Amplifying voices of rural communities in Tanzania to improve groundwater management

An interview with water and sanitation journalist Mohammed Hammie

Amplifying voices of rural communities in Tanzania to improve groundwater management

In 2019, Mohammed Hammie decided to quit his job and dedicate his life to a cause that was really close to his heart. He wanted to give a platform to those whose voice is often unheard, the rural communities. As a human rights to water and sanitation journalist and author, Hammie went to those communities in his country Tanzania and started radio programme 'Sauti Yangu', which is Swahili for 'My voice'. Recently, his new book 'Mandiga's well' nominated for the James Currey Prize for African Literature 2022 and the Quramo Writers' Prize 2022. In this interview, Hammie shares the remarkable stories he was told over the past years, as well as his plans and ideas for the future. 

What made you decide to start your radio show?

When I quit my job in 2019, I was passionate about doing journalism to help the community. Amplify their voices, especially people living in rural areas whose voices are not given a chance in the media. Then I decided to focus on water.

I believed that water is the solution to many problems such as health, poverty, education, and even bringing peace to the community and family level. I believed elevating the community's voice can reach policymakers and change people's lives.

Hammie being put to work after the interview
Hammie being put to work after the interview

I also chose to work with community radios to air the programs. Because I believed local media plays a crucial role in delivering credible and helpful information to the citizens who are suffering from the water crisis in rural areas. In Tanzania, local media gives communities a voice to communicate their concerns to local authorities.

In the same year 2019, I established my radio program Sauti Yangu means 'My Voice' in Swahili. Sauti Yangu is a 30-minute unique and powerful show that aims to engage citizens, amplify their voices and pressure the government to resolve the water crisis in rural areas. Today radio programs have enabled access to water in many different villages in Tanzania, just by amplifying people's voices.

To produce programs that reflect the experience of people who are facing water challenges in rural areas, I had to travel to different villages in Tanzania, and meet community members who often have to fetch water from wells, ponds, or springs. I conduct interviews with local citizens so that I can explore the reality of rural citizens' lives.

The program has a consistent format. I start by accompanying a villager on their journey to collect water to give listeners a sense of just how long it can take. I ask questions along the way before returning to the village to ask family members how the water crisis affects them.

Then I hold a discussion between three or four men and women from the same village. They explain the challenges of living without water, who they think is responsible, and the government's effort to fix the situation.

Radio interview
Radio interview

For balance, I talk to village leaders, often the village chairperson or village executive officer to understand what actions are currently being taken at the village level to resolve the water crisis, as well as what they will do to prevent a future problem.

In 2019, I successfully aired two programs on the community radio stations, Planet FM in Morogoro region and Voice of Africa in Tanga region.

Both radio programs made an impact after the government initiated major water projects to solve citizens' water problems. The radio program I produced at Mswaha village led the Tanzanian government to pledge 500 million USD to address the rural water crisis after airing villagers' concerns.

Also, my radio program produced at Lukobe village led the government of Tanzania to initiate a major water project at Mkundi. The project has cost the Tanzanian government 620 million shillings and is expected to benefit 45,000 households. 

In 2020, I joined forces with End Water Poverty (EWP), a global civil society coalition, campaigning to end the water and sanitation crisis, through their #ClaimYourWaterRights campaign. This is a global mobilization campaign that aims to spur people to claim their human rights to safe water and sanitation.

Seven months after airing the radio show at Kikwawila village in Ifakara Tanzania, the local government managed to drill water for their citizens. The village chairperson said they had successfully dug a well after allocating village government funds, following a discussion at the village assembly. He said that three days after the radio show aired, village residents started bothering him by asking when the local government will dig a well as they realized that water is their human right after listening to the radio broadcast. The program aired on Pambazuko FM, Morogoro.

In 2021, I supported the UN-Water through the global campaign #Water2me, which aimed to generate conversations, to gather as many opinions and comments from people around the world about water and what it means to them. I produced radio programs to ensure Tanzanian communities are heard and represented in a landmark UN report on water.

In my report in partnership with AquaFed, I highlighted the desperate reliance on rainwater and the shocking lack of a long-term solution for rural communities, the report led the call to action for Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) partners on climate change and water innovators.

Also in 2021, I worked closely with the Water Integrity Network organization to implement a project that highlighted the gaps in understanding of integrity in the water sector in Tanzania.

Women fetching water
Women fetching water

The funding also brought me together with two organizations from Kenya, Kenya Water for Health Organization and the Center for Social Planning and Administrative Development which during the implementation of the project, helped to provide awareness and importance of integrity measures which are Transparency, Accountability and Community Participation in the sustainability of water projects, especially in rural areas.

