Though I had developed five specific goals for this year’s Zongo Water Project implementation, before setting foot on the ground, I knew these would probably change in response to both conversations with residents and my own observations. Establishing these goals however, was of utmost importance because they provided multiple, triangulated starting points – each of which constituted a unique combination of social, economic, and architectural factors that contributed to achieving the long-term goal of a new water infrastructure for the Zongo. While the business development workshops emphasized economic growth and collaboration occurring over the long-term, the rainwater collection system initiative foregrounded short-term tangible change in combination with education. As long as I could maintain a diverse set of underlying factors, the actual subject matter of these goals could shift. This is exactly what happened with the fourth goal in particular – the educational workshops. Within the first week of initiating the third phase of the project, I could see that there would be little interest in an open-ended, design workshop focused on long-term community planning. Especially after initial informal interviews with residents, it was clear that community members not only desired privacy and time to respond to planning issues, but also expected immediate, tangible results. Instead of a more open-ended workshop therefore, we achieved a similar goal connected to long-term planning through the more specific lens of sanitation. By hosting a “clean-up exercise,” the residents could see immediate visible improvements and at the same time imagine how changes in policy and their physical infrastructure could improve the health of the community and city at large. Despite the organizational and emotional challenges of needing to alter my strategy, the sanitation planning ended up becoming an opportunity. Rather than just working within the community, this planning effort required conversations and cooperation with both governmental and non-profit stakeholders across the city. In addition, this effort successfully combined short-term action (sanitation clean-up) with long-term planning (financing waste pick-up, composting + recycling opportunities, shared responsibilities between the government and communities). Perhaps the most exciting “aha moment” of the project was when the water committee members, without my prompting, began “planning” for future phases. They had demanded of the community where their office space would be, had wanted to talk with me about what our goals would need to be in 5 and then in 10 years, and described how the Zongo would serve as a successful case study for not only Cape Coast, but all of Ghana!
Just as my planning efforts began as a challenge but ended with opportunity, I had a similar experience at the very onset of my trip concerning the overall goals of the project and the conceptualization of education. A community member had approached me shyly about wanting “one of my friends” to come to the Zongo with an educational mission – one that could give the schools white boards and exercise books. I found it extremely difficult to explain how the mission of The Zongo Water Project included education, but was more focused on learning to think and act creatively in and outside the classroom than it was on donating physical equipment. The following is an excerpt from the journal entry I had written about this experience:
Lastly, Hammad and I talked about the third and least developed aspect of the project – a component that would involve education – working with the children to imagine alternative futures for the Zongo community. The moment I mentioned education, Hammad’s eyes brightened and he replied, “The main problem facing the community is education! Education is the way to capture the whole community.” He went on to explain that there had been another American who gave exercise books and desks to all of the schools in Cape Coast and that the Government had been so supportive that they gave her a car with which to do her rounds. While Hammad understood that my mission focused on water, he prayed next time I would bring a friend who could focus on education. This is where our conversation became the most challenging and our cultural wires crossed. To him, the success of education depended upon having these material goods. While I recognized that one needs pencils, chalk, and blackboards to teach effectively, I also tried to explain that The Zongo Water Project could contribute a less tangible, but very important aspect to education - one more focused on teaching creativity, design, and imagining how one’s quality of life could be improved using water. This was a long-term investment in cultivating leadership and agency. From this conversation though, I could tell that I would need to find other ways of explaining the connection between education and the project. Or, perhaps demonstrate the children’s capacity through a tangible project to which the community could respond…what the project will be exactly, I’m still not sure.
Despite this initial challenge of two very different ways of conceptualizing and valuing education, understanding this difference helped me throughout the remaining weeks of the project. I used the word education often, but as a result of this one conversation, I would be very specific about how The Zongo Water Project actually did (sometimes more directly than others) contribute to education in the Zongo. For example, we installed a rainwater collection system at the Zongo Community Center that had previously been unusable due to its leaking roof. With the new system installed, not only could the educational soap-making and business development workshop be held in its space, but also the community immedicately began making plans for a school to operate there a few times a week. In addition, The Zongo Water Project routinely works with the students at the Hassaniya Quranic school on issues related to water, sanitation, and erosion. This year, the students wrote and presented a play about sanitation to the Zongo community at the closing ceremony. Finally, because education and hygiene need to come hand in hand, each of the three Zongo schools were presented with dust-bins and are expected to take the lead on both disseminating information about and practicing safe methods of sanitation.
When thinking about who/what contributed to the success of the project initiatives, there was always a direct correlation between success and good communication, high participation rates, and community members taking ownership of the project. More than in previous years, the Water Committee, Chiefs, and elders in the community worked hard to disseminate the project information across the Zongo and saw it as their responsibility to do so. In addition, each Zongo Water Committee member chose to “champion” (using their words) one of the project initiatives. This way, they were the ones organizing, leading, held responsible when something went wrong, and praised when something went well. Without their dedication, this project would not have been possible.
