Sand Dams Worldwide's former Programmes Officer, Christopher Purnell, documents his first sand dam experience in Zimbabwe, and witnesses how sands dams are creating greater opportunity for women and lasting change in the country.

As we rolled in along the terrain of the Matobo dirt roads, scaling inclines, I caught my first glimpse of a sand dam under construction. Upon arrival my first sight was a young man with a wheelbarrow racing down the bank of the seasonal riverbed towards a group of both men and women laying rocks and steel reinforcements as the dam structure was starting to take shape.

My attention was immediately drawn to five women mixing cement whilst singing harmoniously in Ndebele, the predominant language of Southern and Eastern areas of Zimbabwe, an unplanned yet warming welcome.

After a formal introduction with the people of Nyoka, I tried to make myself as useful as possible lending a hand with construction which was unsurprisingly tough work. Needing a break I sat to speak with a member of the Nyoka community. I had a conversation with Senelisiwe Nyoni, a beaming 37-year-old woman.

"Normally we meet at club level but very rarely and not with all the women in the community coming together like this. It (the sand dam) gives us an opportunity to talk about our daily lives and learn from each other."

Senelisiwe Nyoni, a farmer from the Nyoka people of Zimbabwe.

Senelisiwe spoke of how she became involved with the construction of the dam (funded by Jersey Overseas Aid and the Isle of Man International Development Committee), as herself, her family and community really need the water the dam would harvest. Their current source of water is a borehole that is over double the distance away from the households in the community and is unreliable during the dry season. This is something Senelisiwe is very hopeful will be counteracted by sand dams. As she put it: “We believe we will get more water year round from the dam... it will be easier and cleaner.”

The conversation quickly turned to the benefits the new water source would have for Senelisiwe’s family and the wider community. She stressed how the community “needs the water for drinking, cropping, for livestock and the establishment of gardens.” It is Senelisiwe’s wish to work directly with these gardens, helping support her three children. She stated how the benefits of the improved access to water will “encourage them (her children), particularly the third child, I hope that the increased access to water and the income from crops will improve his chance of going to a good school.”

What really struck me from my conversation with Senelisiwe was learning about how the dam construction was a rare and welcomed opportunity for women to get together. Prior to the work on the Nyoka sand dam, the opportunities for women to come together were few and far between. “Normally we meet at club level but very rarely and not with all the women in the community coming together like this. It gives us an opportunity to talk about our daily lives and learn from each other. Even in the presence of men we discuss issues and learn more.”

Senelisiwe told me how although in their culture women do sometimes assist with construction, it is predominantly a male role and it was evident that the way men and women were interchanging roles during construction, it is going a long way to breaking down that barrier in addition to allowing women to develop closer relationships.

This camaraderie was nicely summed up by the laughing and high fives Senelisiwe received by her peers upon finishing her conversation with me. As sand dams are constructed by the direct beneficiaries of the water it will harvest, it’s clear the work enhances the sense of community between members, in particular, offering an opportunity for women to build on their relationships and break down the barriers of gender roles in rural Zimbabwe, whilst also combating water scarcity and food security for decades to come.

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