This was a dispatch I wrote from the field during our recent Afghanistan Project in Dec ’11. Wanted to shed some further light on what I feel is truly a ground breaking initiative.
I knew this Afghan project would be significant, but today… today was hands down one of the best experiences I’ve had since starting W4W. We’ve spent the last 3 days embedded with the Wolfhounds, learning all about life in a war-zone – living in their barracks, eating with them, etc…
Of course I see parallels between some of their principles and those of W4W. I have felt this way ever since we had the privilege of working side by side with the 82nd Airborne in Haiti. The entire military system is founded upon honor, respect, bravery, and discipline (to name a few)… but what they rarely get credit for is their compassion. Not only for one another, but for the local cultures they work amongst while deployed. I saw it in Haiti and I’ve seen it again here – these soldiers genuinely want to help the Afghan people to stop living in fear of the Taliban… and ultimately, help them stabilize their country in the process. That said, when I think of this project – the partnership between W4W and The Wolfhounds, I’m becoming aware that we are all a part of something very very grand… something bigger than all of us as individuals. In addition to the obvious benefits the filter program will have on this region, we have created a unique opportunity to change several perceptions surrounding this war – and war in general.
One of the main implementing strategies of W4W has always been a “train the trainer” approach, which is something we actually lifted from military DNA, long ago. It’s basically empowering people through a tiered system that enables each level to do what they do best. For instance, this project – we spent the first day here on base training a selected group of team leaders from this battalion. They are the ones who are constantly interacting with the communities in the region and have personal relationships with some of the key local figureheads. By empowering the first tier (the soldiers), we solidified them as the ones that would lead this project and see it through long after we were gone.
The next step was for the team of newly trained soldiers to coordinate a “shura” (Afghan for meeting or gathering to discuss important matters) to pass the training onto a hand picked group of village elders and/or community leaders. Then, based off of their extensive knowledge of the local communities, those enlisted individuals would devise a distribution plan for each of their villages. This is an old model… We’ve used this same approach in Haiti, with the ultimate goal being that we – the foreigners, do not retain any of the power once the program has been implemented.
This system really helps to integrate something foreign, like new technology, into a community – with the trust and understanding it needs to have staying power. If we try to push this solution directly onto a family in Afghanistan, the likelihood of them trusting us, and ultimately using it after we’re gone, is much lower than if it is presented to them by a friend or a community figure they know and trust. The ultimate goal for us is to implement a program this way, do an assessment of the region months later, and find that the families who are thriving because of it – have no idea who we are. Their relationship is with the schoolteacher or medical clinic that provided them with the filter system, not the guys from Waves For Water. If that is the case, we have done our job perfectly.
Today I saw cultural divides fall in a matter of minutes. We accompanied a group of female soldiers and their FET (female engagement team) team, lead by a Lieutenant named Lauren Luckey, into the nearby town of Nari. The FET team is tasked with trying to engage local Afghan women and work with them to help stabilize their communities. Women are simply not allowed to be seen in public – they wear full burkhas that leave no percentage of skin exposed. There isn’t even a slit for their eyes, only a little mesh window in the fabric for them to look through. Because of the relationships that LT Luckey and her team had forged a few of us men were allowed to be present during the demonstration. The rules and traditions of this region are so deep rooted that an invitation like this is literally unheard of. We watched in a secured courtyard as the FET team gave the very demonstration that we’d given them on base a day prior. We watched in awe as the brave few women who chose to stay – only 3 out of 10 stayed for meeting because they heard that (American) men would be present, started assembling and using the filter systems. The finale came when a young girl, a student of the school, took what might have been the first sip of clean water in her life, after filtering the water she normally drank – urban run-off collected from a ditch outside the school walls – animals visibly defecating in it up-stream.
Today was a good day…
~ Jon Rose
Watch video on Waves for Water in Afghanistan with the Wolfhounds from the US Army.