Sometimes being the only one in the field has its disadvantages. Due to the scope of the work I’m required to cover a large geographical area and it is hard for me to do a lot in a day when I have to be in two places that are far away from one another, or when I have to travel far for a meeting or to give a charla. However that’s when building relationships comes to the forefront of my job. Establishing working relationships within the communities and getting community members to do tasks within the community to advance our projects is fundamental in two ways: 1. It allows me to focus on other tasks trusting that the community is taking charge and 2. This is the goal of all development work, that is to say that the community becomes responsible for their own development. In Peace Corps they said that the ideal situation in development work is to work yourself out of a job. Working with and empowering community members so that they eventually are the ones who do everything is the dream result of any development worker. This is the very definition of sustainable development. This has been the objective of building our network of clinics in Costa Arriba. The fact that the chlorine charla comes from the medical personnel within those communities builds the sense of ownership and personal connection between the clinic and the community. This is important in creating longevity for the educational material and so that it remains in circulation long after we have left the area. The Self-Solving Initiative was born from this idea as well. We hope that people take an interest in solving the problems within their community and this way they take ownership of the solution. The idea is that we are simply there to be a catalyst for change and a guiding hand in any sort of technical or methodological problems they may face in the formation of their solution. We are hoping that our efforts will produce lasting positive changes in the rural communities of Colón.
This month two of our new clinics in Cacique and San Antonio have begun to give chlorine charlas. So far they have reached 63 people from the surrounding area. We have ordered three large banners with the chlorine instructions printed on them to hang in clinics in Costa Arriba so that there is always a visual aid available for both personnel and patients. We are awaiting results from the clinics in La Guaira and Portobelo, but we hope to receive attendance lists soon. This network of clinics has expanded our outreach and assured sustainability of the education and in the long run the health of community members in Costa Arriba, Colón.
On February 6th I met with six community representatives from the Costa Arriba region. The representatives are from the communities of Cuango, Nombre de Dios, Palmira, Palenque, Viento Frío, and Playa Chiquita. This was a chance for me to meet the political figures of these communities and establish a relationship with them for future projects or charlas. Representatives are good sources for organizational and monetary support since they are the ones who manage the community project budgets and are often the ones who hear about their communities’ problems. With them I hope to connect to local water committees in order to give them charlas and train them in problem solving with design thinking and develop solutions together for the potable water systems in their communities. This will also give me a medium through which to broadcast information and data gather from the AGUA COLÓN project with INDICASAT, our Panamanian government partner.
We have begun sampling in Costa Arriba in our project with INDICASAT called AGUA COLÓN. On February 15th I went to gather water samples from three wells in the Santa Isabel district in Colón. The wells belong to the communities of Viento Frío, Palenque, and Miramar. They were all built by a company call Open Blue, which is a organic fish farming business in Colón, Panamá. They built these wells out of a part of their budget which is dedicated to community development of the area. They will be another great ally in community project development, and we hope to collaborate with them in the future. Our sampling trip served as an exploratory trip as well. We got to get a lay of the land and map out an idea of how we want to carry out subsequent trips and how we want to develop the project from sampling to community education and transparency. I have another sampling trip planned for the 13th of March. I will be hiking with a water committee member to the Palenque spring source to examine the aqueduct line and get a sample from the source to test its quality. This will give us a bigger picture of the water situation in Palenque.
As we continue to accelerate as an organization, these relationships we build and maintain will become ever more important and decisive in the success or failure of our projects. Hopefully our work in educating the community members leads to these very members taking ownership of their problems and uniting to come up with solutions on their own. Hopefully no outside influence will be needed to push them in the right direction and they can be left alone to their own devices. This is our goal in Future Scientist and forever will be for all development workers worldwide.