The radio shows aired at Mwambao FM radio that is based in Tanga, Tanzania. The biggest challenge in my work is to reach out to people with water challenges, as in urban areas one can buy even a bottle of water, but in rural areas people depend on water from wells. Now to reach these people I have to get to where they really live, where I have to travel on rough roads, pass through forests, long ride motorcycles from one village to another as there is no reliable transport there. 

Another challenge is the authorities agreeing to the authenticity of the water story I produce from the people living in the villages. The model of my radio program is to show the water challenges. I believe that the solution to the water challenge is for citizens to get water and not receive the promises of their leaders.

What would you reckon are the biggest (ground) water-related challenges in Tanzania?

Community meeting
Community meeting

Groundwater is very challenging in Tanzania, especially in rural areas. What I discovered is that the concept of groundwater is not very broad in society. Groundwater is not well known outside the circle of hydrogeologists and scientists, as well as the survey and management people. 

From my experience, the community does not have a broad understanding of groundwater issues. That is why the responsibility of protecting groundwater is not done by the community, it is done by groundwater experts, and it is very dangerous for the future of the world. We all depend on groundwater and groundwater depends on us. Many rural Tanzanians depend on groundwater. It means it’s not only the duty of groundwater professionals to protect these valuable resources, it's the duty of all of us.

In 2022, I came up with the idea of producing radio programs with the purpose of enhancing community participation in protecting and conserving groundwater resources for future generations in Tanzania. I was glad the International Association of Hydrogeologists agreed with the idea and supported me.

I produced 24 radio shows and air them through community radios in two different regions, Tanga and Morogoro. I am not a Hydrogeologist, I am a journalist, but I learned so many things about the importance of groundwater.

I also collaborated with Professor Japhet Kashaigili, a Hydrogeologist from the Sokoine University of Agriculture. He explained in the radio programs what is groundwater, how can community activities pollute groundwater as well as the environmental impact if groundwater is polluted, he also explained the benefits of groundwater to the community and ways to protect the groundwater. 

Group picture after the interview
Group picture after the interview

The radio programs were very helpful to the community and I wish I could get more funds and do more radio programs to educate communities in other regions in Tanzania about their participation in protecting groundwater.

We all know, the focus of the world this year is groundwater. UN-Water and IGRAC launched the theme "Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible". So having radio programs to enhance community participation in protecting groundwater would inspire them.

Since it is stated that the community activities over-use are the ones that pollute groundwater, I thought it's the community themselves who are also responsible to protect and conserve the groundwater. The best and most secure way to reach a large number of people was by producing radio programs and airing them through community radio.

For your radio work, you have met many people and heard their stories. Which story has made the biggest impression on you?

In 2020, I reported the water challenge in the village of Mswaha. I arrived in the village and interviewed the people. What has revealed in the interview surprised me. It's not good news but it's worth saying.

The Chairperson of Mswaha village, Korogwe district, Mr. Ibrahim Musa told me the water challenge affects them so much - they get diseases such as diarrhea and typhoid.

Interviewee on crutches
This man's leg was eaten by a crocodile while fetching water

"When you hear cholera has erupted in Korogwe, people tell you it has been caused by using water from Pangani River.

Another challenge in fetching water from Pangani River is the presence of crocodiles. In 2016, an old man's leg was eaten by a crocodile when he was fetching water. Now he is walking on one leg.

In 2017, a woman was eaten by a crocodile. She was lost. We later came to find her palm. In 2017, in our neighbor's village Mwenga, a young man was also eaten by a crocodile.” He said.

Two weeks after airing their concerns on the radio, Tanzania government pledges 500 million USD to address the rural water crisis.

Tanzania's deputy water minister Jumaa Aweso who is currently the water minister said. "The government realizes the challenges of accessing water in rural areas, especially in the districts of Korogwe, Muheza, Handeni and Pangani. We have a fund from the Indian government worth 500 million USD and we are allocating this fund to these four districts. It is my hope that when this project is done, many villagers will benefit from the availability of water. People from Mswaha village, we heard your cries and the government is now taking action"

I will never forget this report because it gave me the courage to continue amplifying the voices of people living in rural areas with challenges of clean and safe water. I am pleased the government listened to citizens' complaints.

Who or what was the main inspiration for writing Mandiga's Well?

One out of many interviews that inspired the story of Mandiga's well
One out of many interviews that inspired the story of Mandiga's well

Apart from being a journalist, I am also a talented storyteller. My father Hammie Rajab was a great author in Tanzania. He wrote more than thirty books. So I have inherited writing books from my late father.

