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Giving a hand up

Renee Bourque, right,  and her brother Tom Bourque, left,  pose with an unidentified local man.
 (The Spokesman-Review)
Renee Bourque, right, and her brother Tom Bourque, left, pose with an unidentified local man. (The Spokesman-Review)

A camel bell serves as a reminder for Renee Bourque, a reminder of the desperate struggle some face to survive in an area devoid of basic human needs, namely water, yet overflowing with hope for acknowledgment and assistance.

Bourque received the camel bell in February when she traveled to Africa’s Liban Zone in Ethiopia and northeast Kenya to collect information for a feasibility study as the organizational and economic development consultant for Global Poverty Action. Formerly known as 21st Century Basic Human Services, Global Poverty Action is an international nonprofit organization that supports water quality, education, community health and economic development.

“A women’s group in Kenya gave me a camel bell so that I would not forget them and I would tell the world about them,” said Bourque, a community education instructor at North Idaho College. She traveled to Africa along with a small group of volunteers, including her brother, Tom Bourque.

While traveling by vehicle in temperatures reaching more than 120 degrees to meet with residents of villages, Bourque said she made it through the heat by dousing herself every 20 minutes with a water bottle. She suffered from heatstroke once and remembered lying in a dirt hut as local children peeked at her through a window. She was the only white woman they had seen in their lifetime.

For the residents of the Liban Zone, water is not as easily available as it was for Bourque. For the fortunate, fetching water is a daily nine-hour wait at a spigot, which is usually the sole water source for 60,000 people. For others, it is a three-day walk to the nearest water source, which is often shared by animals and waterborne diseases – and can force the decision on some to accept the risk of contracting malaria. It’s a walk that sometimes carries the risk of being killed by wild animals, dehydration, starvation or, for pregnant women, going into labor while trying to find water, said Bourque.

Bourque initially became involved with Global Poverty Action and its project in Kenya and Ethiopia after she was contacted through her strategic planning and organization development firm, Bright Star Grant Consultants. She holds a master’s degree in education from Seattle University and currently divides her time between Seattle, where Bright Star is based, and Coeur d’Alene, where she teaches grant-writing courses at the NIC Workforce Training Center and at Spokane Community College.

Global Poverty Action will write a cross-border, regional feasibility study for water, health, education and economic development, and group members are planning subsequent trips. While in the service area in February, they met with local residents and clan elders or chiefs, in addition to political leaders and nongovernmental organization administrators, in order to identify the situation from all perspectives to ensure the project’s long-term success, according to Bourque.

“At community meetings, we asked them, ‘What are your greatest needs, and what do you feel the solutions are?’ ” said Bourque. “They want to be part of the process, they want to be part of determining their destiny just like the rest of us.”

Neglecting to consult and include local opinions has led to the failure of other international aid groups’ attempts to help the area, according to Bourque. There are half-finished water wells and catchment projects, and health clinics without supplies or trained nurses. The regional hospital in Kenya, which is the largest medical facility in an area the size of Texas, has no running water.

Sometimes, residents have tried to finish a project after an aid group has abandoned it, but digging water wells using only their hands, and sometimes a stick or piece of burlap, usually takes five to eight years to finish – yet, they will still do it, Bourque said.

In another situation, Bourque remembers seeing children writing on the side of the schoolhouse since they did not have anything else to write on.

“I was inspired by the joy in spite of this harsh life,” she said. “These people have nothing to work with, and they are doing it anyway – they are working to create their own solutions. They have a huge amount of incentive and self-motivation. They are not going to get into a welfare mentality, but they need a hand-up.”

A hand-up is exactly what Global Poverty Action is planning to do by using a ground-up approach to implement and sustain projects. By improving access to water, health and education, the overall goal is to help people thrive, rather than simply survive, according to Bourque.

Water development is the primary focus, but GPA also plans to complete unfinished projects, start a micro-loan program to encourage local economic development and to promote women’s equality.

During the next trip in December, Bourque is planning on teaching grant-writing to womens’ groups and will provide coaching and editing over the Internet so they can build their own capacity.

“The women knew the concept of ‘empowerment,’ and wanted it so badly,” she said. “They were just amazing. They want to have a job in addition to everything else they are doing.”

In the patriarchal society, women bear the brunt of the work, and are faced with life-threatening situations, including childbirth, which runs a 25 percent mortality rate for both mother and child.

“Women are faced with the dilemma of going to the hospital to give birth, where they risk getting an infection and dying, or risk giving birth at home, where they don’t even have a razor,” said Bourque.

It is common for women to have many children, especially with a 50 percent mortality rate for children under 5 years. There is no guarantee their child will live.

In the wake of diminishing resources around the world, Bourque says the situation in Ethiopia and Kenya could offer insight into our own future struggles.

“We talk in abstracts about how all future conflict will be about water,” she said. “This is the real deal. You can die on your way to get a drink, you can die from lack of food, or pollution, or disease from what water is available,” she continued. “It is a situation that inspires much reflection about how much choice and power we have today.”

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