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Back to our roots: the revival of a traditional approach to address water source management

Published on: 01/03/2012

Who says traditional African community mobilisation approaches have died out? The application of the Omuhiigo approach to the Community Based Management System (CBMS) of water sources in Kabarole district, is a good case of the revival of seemingly-forgotten traditional community mobilisation strategy. The approach has now been endorsed by the Kabarole District Council and will soon be operationalised on a wider scale. If well implemented, the Omuhiigo strategy has the potential to improve operation and maintenance of water sources.

Kabarole district local government is grappling with declining functionality of water facilities. In the annual sector performance report, The Ministry of Water and Environment indicates that Kabarole functionality rate dropped from 90% in 2010 to 80% in 2011. This is attributable to myriad factors including; poor maintenance of sources; non-functional user committees among many others. To address the situation, the district has undertaken several approaches including: formation of the Hand Pump Mechanics Association (HPMA), M4W, Yahura Yehoza (YY) strategy, lower level coordination, among many others.  Among all the approaches, the “omuhiigo” strategy stands out.

Omuhiigo is a traditional practice among the people of Tooro kingdom (which includes Kabarole district), whereby community members were mobilised to address a common challenge. Variants of the Omuhiigo existed in other parts of Uganda – in Buganda it was “bulungi bwansi” while in Acholi it was “berbedo”.  

Over the centuries, a typical omuhiigo started with the sound of a drum at the crack of dawn, made by a community leader (omuhiigi). Community members would pick up their tools and converge at an agreed point where the action would start. Through omuhiigo bridges were built; roads were maintained; water sources were cleaned; marauding wild animals were hunted down; and thieves were nabbed. In modern times, increasing individualism, the plummeting sense of community and politicisation of common challenges have seen such traditional practices like omuhiigo die away.

But in 2011, the Kabarole WASH actors took a step to revive the age-old omuhiigo and apply it to community management of water sources. These included the District Local Government, sub-county local government, District Water Office, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Joint Effort to Save the Environment (JESE) and Triple-S Uganda. They wanted an approach that would compel community members to be involved in matters affecting their sources.

 Senior Community Development Officer David Mugisha says, “many strategies have been engaged but we have realised that the most efficient strategy is that which is community-driven. When we started there were proposals to arrest people who were not participating in source maintenance but we realised that wasn’t going to work. We needed a strategy that was going to make people participate.”

The original idea was for WASH actors including Community Development Officers (CDOs) and Health Assistants (HAs) to meet with WUCs and water users at the source and discuss issues depending on the prevailing situation. The purpose was to mentor WUCs on the job. But this idea metamorphosed into the omuhiigo where activities go beyond just mentoring. Water users are mobilised to clean up the source; extension workers and WUC members make spot checks on household sanitation facilities; water user registers are updated and monthly fees collected; user meetings are held during which the WUC give accountability.  

The pioneers of the WASH Omuhiigo first tried the approach on selected sources in all the sub counties in Kabarole district. This was done in consultation with sub-county leaders. The target was to reach 20 parishes per sub-county. The trials showed positive results and this prompted the pioneers to write a proposal suggesting that the omuhiigo be adopted by the district, where the local council leaders at the different levels would be the chief mobilisers – the district chairman, the sub-county chairman and the village council chairman. The sub-county and district-level technical team would do the monitoring. They proposed that the district-wide omuhiigo be conducted every last Friday of the month. The district council passed a resolution adopting the omuhiigo as a strategy for water source maintenance. What remains now is the operationalisation of that resolution. Preparations for an official launch are underway, while the pioneers are also looking at persuading sub-county councils to pass the same resolution. They also continue to market the idea in different forums like the DWSCC and the inter-sub county advocacy meeting.

So what is the catch with Omuhiigo?

Perhaps the best thing about the omuhiigo is that it is people-centred. Grace Kanweri of CRS says the omuhiigo helps local people to address local problems because it is based on the premise that issues vary from community to community. “Each source has its unique issues. The HAs and the CDOs can only advise. But it is the local people who can best identify their issues,” she says.

Executed systematically, the omuhiigo approach would bring about many positive changes. It would improve harmonisation especially if the district council resolution is operationalised so that all communities follow the same guidelines. The strategy could even make mobilisation of water users easier since it compels all community members to be involved in maintenance of sources, with the full support of the local leaders. The Omuhiigo can also improve accountability and raise community confidence in the WUC. Perhaps more importantly, this approach can improve community ownership of sources and reduce the burden of monitoring on the technical team.

