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Village Intelligence: There Are No Obvious Solutions

Naniette Coleman's picture

The story was told to me and so I will tell it to you. No, it was not passed down to me by my father or my father’s father but I still think it is a great story. A known story amongst international volunteer corps, it is whispered between friends with wistful eyes and knowing glances. 


The Well


The town had limited capacity and resources by Western standards, with no running water or electricity. With many of the village women managing their homes and raising young ones, the duty of water collection resided with them. They woke early in the morning, often toiling from dawn to dusk to keep their homes and families happy and healthy, but inevitably at some point during the day the women set out with heavy buckets to collect water. The only well was several miles walk from town through unsettled land.  The endeavor took hours. The brave women often walked in small groups for safety.


Hannah*, a young volunteer arrived on a Tuesday in the hot, dusty village in God’s country. She had overstuffed hopes and dreams in tow with her overstuffed suitcase. By Wednesday morning, plucky Hannah had a cause, by noon a problem and by late Wednesday night, a solution. Immediately struck by the plight of these poor women she vowed to make a difference in their lives. With tears in her eyes, she resolved to build the women of the dusty village in God’s country, a well in the village!


Hannah called the head of the volunteer organization back in her home country, spoke to the village chief, brought in engineers to survey the village and come up with a plan to build the well. Hannah spoke with the village elders about how much more efficient it would be for the village with the well closer to home, she showed them how the village could grow because of the well. Hannah went door to door talking to each of the men in town about the danger of their wives and daughters walking so far to get water. Finally, she rallied volunteers in neighboring towns and they offered to help the men in the village to dig. Everyone Hannah spoke with supported her work. Hannah had consensus in hand and a coalition to dig at her disposal; she got those women that well. 


When all the work was complete, the entire village took the week off and celebrated. The head of the international organization Hannah volunteered with even showed up to cut the ribbon himself! Hannah became a celebrity in the corps for her work to save the “well women” in the hot, dusty village in God’s Country. Her picture graced the cover of all of the magazines she loved. It had been said that she had single handedly revolutionized the way Development was done in hot, dusty villages in God’s country. She was on top of the world and then the rumors started.


At the close of the week of celebration, the rumors were rampant that the well was haunted.  “Did you not hear? The wife of one of the village elders saw a ghost at the well yesterday. It grabbed her bucket and darn near dragged her into the well.”  “Of course I heard that, but did you hear that the woman who lives near the big tree, she pulled water out of the well and immediately heard a voice from overhead telling her to run away!” 


“Haunted, you cannot be serious.” Hannah was livid; she could not understand what was happening and why it was happening to her well. Struck by how the women she had helped were responding to her gift, Hannah, a sensible woman went to talk to them. She approached one of the women and inquired about what was going on and learned a truth that evades many people with the best of intentions. In her haste, she presented a solution to a problem that did not exist. 


We arrive with the best of intentions. We want to make the world a better place. We assume that a better place looks like the place that we come from. We do not take the time to speak with the people, in this case the women, affected by our best intentions, and in the end, no one wins. Hannah built her well and the women of the hot, dusty village in God’s country rebelled because she took away the few hours a day that they walked, shared stories and interacted un-bothered. In order to protect their freedom the women invented the haunting story.  They did not want a well in the village.  The women enjoyed their long walk. Sometimes the best of intentions do not correct but make the actual good more complicated.  One woman’s progress is another woman’s prison or, in this case, another woman’s haunted well. 



*The name and gender of the volunteer have been changed to protect the innocent (well not really but it sounds better if I say that it was).


Photo courtesy of Flickr user Focx Photography


Nice story... that's why participation of stake holders is must. first the capacity building of people have to be done to accumulate demand for social well being, to sustain it.

Thank you Prahkakar, I am a huge fan of the use of story, or Public Narrative as Marshall Ganz calls it in education and reform work. I would encourage you to read Marshall's essay entitled "What is Public Narrative" if you are intrigued. An excerpt: WHAT IS PUBLIC NARRATIVE? ...I argue that public narrative is a leadership art through which we translate values into action: engaging heart, head, and hands. As narrative it is built from the experience of challenge, choice and outcome. As public narrative it is woven from three elements: a story of self, a story of us, and a story of now. Or, as Rabbi Hillel, the 1st Century Jerusalem sage put it, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself alone, what am I? If not now, when?” Two Ways of Knowing: Why and How We interpret the world in two ways – as narrative and as analysis. We develop our understanding who we are, where we are going, and why as narrative. Narrative articulates how we feel about things (affect) better than what we think about them (cognition). The “truth” of a story is in how it moves us. Psychologist Jerome Bruner argues that narrative engages us because it teaches us how to cope with uncertainty, especially with respect to others. In symbols, rituals, and celebrations, we enact shared stories. An ancient form of interpretation, this way of knowing helps us answer the question of WHY we should act – our motivation. Naniette

Submitted by Helen Abadzi on
The moral of the story shows another problem of development workers, overgeneralization and a short timeframe. To begin with, "the women rebelled". How many women, which ages? And for how long did they go back to the old well? Changes create different dynamics in friendships, time use, etc. Finally what is the timeframe? In all probability after a while the women used the more convenient water source and changed their chatting times to other occasions. By now they may have running water at home. Also, Bank staff can learn a lot from the extensive decisionmaking research. Unfortunately this topic is never dealt with in the institution.

Thanks for your comments Helen. You add a number of interesting observations that are worth exploring. Situation matters - A solution for one country, populace or group may not be the "obvious" solution for another but it also may well be the proper solution. Time horizon matters - How long are development workers staying and what is there relatinoship with the people they are "serving." Are we present long enough to make proper judgements on what needs to be done, who needs to be engaged and how. Numbers matter - If all of the women refused to go to the well for a sustained period of time that might suggest a different leadership challenge for development workers versus a small group of women for a short period of time. Does probability matter - The question I raise to you is does probability help or hurt us here? Probability might breed overgeneralization. What do other readers think? To your point about decisionmaking research, please introduce our readers to suggested starting points... Thank you so much for adding to our discussion! Naniette

Submitted by Mark on
If there are no obvious solutions, then we should refer to testing different ideas and ultimately seeing what works best for the short/long run.

Submitted by Voice of America on
The village story is a good example of..."Talk to a man in a language he understands and it goes straight to his head. Talk to a man in his own language and goes to his heart."

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