After much talk with Aníbal, my counterpart in Nombre de Dios, we organized a community meeting to discuss the issues with the water. Before the date of the meeting, Aníbal spent a few days with a megaphone announcing the meeting and trying to get as many people to attend as possible. He invited the Medical Director of the clinic in Nombre de Dios/Miramar as well, a man who I had met due to my chlorine charla training session with the medical staff there. My idea for the meeting was to introduce the ideal situation of a community and its water system, then talk about the problem in Nombre de Dios while clarifying the problem while the community members put in their input. The ideal situation in any rural community is that they have what is called a JAAR, or a Junta Administrativa de Acueductos Rurales (Rural Aqueducts Administrative Committee). This is a group of community members who volunteer and are voted for to manage and maintain the local water system. The fact that they volunteer shows interest in the work and assures that they will do their duty in assuring the proper functioning of the aqueduct. The fact that they are elected serves to give community support to each member of the committee and avoid the problem of special interests among members of the JAAR. There are six positions in the JAAR: president, secretary, treasurer, prosecutor, and the vocals. The president’s role is to represent the committee, authorize the use of funds, and organize meetings. The secretary’s role is to take notes during meetings, keep inventory on all materials the committee has for the aqueduct, and prepare documents. The treasurer’s duties are to collect, administer, and deposit aqueduct funds and keep track of monetary transactions. The prosecutor’s responsibilities are to enforce the rules of water use and payment within the community and help with the committee’s organization. The vocals’ job is to announce meetings and activities to the community to ensure their participation. Once a JAAR is formed it is up to the community to participate in paying their monthly fee, attend meetings organized by the water committee, and be actively involved in the well-being of the aqueduct. After explaining all this in our meeting, it was time to look at the problem from the angle of design thinking.
The three tools I chose to use to get the gears moving in analyzing the problem the people faced in Nombre de Dios were the double diamond, the problem tree, and the brainstorm (see photos below). With the double diamond I wanted to show the community how the art of solving a problem and coming up with a sustainable solution is a process and that it requires investigation and working together. I wanted them to see that understanding the problem is equally if not more important than the solution itself. With the problem tree I wanted people to see how to break down a problem and to better understand where it comes from and what it leads to. And finally as the take-away I wanted people to begin to brainstorm ideas, not only alone but with other community members, to bring to the next meeting. When I talked about the double diamond and mentioned the need for investigation, it got the community members talking about how to understand the problem. One man suggested doing a complete hike of the water system and make a map of it and on the map mark the locations of every repair needed. This was a great example of the investigation phase of design thinking, that first part of the double diamond. However once we looked at the problem tree, the problem began to look a little clearer. The amount of repairs needed was not the central problem to the water situation in Nombre de Dios, but a consequence of a much deeper rooted problem, organization and administration, or rather its lack thereof. This became ever clearer as the meeting went on.
As I was going through each of the three design approach tools, tensions began to rise among community members. It was clear that this topic was the cause of much conflict within the community, and had deeply divided its members. This came to the forefront the more we talked about the water system. What I learned was that there are two water systems that serve two parts of the town. One serves what people call “La barriada” and the other system serves the rest of the town. So Nombre de Dios has been separated into these two groups that tend to blame each other from stealing water from the other. When La barriada has water, the rest of the town does not and vice versa. They accuse each other of tampering with the water line to direct more water to their respective parts of town. During the meeting I was finally able to see this division up close and personal and I felt it was my duty to help them mitigate the problem and come to a solution that would be satisfactory to everyone involved.
I ended my portion of the meeting by leaving the community with the task of brainstorming a solution and to invite me back to discuss the proposed ideas. After I had finished speaking, Aníbal wanted some time to discuss the new damages found along the aqueduct line and why it was important that the community pay the monthly water fee so that these damages could be repaired. He and a select others were the only ones, voluntarily and unofficially, trying to solve the problems of the aqueduct with little to no support from the community. What was needed was an official group of people who were legally responsible and accountable for the management of the water system, and that is what the next speaker highlighted when he took the stage.
I met Dr. Elías when I was organizing my chlorine charla training session with the clinic in Miramar. He is the Medical Director of that clinic and he lives in Nombre de Dios. So for him he is equally invested in the well-being of the aqueduct as the rest of the community. When he spoke he stressed the importance and the utter necessity of a JAAR in a rural community like Nombre de Dios. He explained that without a formal group of people responsible for the water system then they [the community] would be stuck in this endless cycle of finger-pointing, blaming, and band-aid repairs; without ever coming up with a long term solution. They needed to unite as a community and elect a group of people willing to take on the challenge of managing the aqueduct. The lack of organization and administration would forever condemn Nombre de Dios to a mediocre aqueduct and mediocre management. As a representative of MINSA he is able to connect the community with the resources necessary within the ministry, such as legal resources and processes, to help them legalize and legitimize the JAAR. Dr. Elías will be a key player in the formation of a long-term solution for the water system in Nombre de Dios, and I look forward to help make that solution a reality.