“Extension staff traverse the district monitoring the functionality of sources and they are overstretched. But once omuhiigo is accepted it becomes incumbent upon the local leadership to mobilise their people. It becomes a collective responsibility not a burden of the technical teams,” says Taddeo Balisanga, the Head of Community Development Department Kabarole District Local Government.

Especially with the involvement of leaders, Omuhiigo will ensure that at least every once a month issues of source operation and maintenance will be addressed. Community members will clean up their wells, especially in the spirit of impressing visiting leaders.  “People tend to clean up when a visitor is due to come. If the political leaders visit sources regularly, as is the plan, it means the cleaning of sources will be more regular,” says Balisanga. And therein lies the key challenge – attitude.

One of the key challenges facing omuhiigo is the community attitude towards water sources. As in many rural areas, water users in Kabarole do not look at these sources as their own. Rather they see them as belonging to the government or to the NGO that puts them in place. Even when they participated in the trial omuhiigo, some water users thought they were doing it for the CDOs and HAs. For some two sources visited during a follow up visit in February 2012, the users had not met again since the first omuhiigo in November 2011. The wells had fallen back to their state of dirt and disrepair. Asked why they had not met again, they explained that they had waited for the CDO to call the meeting and she hadn’t!

Meanwhile, there is a general lack of commitment especially from the more able-bodied members of each community. Clearing up bushes, digging soak pits, constructing fences are activities that require some youthful energies. But most of the youth are busy riding boda bodas (motorcycles for hire), unwilling to spend time tending water sources. For most households, water is fetched by women and children below 14 who may not be fit enough to take on the highly-physical tasks as well as deliberate on issues concerning the water source. Some community members do not want to be bothered and they will not respond to the omuhiigo call. In fact, for many, a good leader is one who does not nag.

So much for community attitude, but there are challenges on the side of sector actors too. While there is agreement as to the potential of the omuhiigo approach, key actors are not following up effectively on the communities where the approach was introduced. “Someone has to take the lead. There are resources involved in implementing the omuhiigo strategy,” Grace Kanweri contends. Senior CDO David Mugisha couldn’t agree more, he says, “effective operationalisation of omuhiigo requires financial and human resources which may not be readily available.”

But then again, Grace argues that the exercise does not necessarily require earth-moving budgets. “The mindset of many actors is that you need massive resources to take these initiatives forward. Yet all that is required is sensitisation and facilitation of the sub-counties who can then take things up on their own,” she says. Still, those small budgets must be funded. Someone must pick the bill.

Presented with the omuhiigo strategy, members of the DWSCC were sceptical and wondered if it would be possible to revive a practice that had been long killed by politics and whether the politicians wouldn’t hijack the initiative. They were doubtful if it would work given the weak Local Council system; or whether it would address household sanitation and hygiene. They even suggested that there might be too little work to be done if the whole group of users descends upon one source at a go [TS1]  , every month. More questions were raised about the issue of non-compliance: If people don’t get water from the source regularly, how do you persuade them to come and clear it? How is it  going to address such problems as seasonal dry out?

David Mugisha explains that this is more of a back to the roots strategy, and it fits well within the CBMS framework. The sources are community facilities and the people must take good care of them. The omuhiigo worked traditionally, it can work even today. It is therefore important to explore the different ways of using that approach to address some of the key challenges facing sustainability of rural water services.

There are proposals including: bringing all WASH actors on board; documenting and sharing all experiences in different forums; imposing fines on non-compliant users; and asking households to take turns at the maintenance of sources. For now, the omuhiigo pioneers are keen on securing the commitment of political leaders at all levels and that of the technical team. The passing of a District Council resolution is a step in the right direction. Rubona sub-county has already set every last Thursday of the month for omuhiigo.

As a first step, meetings are going to be held at county level, attracting representatives from the village level (Local Council one), parish level (Local Council two) and sub-county level (Local Council three). At this meeting, the omuhiigo for WASH will be launched. To promote it effectively, CDO is also considering wide publicity on local radio stations.

But most importantly all actors should know that for the strategy to work well, there must be political will at all levels, WUCs as well as Village Health Teams (VHTs) must be functional and above all, community members must be willing to heed the omuhiigo call.