Building upon last year’s powder and bar soap-making workshop, this summer over 50 residents learned not only how to make liquid soap, but also the entrepreneurial strategies for starting and sustaining their own businesses. Though the long-term impact is still yet to be seen, residents were thrilled to learn a new set of skills that would improve the hygiene in their homes and raise their earning potential. Second, 10 new rainwater collection systems were installed (now a total of 35) that benefit over 350 residents. These systems provide shelter from the rain, water for drinking, cooking, and washing, and require its owners to learn about cleaning, sharing, and conserving water. Though most of these systems have been installed at private homes, in response to a community plea at the opening ceremony, this year we added the Zongo Community Center to the list of beneficiaries. Not only did this new rainwater collection system enable the Center to once again be used for weddings, funerals, naming ceremonies, and other religious events, but also for educational purposes such as the soap-making and business development workshop. Third, the sanitation planning initiative encouraged residents to play a proactive role in keeping their community healthy in both the short-term (sanitation exercise) and long-term (policy changes). Over 200 residents participated in the sanitation exercise and were asking about when and how this effort would continue in the future. Rather than working within the Zongo as solely a bottom-up strategy, this part of the project also required top-down communication with the Metropolitan Assembly among other stakeholders. More than any other aspect of the project, I believe this initiative empowered the Zongo Water Committee to believe in their community and make change. Finally, educational workshops such as those with the children in the Hassaniya Quranic School not only taught about water, sanitation, and hygiene issues in the community, but more importantly encouraged students to take charge and design their own solutions. Overall, I believe the project has reconstituted feelings of community communication, cooperation and pride. Most importantly, it is giving the Zongo residents a voice in when, where, and how development (social and spatial) occurs. With over 300 attendees at the closing ceremony, a persistent, dedicated Water Committee, and new connections to stakeholders at the Metropolitan level, I am hopeful that these efforts will continue to benefit the community long-term.
Despite the project’s emphasis on the water, sanitation, and erosion, I have come to realize that my primary interest lies in the process of community building and the complex relationship between social forces and spatial configurations at different scales. When and how does architecture have the capacity to shape human attitudes, encourage collaboration and change policy? What are the social, economic, and political mechanisms that need to be put in place in order for communities to invest in, and design their buildings? How do uneven geographies of power play a role in social and spatial development? Are there ways to even out the distribution of power in a community-building process? What is the designer’s role in these processes, especially when working outside one’s own cultural geography?
This last question brings me to the issue of ethics that I found myself continuously battling throughout the project. How, when, and where does one intervene, if at all in another culture? When is it “our” responsibility as designers to intervene and when should we let people just live their lives? And, once intervene, when (if ever) does the project come to an end? The following is a short excerpt from one of my journal entries that exhibits the large impact one can have on a community (whether conscious and intended – or not at all):
Gingerly, I took a seat on a rickety wood bench in front of the brightly painted blue and yellow madrasa in the Zongo and eagerly awaited Baba. He had called me yesterday with the exciting news that he had discovered a map of the Zongo community – according to him, it had “bounced” from the Zongo to the Municipal Assembly and then “bounced back” to the Zongo. Pulling up a chair next to me now, Baba explained that the Municipal Assembly must have used the map when they tried to sell the Zongo to the Japanese in 2012. He pulled out a weathered piece of paper protecting the map within. As he opened it, and my eyes focused on its contents and I couldn’t help but gasp. My throat felt clogged with a mixture of feelings – dismay and guilt– but at the same time I shouldn’t have expected anything else. The map was ironically my own. Working with the Zongo residents in 2007, we had developed it together as a way for them to feel ownership of their settlement and to aid me in the production of my thesis. Unfortunately, once wielded by the Municipal assembly, the powers of the map were used against the very community I was trying to help. This is just one example of many throughout the years where I have stopped in my tracks and asked myself to what extent my presence is truly benefiting the community. In what ways are their livelihoods threatened and/or enriched by the initiatives I have developed in the Zongo? So far, I don’t have a good answer and just try to listen as carefully as I can to the needs of the community. Though I bring my own skill sets to the table and provide a framework for orchestration, that at the ends of the day, The Zongo Water Project has to satisfy resident needs and inspire their imagination for the future of their community. The less focused the project could be on me, the better.
Perhaps because of the way the day began - with the re-emergence of a map I had created years ago and its ripple effects on the community – that today I became acutely aware of how my long-term engagement combined with a product (whether it be a children’s book, rainwater collection system, or documentary) affects the way the community operates and the way they see themselves. For example, I’ve communicated with residents that I’m keeping an online journal and they are aware that every phase of the project has resulted in a booklet documenting the process complete with photographs and text. More so than the previous phases, I’ve noticed a change in how a select few of the residents respond to my taking their photograph and even to some extent how they answer questions. It is almost as if they see themselves as part of the product and see the project more as a collection of images of a changing physical environment rather than the physical environment itself. This is certainly very concerning and tells me that perhaps the residents need to be more involved in the project’s photography and contributing to the online journal – perhaps with added voices and perspectives this could fragment and complicate what is now becoming too homogeneous of a representation. A “community-based initiative” therefore, needs to include not only collective actions and diverse voices, but also collective representations of those actions and diverse voices.
Though I don’t have an answer for these ethical questions I’ve posed, I would venture to say that transparency of one’s process and intent is one of the most important aspects of community design and planning. This requires clear communication, personal reflection, a consciousness about the structure of knowledge and culture from which one draws, and an openness and desire to learn from other systems of knowledge and people.
The balance of benefit for me and the community I serve is a very challenging, if not impossible one to measure. First, how does one compare an individual’s benefit against an entire community’s? Second, how does one compare how I benefit (more academically focused) against how the community benefits (more livelihood focused)? Thus, rather than weigh one against the other by creating a dichotomy between the two, I’m more interested in how we mutually benefit one another. From my experience so far, the higher the participation rate of the community and the more they take ownership of the project, the more all of us benefit. As the project expands and more connections (social and spatial) we create, the more all of us can learn from the process.