We have a lot of work ahead of us in the communities we have worked in and the communities we are being introduced to. This month we will be meeting with the representatives of various communities to establish relationships and begin scheduling design charlas in communities in the Santa Isabel region. For the AGUA COLÓN project I have planned a group trip on the 17th to go and see the water sources for the first time for future water collection. I will go with a collaborator from the Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá (UTP), his two students, and a collaborator from INDICASAT so that they too will be able to see the sources.
2019 is underway and we have wasted no time in working with communities and growing our outreach along the coast. We opened up the month with some more chlorine charla training sessions with health workers in the hospital in Portobelo. Our efforts in Miramar have led to four charlas being done by the staff for patients. We also did a charla at the MINSA (Ministry of Health) clinic in Portobelo, which united clinic directors from other communities such as San Antonio, Cacique and La Guaira. Now we have trained health staff in five communities throughout Costa Arriba: Portobelo, Miramar, San Antonio, Cacique, and La Guaira. On January 22nd we had a meeting with the Nombre de Dios community to discuss the water problem that has plagued the town for so long. All these activities in January reflect our effort to not only unite ourselves with communities in order to help them, but to also unite the very people within the community.
In the Portobelo hospital we gave a charla to the two parts of the staff in the hospital, the medical staff and the administrative staff. It was important that both sectors of the staff showed up so that the whole hospital staff would be informed and able to give the charla to patients. Because of this I had to give the charla on two different days so as not to interfere with the entire function of the hospital. In total I trained 22 staff members in the hospital. Since this is the only major hospital in the region, I am hoping that the chlorine charla will reach that many more people and teach them the importance of treating their water at home.
In Miramar the nurses have been hard at work. The nine trained staff members have now given the charla to 40 patients in three charlas that have been recorded by Future Scientist. They recently asked for more pipettes and pamphlets to hand out, which indicates interest in the communities where the patients come from. We are hoping for more charla success from medical staff in Miramar, where they have been the first in receiving and implementing our Clean Water Access Initiative.
When I was coordinating the charla for the MINSA clinic in Portobelo with Dr. Miranda, he mentioned that at the end of the month the directors of the other clinics would all meet. I saw this as an opportunity to kill many birds with one stone. The directors of the clinics in Cacique, La Guaira and San Antonio were going to attend a meeting in the Portobelo clinic and the plan was to train all the directors so that they gave the charlas in their respective clinics and trained their staff. Just as planned, the directors came and received the charla and I gave them all kits to begin giving the charla to their patients. This saved me a bunch of time and travel and I was able to extend our chlorine charla network four-fold in one fell swoop.
In total 46 staff members have been trained to give the chlorine charla and the six health centers supplied with materials. We will be on the lookout for more clinics to connect with in order to keep spreading the chlorine charla throughout the region to ensure that people receive the education necessary to treat the water in their homes and prevent water borne disease. As we move forward I will continue collecting charla data from the clinics we already have active. I am proud that we have created a education network that is already starting to bear fruit and we are reaching more people than we ever thought possible. Education really is power.
With November marking our first real move up coast, December has been a month making a few more connections, winding down, and preparing for the new year. We have begun to sow the seeds of a new chlorine charla network among the clinics and hospitals in Costa Arriba, so that the personnel can take the reins on educating the public in making their water potable. We are taking a look back on the year and what we have accomplished and looking ahead to our future participation in community development through science education. We are also preparing to be apart of a project called AGUA COLÓN collaborating with INDICASAT in water source analysis in communities in the district of Santa Isabel.
In Miramar, a community in the Santa Isabel district of Costa Arriba, we conducted our first training charla for the health staff in the Miramar Ministry of Health (MINSA) clinic. It was well received by the personnel and they told me about the need for this charla in the region and the good they think it can do. I left them with pipettes and instructional pamphlets to hand out to the patients that they give the charla to, and to this date they have conducted two charlas and have reached 28 people from the region. We are hoping for much more in the future and hope that Miramar will be the first clinic in a network of clinics and hospitals who will give this charla in order to reach all of Costa Arriba.
