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How Listening, Not Money, Changed My Neighbourhood in Zambia

(This is blog post by one of our Cluster members was first published in 2019 on the website of the USA's 'National Conversation Project'. It is republished here in its original form.)

In 2017, MATHEWS MONDE was named one of Zambia’s "most innovative health workers" by the country’s Ministry of Health. Here, he tells a story of how he made a name for himself, by listening.

If we’re honest, we probably all sometimes pretend to listen: our mind might wander; we might think it’s enough for a person to feel like they’ve been heard; or we might want to tick an imaginary (or real) box that says “yes, I have consulted others”.

I’m from Zambia, which (in monetary terms at least) is one of Africa’s poorer countries. And I’ve spent much of my life in the rural south – a region that tends to be ignored by government and development agencies.

Most people here lead modest, subsistence lives. And when outsiders do pay us attention, it’s normally to do something to us. Sometimes with good intent. Sometimes not. In either case, listening is a token gesture, not a serious activity. And so the community goes unheard.

But when this status quo is upturned, and when genuine listening takes place, great things happen.

And I can show you how.

I’m a Community Health Worker by training. In recent years, I’ve done this in two roles: one in Zambia’s Ministry of Health, and one in a small voluntary group in a community called Chabbaboma. This group of local people is part of a wider organisation called Arukah Network, which is geared towards unlocking community potential through local collaboration.

In both of these roles I helped on a sanitation project. But each project achieved very different results.

At the Ministry of Health, I was tasked with distributing concrete latrine bases to various communities that did not have flush toilets. These bases are very simple: a big hole is dug in the ground, and the latrine base covers the hole. I delivered them to a central location in one community. People could then take and use them as they please. And so it was free provision, done with good intentions. But it failed. Few people wanted to use them, and so they sat and gathered dust. They were dark and uncomfortable places, but worse than that, they would sometimes collapse because the bases did not support the structure of the hole.

Some years later, our little community group began its own sanitation scheme. But this one was very different. No construction took place. No building materials were provided. And no training was given. Instead, we simply visited homes in small groups and began asking people “what do you do to stay healthy?”. And then we listened.

This led to some fascinating conversations. One family showed us a latrine they’d designed and constructed themselves. It was made of locally-sourced, renewable wood, which was fashioned into a cylindrical shape to be lowered into the ground. On top of this was placed a wooden base. It was cheap, renewable and strong. And the family offered to join us in sharing this idea with others in the community.

So this is what we did, and people loved it. There are now about one hundred and fifty of these latrines in use in the Chabbaboma area, and local health centres have since reported a decline in diarrheal disease.

The Ministry of Health project had a big budget, while this community project had none. But our community project prevailed where the government failed for one reason: we listened.

And it’s not simply that this local solution was comparable to the government one. No, it was superior: it used renewable materials, it was stronger than its concrete counterpart as it supports the shape of the hole as well, and it was also better ventilated than the dark, unpleasant structure of the concrete model.

I have since done something unusual for someone in my position: I’ve quit a comfortable government job. I did this because these and other experiences have taught me that listening is not simply a nice gesture. Rather it belongs at the core of efforts to build healthy and resilient communities. It’s taught me that if we really care about our communities, then we all must #ListenFirst.

Mathews is a member of Arukah Network who roots his work in a process called SALT. This podcast introduces SALT, by asking the question “what if the best way to impact a community is simply to listen to its members?”.


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