Research findings

and some notes on impact

First, a note on form, ethics and collaboration


he anthropologist’ dilemma has always been how to grapple with the question of cultural translation and representation. In our attempt to translate and make sense of other cultural worlds, we are often confronted with the limits of language and what words can articulate. We believe that there are many ways – other than our academic vocabulary – through which we can tell the stories of our encounter with the world we call fieldwork. This holds all the more true if we wish to share our insights with the people whom it seeks to represent. As such, in striving for the coproduction of knowledge based on care and fairness, we encourage all researchers to be inspired by the ‘San Code of Research Ethics’:



We require an open and clear exchange between the researchers and our leaders. The language must be clear, not academic. Complex issues must be carefully and correctly described, not simply assuming the San cannot understand. There must be a totally honest sharing of information.



A lot has been written about the role of ‘the visual’ in anthropology. It is important to keep in mind that as much as the positionality of the researcher deserves critical reflection, so too is the mediating role of the camera always in need of careful employment. This means that, among many other things, a meticulous eye for a respectful representation is vital and consent indispensable.




Making anthropological knowledge relevant


As mentioned before, for the mechanics the emplacement of the Malagasy hand pump was seen as a purely technical undertaking; it was just a matter of getting the geological and hydraulic parameters right. However, our research had revealed the deeply cultural and existential attachment of people to land, water and other vital natural resources. In many parts of Madagascar, people have a deeply rooted connection to the ancestors, who are buried on the ancestral land – the tanin-drazana. This connection largely underpins social relations and the ways in which access to land is arranged. So we knew that you could not just place a pump anywhere.


Photo caption: if community members do not create ownership over the pumps, failure is much more likely to occur.

Making anthropological knowledge useful


As many other researchers have also point out, community participation and having an eye for finding the right site is crucial for the successful use of the water pump. Without aspiring to find the magic bullet, we thought we had observed an important knowledge gap in the ways in which water pumps came into being in this specific village. In an attempt to make anthropological knowledge useful for the construction of water pumps, our approach has been deceptively simple. The basic condition was that people actually wanted a pump. While we were confronted with the inevitable challenge of how to decide where to build one, and thus exclude other localities, we received written requests from across the village. In other words:

We did not choose the pumps, the pumps chose themselves.

The villagers are asked to assist in the construction of a pump

A water committee needed to be elected

Our core method consisted of listening to people, and once the pumps were built we observed how they were used.

Each pump has their self-elected committee and we always encourage women to be active members too. Click on the photos to enlarge.

Joeline shows us the next 17 pump demands that she has received from different villagers. With pain in our heart we explain that we have only money left for one, last pump.

Crucially, instead of the technicians first selecting the site, we turned the procedure around by asking the villagers first - women, men and relevant authorities (both official and ‘traditional’) where they wanted the pump. This process could take from a couple of hours to a full day and then see whether it was technically feasible.

Lengthy interviews with users of every pump were conducted.


We observed that this pump has operational

 issues and is very heavy to use.

Every morning from 6 until 11 am and in the evening from 5 to 7 a long queue of water users are formed. This is a spectacular event to observe, as people joyfully collaborate, wait together, have a chat and a laugh.

People also leave their buckets in the queue and come back after a while to see if it’s their turn already. This queue can be seen as a timeline and children help to keep it orderly and move the buckets forward.

Tangible findings


While our research revealed that all 20 pumps have a unique, socio-technical life of their own, and thus 20 different stories can be told, we highlight here the most important findings:





All respondents gave as first response the significant improvement in health, drop in stomach maladies and diarrhea (awareness of importance of clean water).


As one of the committee members of the pump at the market remarked: “We used to call the dry season (October - December) ‘saison de mal au ventre’ (season of stomach ache), but now we can drink water without a problem. Our children are free from diarrhea which saves us a lot of money for medicine and sur’eau (purification liquid)”.

Sur eau is used to purify polluted water



20 pumps work and are widely used, and there is generally a high level of motivation among users and pump committees. There are still water pump requests from all over the region. Especially after the 2016/2017 drought people are increasingly aware of the importance of clean water, as the mayor explains: “Since the drought, people are really motivated to get water from the pump because they realise its importance. People come from far away to collect water."


Learn more about what the mayor told us in Introduction into Marofarihy village.

Social Gathering


Women see the pump as a place for social gathering

Men use the pumps too


While the literature mainly emphasizes that in rural Africa, water is a domain almost exclusively for women, we observed that men use the pumps too! This is especially the case for jerry cans, which are too heavy for most women to carry. Some men carry water in return for money, which forms a source of income.



Some users walk more than 3 - 5 km per day to fetch water, which attests to the awareness and importance that is attached to potable water.