Looking back on the year we have made significant steps forward in developing community minds, water safety, and networking in the region. We did two project design charlas in both Portobelo with students and Nombre de Dios with community members. We hope to follow up this year with the students in Portobelo and community members in Nombre de Dios to further develop the solutions they came up with to test their viability in solving the respective problems they wished to tackle. In water safety we built the experimental emergency dam system for the high school in Portobelo that serves 250+ people during the school year. Our chlorine charlas have reached 100+ people in the region and is being set-up to reach more as we continue growing our network among clinics and hospitals in Costa Arriba. Apart from the medical institution network we’ve made in Costa Arriba we’ve also been networking to political leaders and businesses in the region in order to gather further support for our projects. On January 30th I am meeting with the representative of Palenque as well as several other representatives of communities in the region in order to talk about Future Scientist and what it is we do. All this groundwork we’ve laid will serve us for our endeavors this year in 2019.
For 2019 I have been attached to a project called AGUA COLÓN which has the objective of analyzing the water quality of the wells and rivers in the Santa Isabel region (both primary sources of water for people). This will require me to go and get water samples on a more or less bi-weekly basis and bring them to the laboratory we have in Panama City. Since this project is concerned with the water safety of those who live in Costa Arriba, Future Scientist has paired with the project managers in order to see it through to success, all the while carrying on with our own organization specific objectives. We hope that this collaboration will bear fruit for strong working relationships with both development entities and community members alike, connecting people across this boundary and building towards the future of water safety for the region.
After a successful reunion with my counter-part Aníbal Villacres in Nombre de Dios, I decided it was time to start setting our sights up coast. There is a lot of project and charla potential in the communities up coast from Portobelo, with the economic situations becoming poorer and need higher. Aníbal expressed to me his interest that I do charlas in Nombre de Dios on project development and water committee/water system organization. We were able to do a project development and design charla in Nombre de Dios on the 23rd and there was a decent showing of people to the charla. Aníbal has also told me he has connections all the way up coast to Cuango, which will be pivotal in getting our foot in the door in these communities.
Bringing the design charla that we did with the high school students in Portobelo to the communities in Costa Arriba is apart of our new program called the Self-Solving Initiative. We want to empower community members with the tools and know-how to confront problems in their community and solve them in a way that encourages teamwork and forward-thinking. Since they are the ones who experience the problem they ought to know the best way to solve it, they just may need the proper methodologies to come up with the solutions constructively. So with the help of Aníbal in Nombre de Dios, we set to organizing the charla for the community. We created flyers to be passed around the town and posted on the community center wall and other key areas around the community. We also promoted that there would be a lunch to provide further enticement to those on the fence about going to the charla. I have found that free food is a great motivator in these small rural towns in Panama (and I guess anywhere for that matter) and it gets people to the front door. So with planning and the news out in town, I was left to gather my supplies for the charla day.
When the charla day arrived I showed up to the community center to a group of 20 or so people. I noticed that most were women and that was of no surprise since it was Friday morning and almost all the men work while the women are at home, and with the prospect of food those women didn’t have to cook lunch that day. My plan was to compact each of the charlas of the 10 that I did in Portobelo to about 30 minute segments so as to make it a day long charla. If I did multiple days I would lose the interest of my audience so I had to take advantage of the day they set aside to attend the seminar. With the community members present and everything in place, I began the seminar.
It was apparent that not everyone present came to hear what I had to say. There were a handful that had simply come for the free snacks and lunch. Their participation was lacking at best. However there was also a handful of community members that remained attentive throughout, despite our ravenous hunger near the end of the seminar. Those are the moments and the people we look for when doing development work. Even if the material touches the creative and productive nerves of one person, it is a success. It takes one person to be two, and two to be four, and so on. I felt that the handful of active participants took those lessons to heart and truly wished to make a difference in their community.
The problem that the participants wanted to solve was the lack of quality medical attention in their region. This is a complicated problem because it requires government action and participation in the community which is often very difficult to achieve in isolated and rural areas like the communities in Costa Arriba. Solutions they came up with were better training of Health Center staff in order to provide more types of health service to the patients of Costa Arriba, an increase in the healthcare budget in order to have more staff on hand in the health centers and clinics, and the construction of more clinics in the region to cater to the amount of patients that arrive. They proposed making petitions in order for the government to take notice to their plight and incite action. However, regardless of the difficulty of the problem and proposed solution, the participants learned the proper tools and instruction on how to take the problems in their lives and create impactful and well thought solutions.
This charla is one of hopefully many to be carried out in Costa Arriba as Future Scientist moves up the coast in order to reach and teach more communities about proper WASH practices and spread the Self-Solving Initiative. All in all it was a successful seminar in Nombre de Dios with the people responding positively to the lessons and told me they left the room having learned something useful. If anything it gave them hope for change in their community and empowered them to be that change that it needs.