How a small project from a Dublin church has helped provide wells for 70 communities in Africa
(From the April - June 2019 issue of VOX)
Mick Toolan has been a member of Grace Bible Fellowship in Dublin city centre for more than 40 years. When fellow church members Jon and Sandra Blackwell and their five children went to Cameroon with Wycliffe Bible Translators in 1999, Mick decided to visit to see their work first hand.
That visit in 2007 had a dramatic impact on Mick’s life. After seeing the material poverty, poor sanitation and resulting sickness in the village where Jon and Sandra were living, Mick couldn’t stop thinking and talking about it. Eventually Jon said, “Why don’t you do something about it?”
“I thought he was nuts because I’d no experience in doing anything like that,” Mick said. But the more he thought about it, the more he became convinced he should get involved and “Water for Cameroon” was born.
“I was totally naïve. At the beginning, I went out with the typical western mindset,” Mick explained. “I came from a background in industry and I was used to getting projects organised. But I went in ‘gung ho’ to solve the problem (as I saw it) rather than listening to what the local people were saying.
“God spoke to me and convicted me that what I was doing wasn’t right. We can be very insensitive. Sometimes our enthusiasm can run away with us. I don’t think people have bad motives; we want to do the right thing but in our eagerness, we step on people’s toes. It comes across as though we know best. Thankfully within the first year, it became very clear to me what an idiot I was. I was being disrespectful and bossing people around and that was totally wrong. I had to apologise to the local people and learn to listen and keep my mouth shut.”
“I often think, ‘How would I like it if someone came into my house and criticised me or gave unsolicited advice?’”
Mick quickly learnt that the people were more important than the project. Now the main thrust of “Water for Cameroon” is working closely with local communities, listening to their needs and supporting them to find the best solutions for their situation.
Mick discovered that there are broken wells all over Cameroon that are no longer in use because they are too difficult or expensive to repair. The key for “Water for Cameroon” was to find a sustainable solution.
“Eventually, we began constructing hand-dug wells and used bio-sand filters. On top of the well is a hand pump but we have a trap door beside it. If the pump breaks, you are able to open the door and use a rope and bucket to get the water out,” Mick explained.
“We also train the community to repair the pumps and encourage them to repair the wells themselves. We won’t go back and fix a well because we don’t want to create a dependency. We want to see them empowered to be in control of their own water supply.”
A lot of the early meetings with a community are spent in health education and health promotion, enabling the local people to understand what causes contamination and to ensure that their water stays safe.
“We don’t just say, ‘Here’s your well... goodbye.’ It is a whole process of discussion and education. We need to do 80% listening and 20% talking!” Mick said.
“We work on the basis that people’s health is their own responsibility. We are not going to force them to change their behaviour. That is true for all of us. I’m not as fit as I should be. I know I need to take more exercise and I have to constantly work on that.”
Mick’s Christian faith is the motivation behind his work, “I feel as Christians we have a responsibility to share the Gospel but also to share whatever we have with others, especially the basics. I recognise that transformation is not just about having safe water. We all need Christ. But in terms of the Gospel, I prefer to work with local pastors and local Christians who know the language and culture. We support and encourage them in their ministry to their own people. Sometimes if we go in, even with the best of intentions, we can hinder what God is doing on the ground.”
Mick, who recently turned 70, would be delighted if others in Ireland could get involved in the work of “Water for Cameroon”. “The big thing in my view is to encourage people to pray for the work that we are doing and for anyone involved in this kind of work, that we can do the work in the right way. We want God to be glorified and that all of us can be mindful of respecting people,” he said.
To find out how you can partner with “Water for Cameroon” or to volunteer to get involved, please visit their website on www.waterforcameroon.com.