A Maasai proverb says the village which is not discussed is not built.
After noting that top-down efforts to improve sanitation and drinking water can limit participation, University of Calgary scholars have instead started a dialogue with the semi-nomadic African pastoralists to help develop local solutions.
Project SHINE (Sanitation and Hygiene INnovation in Education) is using a variety of approaches, including science fairs, to engage Maasai students and the wider community. The goal is to create locally appropriate, low-cost ways to cut the risk of parasitic infections.
“We wanted to develop innovative methods to empower youth and the community to come up with strategies to improve sanitation and hygiene, because they know the local context and what will work best,” says Sheri Bastien, PhD, of the Cumming School of Medicine’s Office of Global Health and International Partnerships.
Since 2006, the university has been running a global health field school in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area in Tanzania. The initiative is under the leadership of associate dean Jennifer Hatfield, PhD, of the Office of Global Health and International Partnerships, and assistant professor Frank van der Meer of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.
Using a federal Grand Challenges Canada research grant, the university is working in partnership with a group of Maasai pastoralists in the conservation area. A proud people whose traditional way of life revolves around their livestock, they face challenges from water scarcity and lack of sanitation facilities such as latrines.
Lack of access to sanitation can prove deadly, especially for the young
Children are particularly vulnerable to the resulting infections that can cause diarrhea, stunting their physical and mental growth. “It’s a leading cause of death in children under five years old in developing countries,” says Bastien. “Illnesses like AIDS and malaria tend to get more funding, but when you look at the mortality, lack of access to sanitation and diarrheal diseases cause the greater global incidence of illness and death.”
The University of Calgary and the Catholic University of Health and Allied Sciences in Tanzania are working in partnership with two secondary schools where most students are Maasai pastoralists, helping build an understanding among youths that can be used to engage the broader community.
Sanitation science fairs were recently held at the schools as part of Project SHINE. To inspire students to come up with their own innovative solutions, they were introduced to the Foldscope, a simple microscope invented at Stanford University.
It can be assembled origami-like from a flat sheet of paper; including a glass lens, the total cost of materials is less than a dollar. “We are among the first in the world to get to test it, so that’s pretty exciting,” says Bastien.
At the fairs, students showcased projects evaluated by Maasai judges that included soap and sanitary pads made of locally available materials. There were also versions of a tippy tap, a device to wash hands that uses a foot lever to limit user contact.
“There was so much enthusiasm and engagement in the science fair projects from both students and the wider community,” says Bastien. “We saw kids who didn’t even want to go on their lunch breaks, they were so inspired and focused on their projects.”