As I said I travel a lot and I have been deeply involved in promoting water access in rural Tanzania and reporting on water issues. So working closely in the field with local communities has enabled me a rich understanding of the water crisis people face.

So these knowledge and experiences have provided me with the need to write this book. Because the community members have given me a lot of stories about their water challenges. 

Since I have a talent for storytelling, I thought amplifying the community their voices through the radio is not enough, why not collect these stories and write a book so that their voices can reach far? 

Then, I wrote a book and called it Mandiga's Well. This book is also available in Kiswahili under the name Maji Mandiga. So it has two languages. I really want it to be translated into more languages so that the message in the book can reach the whole world.

Mandiga is the name of the main character in this book. Even though Mandiga is a fictional character, she has sparked a lively dialogue about the daily experience of women living in rural Tanzania.

Mandiga's well
Mandiga's well

I decided to make a woman the main character because in many African communities women are responsible for fetching water and they are the ones who face many challenges arising from the lack of water in their areas. I thought I should empower women and increase their confidence in facing those challenges and finding solutions.

It's an educational and inspirational story that gives women and citizens knowledge and confidence to demand their rights on water.

In 2022, my book got a chance to be part of the Partos Innovation Festival in the Netherlands in the segment of ‘creative storytelling for social change.’ In the session, I shared my experience in storytelling for social change and discussed the creative and participatory approaches I used. The session was in collaboration with Simavi and the Expertise Centre Humanitarian Communication.

The book was also supported by Simi and converted into a comic. The purpose was to make sure it’s available on different platforms and the intended message reaches far.

What is the book (roughly) about?

First, all the incidents I wrote in this book are real and reflect the reality of water challenges in rural Tanzania. They are true narratives derived from interviews I was conducting with citizens during the production of radio programs to amplify the voices of communities with the challenges of lack of clean and safe water.

Book Synopsis 

"After she narrowly escaped rape while on her way home from the well. Mandiga is determined to stand up for the rights of her village and her fellow women to have access to safe and clean water.

As she courageously stands before a public meeting to explain what happened to her, she brings to light the suffering endured by the women of the village over water shortages.

First, she fights against the injustices facing her fellow women due to the lack of water, the rights of the women who got divorced when they returned home with empty buckets, then she stands for the rights of young girls and boys who are missing classes due to the water challenge in their school.

However, her courage is rewarded by the threat of divorce from her husband.

In this fight, Mandiga discovers and exposes a huge scandal involving a water project, the true cause of the water crisis in her village, one which puts her life in danger.

Will she succeed?"

I have gradually explored these issues, pointing out how an unresolved problem can produce thousands of problems. The message contained in this novel well illustrates what is happening in many rural areas.

The book has been nominated for two major African Literature Awards. Quramo Writers' Prize 2022 and James Currey Prize for African Literature 2022, in which it reached the top five in Africa.

You have set up a radio show, wrote a book, advocate for better water management. What is next? What do you still want to achieve?

Mohammed helps carrying water
Mohammed helps carrying water

The world needs more Mohammeds to ensure the voices of other areas across Africa with water challenges are amplified. I work as a bridge, I connect the community that has no voice with their leaders who don't normally visit them until election time to ask for their votes, and I also connect the community with water-based organizations that can provide water to save their lives.

I believe that I have not yet succeeded because there are still many areas here in Tanzania that I have not reached. I wish to reach them and continue to amplify the community’s voices on water challenges. I can't do it alone because the villages of Tanzania are very far from the city. That's why I don't stop asking for help from various water organizations so that I can reach more people. I believe these are the people we will have left behind by 2030.

We don't have to leave anyone behind. Because it's the central, transformative promise of the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

But, this work would be very easy if I could get help to establish a radio station, I would call it Maji FM (Water FM) and it would talk about many issues related to water. Because water is broad. 

Mohammed Hammie
Mohammed Hammie

Society would get to know widely that water is their human right as announced by the United Nations, and they would be educated about water resources management, water policy, government and UN strategies on water, global goals on water, economic and social development on water, climate change and the environment. I believe it would be the best and most unique radio.

I also wish my book Mandiga's Well to be converted into a film or radio play, but the challenge is funding for production. It's a good story, and I wish it reaches many places in the world so that people can learn. Stories of women being raped when they go to fetch water are not only in Africa, they exist in many places.

Since the water challenge is not over yet, my journey has just begun! My aim is to reach all over Tanzania. Every region, every district, every ward and every village. The voice of everyone from everywhere must be heard. Equal Water Voice to All.

Mohammed Hammie




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