Unless you’ve stayed up all night studying capital cities for a pub quiz, it’s safe to say you won’t have heard of Puerto Cabezas, the small, but bustling, urban centre of the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region of Nicaragua.
The city, better known as Bilwi in the local Miskito language, can be a tough place to live. Power outages are rampant and road access is patchy, schools are overcrowded and the costs of basic supplies can be exorbitant. For Bilwi’s youth, the traps of drugs and gang violence are all too easy to get caught up in.
Surrounded by rivers and lagoons and facing out on to an Atlantic sea-scape, good water, ironically, is hard to come by. Just 20% of Bilwi can tap into the limited municipal water supply, with public waterways and streams visibly polluted. Only half of the city’s population has access to toilets.
A change of course
It may not seem like gang violence and a lack of clean water are pieces of the same puzzle, but one innovative WaterAid programme has found a way to fit them together.
Set up in 2013, this imaginative project seeks out teens who have dropped out of school, face exceptional challenges at home, or are at risk of involvement with drugs and gangs, and offers them the chance to become skilled entrepreneurs.
The teenagers who take part are taught the masonry and plumbing skills needed to build wells and toilets, and work with a psychologist to help resolve social and emotional issues that may be holding them back in their lives.
The project also gives them the knowledge to establish their very own plumbing businesses, meaning that there can be a long-term change in both their lives and in their communities.
“Being in a gang in Bilwi means you’re a thief — that no-one likes you.”
Fighting with stones, machetes and sometimes firearms, Young S.G. — from the neighbourhood of Saint Gill — is a gang made up of boys as young as 12 years old. Ron, now 21, once counted himself among them.
“They used to steal,” he explains. “They used to assault people and fight with gangs in other neighbourhoods.” He recounts one particular fight between Young S.G. and the neighbouring Bus Stop Gang when a friend was cut with a machete (while Ron himself escaped with a blow to the head from a stone).
Gang violence isn’t the only issue affecting Ron’s neighbourhood. Here, dirty water is rife. Ron explains: “Mango trees grow around the well and their leaves fall down into the water. The water gets contaminated and the colour of the water changes. People get sick and in some cases we can die drinking it.”
When a recruiter from the plumbing training programme came to Ron’s house to propose he become part of the scheme, he saw a way out of gang life — as well as a way of bringing safe water to the community.
Ron is enjoying his new job. Sometimes he works under his own steam, other times with fellow apprentices like Lucy and Wesley that he met through the training course.
When we speak he is mid-way through digging his fourth well, 60 foot deep into the ground. Having thought about studying civil engineering, he finds the construction work stimulating— so much so that he’s now considering setting up his own personal plumbing business. It seems like the best investment right now: “There’s no future in gangs,” he says.
“I wanted to work with the community. There has been a change in my self-confidence, self-esteem.”
As soon as 16-year-old Bessy heard a radio spot announcing a new training scheme for plumbers, she put her name down to take part.
“I was doing nothing before I started the course,” Bessy says. “I was in my first year of secondary school — I went and stopped, went again, stopped again. My sister was sick, so my mother and I travelled to take care of her. But I didn’t want to leave school.”
Bessy was determined not to become involved in gangs, knowing how difficult they make life in her community.
“Some of them harass us. My phone was stolen by them. The boys from here fight with the boys from another neighbourhood — and when that happens they might come into your house and steal a tank of gas they can use to make bombs.”
Bessy’s training taught her how to clean wells, install toilets and construct rope pumps — some of her favourite aspects of the course.
She says the counselling sessions that were part of her training helped to improve her relationship with her parents: “I used to holla at them a lot. Now I’m not like that, I’m easier.”
It’s not just her relationships at home that have been improved — it’s the very house itself:
“I helped to build a new toilet at home. I felt good, happy because I knew that I would not have to go outside to the latrine and get muddy. My family give thanks to God because I received the training to do it.”
19-year-old Elton describes how the death of a friend pushed him to change the course of his life.
“I dropped out of school when I was 14. I used to smoke weed and my only goal was to get money to buy it — and if I didn’t have money I used to steal or assault people. I was with a gang and I used to join them every now and then when they had fights in the street.
One time we were fighting with another gang from a neighbouring area, and one of them killed a good friend of mine who I grew up with — right in front of me.
This made me think that this was not the right way to live — you could eventually be killed if you stayed in the gang. I started thinking about changing my life and doing something for myself.
Some neighbours told me about this WaterAid course. The whole event [with my friend] triggered me to join it.
I was very happy to be there because I had something to do during the day. At first when I got involved in the training we met other gangs from other neighbourhoods. I was afraid of them. I felt they wanted to cut me, and I felt like cutting them too. But we had more classes, more opportunities to meet each other, and we became friends.
We had to keep a notebook where we wrote about our lives. I really liked that bit. I was writing about my feelings, how I was feeling about certain situations, this kind of stuff. I wrote about how I used to get into arguments or fights with my family.
My relationship with my family has changed — it’s better now. We communicate better, we talk better and they trust me. My parents pushed me to keep on studying and they told me how important it was to be educated — so I joined school again.
Here life will be better for families. People have a lot of problems getting water, sometimes they have to go a long distance to get it. The community will be less sick if they can drink good water, and they can have better personal hygiene when they have their own toilets.”
Getting down to business
In neighbourhoods where there is plenty of demand for new wells and toilets, but very little supply, the opportunity for the young plumbers is abundant.
Of course, toilets and wells don’t come cheap. Those who need them most can’t always afford the upfront investment. This is why, in tandem with the training project, WaterAid supports Pana Pana, a local organisation that provides small loans with very low interest.
For Suyen, buying a well was too expensive — but so was living without one.
“I couldn’t wash our clothes, so I had to send them to my uncle — it was quite an expense to send them there, [we were paying for] a taxi return each week.”
To make sure there was at least a meagre supply of water in the house, her cousin’s children would collect barrels of water and roll them up narrow paths and across ditches to the house — exhausting work for them.
She approached Pana Pana for a loan and before long, a team of teenagers and their supervisor visited her home to build a brand new well.
“They were very professional,” she remembers. “There was a good relationship between them, they were very happy working in their jobs.”
Jorge is another Bilwi local who enlisted the services of the plumbing apprentices. The father could have built a makeshift toilet himself, but he wanted something that would stand the test of time for his children.
And Lucille, 55, hopes to be the next to use the plumbing crew’s services. Currently, her family get their drinking water from a tap by the river Twapi, a supply which dries up regularly and can leave them without water for up to half a month.
During these dry spells, Lucille is forced to ask for water from her neighbours who don’t always have enough to share. “It makes me feel bad because I don’t like to beg,” she says. “But the situation means we have to.”
In this video, Lucille explains how she went about procuring a loan from Pana Pana, and the changes she expects when her new water supply is installed. With dozens of new plumbers ready, willing and able right on her doorstep, it won’t be long until Lucille is enjoying safe water in a safer city.
All photographs by WaterAid/Jordi Ruiz Cirera.
Find out more about WaterAid innovations, from toilets for floating houses to breaking taboos on national TV here.