Sunday, April 1, 2012

Zambian Water Diaries

If I left you to surmise from my Facebook photos or previous blog posts just what I've been doing in Zambia all this time, you might conclude that I've spent it sitting around a fire, picking on English people, and eating out in big groups. Thought I'd better tell you how work is going, so you don't get the wrong idea!

Matthew Gandy writes that the history of cities can be read as a history of water...
That's how my research proposal starts. (Matt, if you're reading this, maybe I could get a commission? I've been sharing your insight with a lot of people lately!)History is about dynamic relationships--among individuals, institutions, nations, technologies, and the environment. To consider the history of a city in terms of its water, or to understand how water shapes relationships in that city today, we could consider the technologies that link people to water (and thus to each other) in specific ways. Stand pipes, water meters or kiosks, flow restrictors, leaky plumbing, and billing systems are some of these technological artifacts that frame the organization and management of the socio-natural waterscape in African cities. The research questions that are central to my work here in Zambia are:

1. In what ways have changes in technologies and laws framing the waterscape in Lusaka (and possibly other urban areas) changed women's daily habits and interactions with water?
2. How do these changed practices, habits and expectations open different possibilities for the configuration of water use and social relationships in the city?

As a first step toward answering these, a couple weeks ago I printed up 40 copies of a water diary packet and interviews. My assistants and I went from house to house, mostly in Garden Compound, calling "Odie" ("knock Knock")past open doors, and explaining in Nyanja, Bemba and English that I was looking for women willing to talk to me about their water practices. Then I held my breath for a week, wondering if I'd actually get a single complete diary back. Also, I felt like a squirrel as I distributed study packets to mostly un-numbered houses, on dirt streets without names. You know how squirrels bury nuts all over the neighborhood for Winter and then forget where they put more than half of them? My assistants said they would definitely remember where we had left the packets and what day we were supposed to go back to get them. Half way,through, I started trying to write down dates and descriptions anyway. That ended up being helpful, but Tina and Sahzi also remembered some that I had forgotten. I don't know how many times this week they said things to me like, "Oh, we have the one on this side of know which one? You know, the lady with the kids? She took one packet?" The lady with the kids who took one packet. That description fits 90 percent of the women we'd visited the previous week!! As we collected papers from one of these places, I thought, why didn't they say, "you know, the place with the two puppies? One looks sick, and the other one is adorable?" I would have remembered who they meant then.

I've picked up most of my packets now, and I'm pleased to say that people have kept the diaries and taken time for the interviews. I'm learning some interesting things; I"m not sure yet if they are new insights or not. One that stands out to me is the diversity of opinions about whether water meters are a good thing. A couple people have said that they don't want a meter on their faucet, because if they had one, they would have to tell their neighbors not to use their water. As it is, they pay a fixed rate and are happy to share, but a meter, while it could lower their bill, would be a point of division with their neighbors. And who wants to feel stingy towards one's neighbors? Others mentioned the same problem, but they also have a well on their property. Neighbors are still welcome to use the well water.

Interesting social dynamics? I think so.

In other news, I've had some good meetings and interviews with organizations working in the water sector here, and it looks like there are great opportunities for me to link my research interests with their work! I might be joining one group as a consultant on social and gender implications around water solutions.

I think it's been a productive work trip. I have approximately one more week of serious work, and one week of light work combined with sight seeing. I'm looking forward to going to the Copper Belt. If you've been reading my blog for a long time, you might remember that I once quoted from the book Expectations of Modernity, which was about the copper belt area and was my introduction to Zambia. Great book! worth a read.

That's what's going on here. :)


  1. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing some of what is involved in your research. Lou Ann

  2. Great to hear from your stay in Zambia and your progress with the quantitive research. I very much like the package, i.e. diary AND questionnaire, as it gives the people individual space to jott things down in their own time and from their own perspective in a way. I did a certificate in nature conservation some 10 years back and also had water as my topic for the project. I managed to get a range of very different people to answer my questions and also had a diverse set of answers to solutions and methods for safe-guarding water. I especially like the social implications that seem to be evident in some of your data, very exciting.

    I remember my interviewees' opinion differed immensely with regard to who should be made responsible when there are water shortages and, although they were all well-informed (the pupils and students more so than house owners, by the way), many did not really understand that they should be part of saving water, and that water is common property to be guarded by all.

    So, I hope you progress well and have more interesting social dynamics filling the pages. Great stuff! Ooh, and then off to the copper belt. I loved that book, too, and the copper belt was one of my exam subjects, so I can understand your excitement. I hope it is a great experience and you can perhaps see where Ferguson's argument regardomg forced return to the golden age is true, as I can remember reading a few critiques on his book that said he had made all too easy assumptions. Some say he sees cosmopolitan and rural life as separate social squeres and does not leave enough space for the fact that African can "hold contradictory assumptions about life" and thus create overlaps. Should you perhaps inteview some people there, this may surface a little in comments like "in the city it is different...". Very exciting.

    Oops, hope you don't mind my long comment. I am rather keen on blogs that are utilized for research discussions and communication, it helps to get a different perspective at times.


  3. Your story about your assistants using descriptors that don't help you remember who they mean makes me think of how we Caucasians have a hard time telling Africans or Asians apart. I wonder if it's a verbal instance of that: a subtle but important difference in communication that, once mastered, is obvious, but beforehand leaves the uninitiated clueless (albeit unintentionally). I further wonder if that communicational difference might have societal implications (or shed light on societal factors) that would elude the surveys themselves. And that in turn could inform the water situation - who knows. Just thinking aloud.