When asked about her role in the community, Amalfi Romero’s answer is straightforward, “I’m the leader; I lead my community.” But the realities she faces as the leader of the community of Los Cabritos in Colombia are anything but that.
“Los Cabritos is well-organized. We are a vulnerable population, living in one of the most remote parts of Colombia, La Guajira. At times, it feels like we are abandoned. As community leader, my job is to work for the wellbeing of this community.”
Indigenous Wayuu communities face persistent inequality with challenges to safe water and community wellbeing. They live in the desert region of La Guajira. Rivers are rare. Wells are often salty. Rainwater is commonly collected, but easily contaminated. It seems an impossible feat to survive in these conditions, yet Wayuu communities have been doing so for centuries.
Beyond the water conditions, barriers also exist for communities to access support from government and non-governmental organizations. “I visited a community in the vicinity of Los Cabritos for the first time in 2016. Seeing the hardship the children were living in broke my heart. At that point, I committed to their teacher that I would help them find a solution to treat their water,” reflects Eva Manzano, BEng, MA, CAWST Senior Global WASH Advisor. “At the time, the funding to work with them was insufficient, and so was our connection to the community. Trust and understanding of power dynamics is essential with Wayuu communities. Often, literacy level of community members, particularly women, is limited and most communities in the region speak only Wayuunaiki, which presents a language barrier for us who speak Spanish.”
Fundación Hilo Sagrado had been searching for years to find best practices and cost-effective technologies for improving water systems in the communities in which they worked. Most solutions were too expensive or not viable to maintain. At the workshop, they discovered that the biosand filter could be viable—not only as an effective technology, but an opportunity for Los Cabritos to learn and multiply the benefits of the technology in the region. They invited CAWST and FRPG to lead several workshops on biosand filters in the community of Los Cabritos.
“Often the community can be soft-spoken and hesitant with outsiders. But the workshops didn’t allow anyone to sit on the sidelines, and one community leader pushed the boundaries to set an example for other women in her community. That’s Amalfi,” recounts Leanne Madjidi, MEd, CAWST Global Learning Advisor.
“Maybe people think that this is a job just for men, but we as women are also capable of building a filter. Just like Rocío [of FRPG], like you [Eva and Leanne of CAWST], or even me, we can demonstrate—to men, to children, and to each other—that we are just as capable,” emphasizes Amalfi.
Local technicians installed 82 filters in 2019. They were not only trained to build the filters, they also learned techniques for following up with neighbours, so they could reinforce best practices for correct, consistent, and continued use, and troubleshoot issues down the road. Following hands-on construction, community workshop participants visited other households in other communities where biosand filters were installed. The purpose of these household visits was to follow up and support other families to sustain the technology and practices.
“On that day, we saw so much growth. There was one fourteen-year-old boy in particular who would barely speak in the first few household visits. But with repetition, and the opportunity to practice with the support of us and other community members behind him, he gained confidence and was leading the household visits by the end of the day,” shared Leanne.
As Amalfi remembers, “You saw the people who were trained doing our household visits. They didn’t just get certified because they were sitting there. Each person made an effort to learn and none of this would have been possible without the support of Iván and Rocío [of FRPG]. They trained us, motivated us, and at the end of the day we are now capable and confident to handle water issues, handwashing, and educating our families.”
The community of Los Cabritos is highly motivated and entrepreneurial. They see biosand filters as a potential business opportunity: becoming technicians that construct the filters and sell them to other communities in the region, while sharing their knowledge.
While the business idea is still being tested, the results in Los Cabritos are already easy to see. In merely a year of active capacity development and biosand filter implementation, changes towards the wellbeing that Amalfi works so hard to achieve are evident.
The biosand filter helps families consume drinking water that is safe. Thanks to this filter, our health and quality of life are improving. Our children are less sick with diarrheal diseases and skin infections. Water is life. Water is everything.
We are sharing this story in honour of the International Day of Indigenous Peoples. Celebrating the resilience of Indigenous peoples all around the world, we appreciate the opportunity to support communities like Los Cabritos and learn from their experience and perspectives.
This story will also be featured as a Story of Impact & Acceleration in our Annual Report. To receive updates and a copy of the CAWST Annual Report, sign up for our mailing list.