A volunteer with a bicycle can save lives

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By Ombretta Baggio in Zimbabwe

It is late afternoon in Chomutondo village, Chivi district, and the temperature is finally cooling after a blazing day. Tizai Miidzo is home with his bicycle and is smiling after a long day.

Tizai is one of 108 Red Cross volunteers newly recruited to a water and sanitation project. “Changing habits is not easy, especially with the elderly. They claim they have always used the water from the river and resist new ideas,” says Tizai.

The Chivi district has faced recurrent droughts in recent years. Food insecurity and access to water are among the most worrying problems affecting communities. Two-thirds do not have access to safe drinking water and 86 per cent do not boil, filter or perform any kind of treatment on water from unsafe sources. Almost half of the population practice open defecation, often close to water sources.

“The risks are many,” says Tizai. “Communities are exposed to illness especially now that this area is more densely populated. Children get sick and the clinic is a three-hour walk. Women will usually wait until it gets dark and they are forced to walk, often for hours, in search of privacy.”

While installing a water pump is technically challenging, encouraging better hygiene is a challenge of a different kind.

“I have been a hygiene promoter for the past two months and I can already see small but significant changes,” he says. “People are building pot racks and rubbish pits. They cover their food and pay increased attention to their personal hygiene.”

The secret of his success is engaging community leaders and the elderly. “We speak about the importance of boiling water, highlight the effect of washing hands and visit households daily to check on improvements,” he says. “We are always there with them.”

Tizai was trained on the Participatory Hygiene and Sanitation Transformation (PHAST) method, which is organized by Zimbabwe Red Cross in partnership with local ministry officials.

“PHAST trainings last 14 days,” says Red Cross project manager Edmore Nduna. ”It has a strong practical component. Volunteers can examine existing hygiene behaviour and understand how transmission of disease takes place, and how it can be prevented.”

He says the programme promotes a more flexible approach where communities can decide for themselves which changes they should make.

Community engagement is vital to ensure sustainability and ownership. It is about giving people a voice and the information to understand and adopt healthy behaviours. This takes time and effort.

“I can visit up to three households a day,” Tizai says. “Some might take longer to understand what I have to say, they ask many questions. I invite them to join the health club. I use visuals to explain the importance of hygiene, the value of having a latrine and the need to boil water.”

The water and sanitation project in Chivi started in 2011 and will benefit 100,000 people in Masvingo Province over four years. In addition to better access to water supply and hygiene promotion, over 3,400 improved latrines are being built.

“A key lesson we learned from decades of community sanitation work is that promotion of sanitation and hygiene should start before the technical or construction process. This is what we have done in Chivi,” says Noor Baya Pwani, water and sanitation delegate.

Hygiene promoters are equipped with bicycles to allow them to work further afield, and training on community management of water points, latrine construction and hand pump repair will follow soon. A schools programme will also help create the next generation of change agents to spread the hygiene message.