Digging Wells and Telling Time in Niger

learning, clocks, dials, historicalDigging Wells and Telling Time in Niger – By Joseph Finch

The following post relates to Time Navigator Web Pages that treat how pre-clock people told time by tracking the sun in the sky. Click here to read more.

Even today, in the 21st Century, there are people in the world that use sun-hours to tell time.

Around the globe, there are large groups of people living at technology levels that are equivalent to the 1700’s (if not before) in the Western World. Not having access to clocks and watches, many of these still use hand signals to talk about daily points in time.

Here’s a back story that leads to a modern example of this old time-telling practice.

A friend of mine is working with Baptist Missions to train villagers in Niger to install and maintain pumps to bring water to their villages.

These villages are not on any roads. They have no electricity or running water … anywhere. Most homes have dirt floors, and the walls and roofs are made of mud and thatch. Cooking is done outdoors. The daily routine for the women in the village is generally like this:

(1)    Make breakfast.

(2)    Gather pots and jars to carry to a distant water source (hand-dug wells, streams, rivers) to bring water back to the village.

(3)    Prepare the evening meal.

Going for water and walking it back to the village may consume half (or more) of the productive labor of the village’s women each day. Besides any issues of lost woman-hours, the quality of the water brought back is very poor. It is mostly surface water that is heavily polluted by livestock, wildlife and general sanitation issues. Yet less than 200 feet straight down, is an ample supply of clean water … despite the fact that this people is living in a very arid region.

To boot-strap the quality of life for the vast numbers of people living in the area, two Baptist organizations (the Global Mission Partnership Network and the International Missions Board) have covenanted to train the villagers to drill, install and maintain their own wells. The Mission Boards understand that water facilities have to be a home-grown effort. By doing their own work, the villagers can install a well for as little as $200. To use a contractor to do this would cost as much as $5,000. For these people, this is the difference between “can” and “can’t.” Moreover, when the village men “own” the pump, they are in a better position to decide when/how to fix it if it breaks, and they are in a better position to decide when it’s time to install more wells in the village.

Besides providing a better water supply and allowing the village’s female labor force to be better used, the installation of water pumps raises the possibility of crop irrigation.

The region’s rainfall ranges between 5-10 inches per year (that’s in the wetter south-western portion of the country, if there’s not a drought going on). The staple crop of the village’s larder is millet. This is a fast growing, short season crop that is well suited to Niger’s hot, dry climatology. With a good millet crop once a year, the villagers can have something like two meals a day for about six months after the harvest. After that, supplies run low, and the village diet can drop to one meal a day. With irrigation, the millet crop could be supplemented with other crops, and the agricultural season could be lengthened. This would improve the villagers’ lives by expanding their larder to have more food (and more kinds of food) for a longer period of time during the year.

Drilling a water well … and telling time … in Niger

In John 21:17, the Lord commissioned Peter to lead His church, saying (among much more), “Feed My sheep.”

Sometimes this can be accomplished by showing the Lord’s people how they can prosper their own lives.

This was the mission that Dan Friend of the GMPN, Chris Riggs of the IMB, and others responded to as they joined a program to train African locals how to drill their own wells.  An important feature of this project was that the wells had to be drilled using only man-power, simple tools, and low-cost materials that are readily available on the local economy. Dan, Chris and the others were trained stateside on the designs and methods to be recommended for the Africans’ use. Then the team traveled to Niger to see if the theory would actually work in practice. It did.

As an old TimeNavigator, my ears perked up when Dan was telling me how the mission team came together with the locals to dig a practice well. On the first day of work, there were a couple-dozen men (locals and Team) getting their hands dirty in the project. When the sun went down, work stopped. (I wonder if the locals considered that to be at 6pm, exactly … customs vary, you know)

Supper was to come next, but while there was a crowd, Dan asked the Village Chief through an interpreter when the men were to come back to work the next day. The Chief considered this and then raised his hand to show where the sun was to be, above the horizon, to start the day. The locals understood this, and the moderns (on reflection) decided that he meant 9:30am. And it all worked out.

Even in modern times, we can run across the primitive roots of time telling. For eons, smart people have done what it takes to keep their societies organized. When there are no resources available but pointing at the sun to track the time, then that becomes a good thing to do.

– -Joe- –

Aug 23, 2013


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