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Our final blog, the end of the year and the chance to share reflections on our project in five, mostly huge, primary schools in the informal settlement area of Kawangware, Nairobi.

Challenges we faced

As a behaviour change programme it was, in all honesty, tough. There was no way the children could wash their hands in any significant numbers, because there weren’t the facilities to do it. Hardware that had been put in had, over the course of the programme, largely been damaged with taps stolen and rendered useless.

One school with 1,600 children still had no water, and for the other three big ones, water was often sporadic. And because a free school lunch was the reason a significant proportion were allowed to come to school in the first place, these children were not voluntarily going to risk missing it by standing in a hand-washing queue.

Our hearts fell as our Northumbria University partner research fellow lurked in doorways watching them rush out for lunch at the ring of the longed-for bell: among them children who’d sworn blind that behaviours had changed. There just wasn’t a whole lot of hand washing going on. The one exception being the community (as opposed to public) school with just 300 pupils and a set of outside sinks beside the classrooms well kept and intact.

Behaviour change is tough. Do we feel we’ve achieved? Actually, yes. On several major counts.

The puppet, Mr Poop, at work in Kutupalong refugee camp, Bangladesh. Credit: No Strings International

"Puppets gave them a whole magical, creative and funny outlet they’ve never had in school, and a way of getting to the heart of the disgusting business of faecal oral disease transmission."

What we achieved

First, children simply loved the puppet approach. Puppets gave them a whole magical, creative and funny outlet they’ve never had in school, and a way of getting to the heart of the disgusting business of faecal oral disease transmission. Classrooms were taken over by the earnest sewing of Mr Poop from the fabulous local non-woven bags that have replaced Kenya’s now banned plastic carriers, and children cutting paper shadow puppets to perform tales they’d made up about typical school mates who’d drunk from the local faeces-ridden ditch, or, caught without toilet tissue, wiped their hands on the grass after a ‘long call’ and got sick.

Jesse, our big mouth No Strings puppet, was everywhere. In one school he’d even started tackling menstrual hygiene management and child protection.

So, after weeks of interviews and focus group discussions and this and that for our impact and process evaluations, we’ve come up with WASH Week. The Health Patrons we trained (school teachers who volunteer to run the clubs, three per school) love the idea, but doubling up as social workers half the time to deal with some of their pupils’ problems at home (“we could tell so many stories that would make you cry”), they just don’t have time to plan it themselves. But working with our in-country partner and the government department again, we can support them.

We can provide step-by-step guides that allow them and their ever-so-impressive Health Club children to have the whole school watch our films and take part in different puppetry activities, marrying themes to national curriculum demands in science and English. And have older classes compete to devise low-cost, simple and do-able solutions to the hand-washing problem. They’ve already shared with us some very sensible ideas.

Secondly, we made the fantabulous ‘The Tale of Mr Poop’ movie a classic – starring Mr Poop and Jesse (I’ll get onto the learning bit in a moment, and how we’re now also working with the Rohingya community in Bangladesh). Also starring Lisa Buckley, our senior workshop trainer and a world-class whizz at hand puppets; Lydia, one of the Kawangware teachers with a personality you could run countries with; a number of colleagues; and all 220 Health Club children. And directed, we were very much honoured, by Larry Boulting, son of one of the famous Boulting twin brother film directors; and produced by Bill Leeson, founder of War Child.

But in many cases the Health Club members were just a small number of the children. The puppets drew most children in the schools like magnets to the Health Club waiting list, and the fact remained that there were just too many of them. One school has a population of 2,500 and rising. One class has 120 children. It was quite something to see them out playing in the field – they looked like an entire school just on their own.

Play video

It’s here on this page, but we’re not launching it formally until the Kawangware children are back at school after these current holidays. It’s fun and inspiring, and, children being children, it will have everyone wanting to play with those puppets – spelling out about poop and hands and mouths and all that. And soap.

What we learned

The HIF has been enormously supportive throughout this process, and if we could change anything (advice to anyone embarking on a funding project with them) we’d have taken more advantage of their expertise.

We were so focused on trying to get it right and circumnavigate hurdles that delayed and delayed things (we originally, for example, intended to base the study in South Sudan where we’d run a training but were advised against it due to heightened insecurity). When we asked Cecilie, Mambwe and their associate advisers were wonderful. The whole process has brought No Strings on leaps and bounds in terms of project design and we truly believe we’re in a good place for scaling.

Next steps

Which brings us onto our final HIF-related achievement, which is the launch of our WASH programme in the Rohingya refugee camps in November this year and which has been taken up with verve and dynamism in the child-friendly spaces we’re working with and has proven a much more straight forward context to work in. Thanks to the HIF’s emphasis on partnering with academic institutions, we have taken the Northumbria University research fellow on to oversee baseline observation and follow-up studies and ensure learnings are continuously taken on board.

For 2019 we will be seeking funding to put WASH Week in place in Kawangware, and delivering refresher training with our facilitator partners in Cox’s Bazar. Our aim is also to scale, because this is a fun approach to WASH, we really know what we’re doing now and have come up with additional, simply-taught ideas for house-to-house sensitisation, and it works.

It just remains to thank you for reading, and also the HIF team, and the fabulous staff and children we’ve been privileged to work with in the Kawangware schools and the Rohingya child friendly spaces in Bangladesh.

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