected.

There are, for example, technical problems in drilling for water - especially in this dry, coastal nation - according to officials of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), an international relief and development agency. Often agencies install shafts only to find no water in that area or, in villages near the ocean, to discover that the water they tap is too salty.

One way to minimize such mistakes would be for the various private and government organizations drilling for water to share their data on water tables, ideally storing the information in computers, says David Orth-Moore, a third-year Peace Corps volunteer who works on water projects for CRS.

But an even larger problem is maintenance. Motorized water pumps have been built in many Senegalese villages by the government, only to be abandoned when they break down. And a Senegalese government report says that while Senegal has built some 5,000 motorized grinding mills in recent years, about 2,000 are currently not operating.

The government often lacks the funds to fix them. Six months or more may go by before a government repairman arrives, says Abdoulaye Ndiaye, a Senegalese hydrologist who used to work for the government. And rural farming villages like Missira Wadene rarely have their own resident mechanics.

Also, villagers say they don't feel responsible for a pump or a mill that the government has built and paid for - even if it is on their own property. So when it breaks down, ``no one in the village wants to repair it,'' says Yousseph Ba, a Senegalese rural development expert with a private agency.

More and more, private and government organizations are asking villagers to help pay for keeping pumps and mills running. Before installing the water pump here in 1986, for example, officials of Caritas had villagers promise to contribute part of the construction and the expense of keeping it going. The local government also paid some of the start-up costs.

Lamine Ngom, a member of the Village Development Committee says the same day the Caritas representative came to make the cost-sharing offer, residents held a public meeting and voted to accept the project and their responsibilities. They agreed to tax themselves - at a rate of about $40 a year per family - for water for people and livestock, says Ngom. The money will help pay for a replacement pump when the current one wears out.

Small as this amount may seem to an outsider, ``It's very ... difficult for everyone to make such payments,'' says Eloi Kama, president of the Village Development Committee. Farmers here have small plots and earn very little, Mr. Kama says. What little they do earn is made by growing peanuts. Most of the millet and corn is eaten by those who grow it. Although, Kama adds, the majority of families here are currently up to date on their water pump payments.

What other projects lie ahead?

``Perhaps the people who brought us the water will give us a mill,'' Kama says. But judging from the trend in Senegal and many other African countries, whoever offers a mill will probably require that the villagers help pay for running it. That, on top of the water payments, would be a heavy burden, Kama says.

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