The day they turned on the tap: a behind-the-scenes experience

Big Day

Ernest is a Voices from the Field officer with WaterAid. Here are his personal reflections from visiting a village in Moramanga district, Madagascar, for their 'Big Day' - the day they turned on the tap.

I've visited this village quite a few times this year, to document how the lack of clean water and adequate sanitation affected this community's life. I know almost everyone in the village as it’s a small village of about one hundred people. This time, I was so excited to get back and be right there when clean water arrives for the first time. 

The first day, I had a meeting with the project crew and local technicians to plan things for the Big Day and to ask if everything will be ready. Everybody said that they are ready and of course they still have few things to work on but it will happen. So I just asked everyone to keep following what we have decided together to ensure that things happened as planned. 

The second day, I went to the village so confident and so excited.

When I arrived, early in the morning, local technicians, some members of the local community and project crew were transporting kilometres of pipes and laying them into the trenches while local communities were following them and were covering up the trenches once the pipes are laid. Some of the technicians were working at the water source and water points of the gravity fed scheme while some of the community’s members cleaned the water point and the surrounding area with their brooms. 

I’ve noticed that communities here have actively participated - they contributed through labour by digging kilometres of trenches and transporting materials to some of the inaccessible areas such as the water source and the water tank of the gravity system. 

In the afternoon, as planned, communities were gathered around the water point in the middle of the village, waiting. 

While I was making a bamboo stick for my Go Pro, one of the technicians approached me and said that there was an issue and unfortunately we couldn’t make it today. I replied “What? You must be kidding right?” And then he went through a technical explanation of why we couldn’t make it happen today.

Basically, we were missing 500 metres of pipes so the water could arrive but far away from the village. In fact, there was a rocky area they couldn’t dig through when they dug the trenches with the local communities few months earlier, this is located somewhere between the water source and the village. So they had to look for an alternative route for the trenches and pipes to get around that obstacle and that obviously means they need few more metres of pipe than had been planned.

They said they had already called the headquarters in Tana and the “missing pipes” will be there in a few hours, which meant later in the afternoon. So we made the decision that we needed to explain this to the local people and will let them know that it will be for the next day. 

After apologizing and telling people what’s going on, we promised them that it will be the following day around 10am. The adults did understand why we couldn’t make it happen today because they were there and they dug the route for the trenches and pipes to get around that obstacle but the children were a bit disappointed. 

But the local musicians were so happy because they said it gives them more time to tune their old drums, to clean their old ‘Sodinas’ (a woodwind instrument made from bamboo) and to rehearse.

With the children, I had to find quickly a way to talk to them. I explained them in a kid’s words why we couldn’t make it today and I also promised them that I will be going to Marozevo (the nearest town) and I will bring them back some candies for tomorrow. They were excited. 

The following day, as usual I arrived in the village pretty early, after spending an hour interacting with everyone I started to build up my camera and my sound system. While I was working on my camera, one of the musicians approached me and said “today is the day Ernest, we really needed yesterday to rehearse as a group because we haven’t played together for a while as we didn’t have great things to celebrate in the village for a while.” 

Around 10 am, everything was 'thank God' finally ready and while everyone was gathered around the water point, the technician connected the tap to the tapstand. Communities gave me the honour of opening the tap but I said “no, it’s yours guys, you deserve it so it shouldn’t be me, you have to choose someone else from the village.” Then they choose (one after one) the two chiefs of the village to open the tap for the very first time. After a countdown 3. 2.1 the chief opened the tap and everyone screamed with joy and clapped their hands to celebrate the water’s arrival while the group of local artists played a joyful music on their ‘Sodina’ and drums. 

After the chiefs and respected people from the village opened the tap for the first, drunk some water and danced, then women and children started to fetch and drink the clean water for the first time too. Then everyone was dancing, celebrating and cheering inside and outside the water point. 

It wasn’t my first ‘Big Day’ but as before I felt so privileged and delighted to capture a magic moment like this. Definitely, documenting a Big Day is the most challenging work I have to deal with, because I have to film and photograph one thing at the same time but it is also my moment of the year because of its unique atmosphere of joy and happiness.

About this village

This village in Moramanga district, Madagascar, is among the poorest and most isolated villages in its commune. It is completely isolated from other villages as it is located in the middle of nowhere further away from the others. It’s a small village of about one hundred people. Most people who live here are engaged in agriculture and small-scale farming for their livelihoods. They live in extreme poverty on less than a dollar per day.

The situation in terms of water, sanitation and hygiene is critical for these extremely poor communities. Dirt is clearly visible everywhere, from outside to inside the village, from parent’s clothes to children’s necks and shoulders. This situation tends to become their everyday life and diarrhoea is very common as a result. The water they have to drink is from a small open dirty stream, down the hill. Every day, girls and women have to fetch water for their family down the hill and have to climb back up the hill with a jerrycan (20 litres) of dirty water on their heads.

The technology WaterAid has used in this villaged is a gravity feed system. Clean, protected spring water is brought down the mountain via pipes, following the contours of the mountain so that it always flows. Then the water goes into a storage tank before feeding three community water points for the small village  and its surrounding hamlets.