Tolerance and regulation


In general, there is a high tolerance of water use for migrants/ travelers. However, some pumps have more strict regulation mechanisms than others



And of course, there have been and continue to be many challenges too. These challenges are both of a technical and social nature. For example, in the beginning of the project, there was jealousy among the villagers. The installation of a pump in one locality, always entails the exclusion of others. In one instance, this has led to sabotage of a working pump. But we learned that this was due to an interpersonal conflict between the former technician and his ex-wife. Sometimes, very mundate, personal conflicts play out on the functioning of the pump. The first technician was also not as generous and respected as Bertin, as he often wanted more money for his repairs than people could afford. This resulted in the fact that some pumps were left unrepaired for a while. Since Bertin is the main technician now, all the pumps are being repaired almost immediately. This has to be understood simply as a fortuitous event. From a technical point of view, the hydrology of Marofarihy is inexplicably complicated and unpredictable. It happened a few times that the technicians did not find the aquifer within reach of the pump, or that in the dry season the pump could not be used due to lack of access to water, after which the pump needed to be relocated.


We found the following main challenges:

As we arrived at this pump the villagers explained to us that it started to color red since yesterday. The technical team managed to fix it. This is the point where a pump can become treacherous, because people expect the water from the pump to be clean and potable (see below). But Joeline goes out of her way to sensitize water users, and explains that if people don’t trust the water, they still need to treat it or boil it before drinking.

The problem of this pump has been from the beginning of a technical nature as the aquifer was too deep, which led to a broken pipe. Also, due to the absence of responsible school teachers there was no surveillance around this pump. That is why we decided to relocate the pump to an area with a motivated water committee.

While this pump works, it is one of the few pumps that has no fence and villagers do not have a payment scheme in place to take care of it when it breaks.

The bridge (left, out of the frame) over the river collapsed due to a heavy cyclone.  This man and the boy walk through the water to get to the other shore.

Technical issues


Some major technical issues could not be fixed without the external support of technical team (water quality, water level, broken PVC pipes)

Weather and climate


Cyclones and rainy season make access to pumps difficult weather and climate.

Classification: filtertered vs. unfiltered.


While normally relying solely on sensorial practices, the introduction of the pump altered these technologies of classification. Interestingly enough, the difference between water from the open well, or rivers, versus the pump are not explained in terms of ‘pure’ versus ‘impure’, but ‘filtered’ versus ‘unfiltered’. Natural sources are God’s creation and used for ancestral rituals, and can never be impure, while the mediation of the technology makes it potable. However, as an improved water source, the pump can be treacherous too as it invites trust, while failures can be odorless and tasteless. People have to rely on their sensorial experiences, and the international standards for water quality, become inevitably fluid in face of only highly polluted alternatives. As de Laet and Mol (2000) observed: “Health questions don’t have to do with setting standards scientifically, but rather with the practical comparison of alternatives.”  In other words, even if the water from the pump has elevated levels of nitrate for example, the alternative of drinking water from the river or an open well is endless more polluted and dangerous.

Before people had access to potable water, people used to either drink ranapangu - which is leftover water from boiling rice - or drink  straight from the rice fields, an open well or the river. This entailed that stomach pain and maladies were part and parcel of normality.

Increased cooperation, sense of happiness, relaxation


But when asking villagers about the most important impact the pumps brought about into their lives, we received answers that were remarkably intangible and immeasurable. Indeed, dimensions that cannot be quantified or measured. How do we value things like increased cooperation, a space for jokes and social gathering, sense of happiness, time and leisure simply to relax for a moment, or to play.


Click on the photos to read what people said about their pump.

Intangible, immeasurable findings

Concluding reflection


As a machine that is designed elsewhere, a lot of work has been put into getting the daunting technical matters right to make the pump work. However, we have shown that a lot of work is needed to get the social matters right too. Therefore, allowing for a local appropriation of a fluid object with an appreciation of existing normative orders, the pumps did nothing more than reinforce what was already there. The pump is indeed a fluid object, moving through a fluid space, and what it means to work is subject to fluid classifications. Perhaps then, we should think of impact too as a highly fluid notion, which is better understood in its full heterogeneity and surprises when it is the outcome of research, not the beginning.

Impact according to team

Washing is always done at the river as it is more convenient in terms of space and for letting the clothes dry. The water from the pumps is too scarce to use for washing.



“The foundation has improved my connection to the people. Everybody recognises my expertise.

I love the pumps because the difference is that now both poor and rich have access to water, while before it was only the rich people who could afford water.”



“Our research has been like an oasis underneath the soil, which we have excavated and that - with the support of a few brave people - has given life (potable water, health, fihavanana, heritage for the villagers) to 20 desolated villages that were deprived of clean water; it has been a true story of humanity (experiences, human and social relations in the hope of persevering amidst these actions) for the initiators of this programme”.

Bertin, the technician


“When a pump is broken, I don’t leave my house with the idea that ‘today I am going to make money’, but with the idea that ‘today I am going to repair a pump’. But the villagers often give me something as a sign of appreciation. I recognize the importance of the pumps for the people. I love being the technician because since I repair pumps, everybody recognizes me and talks to me.”

Jose, team leader pump construction team


“We love the work that we do, because it is work. But our salaries are very low. The material that we work with are not modern enough.”


From the very beginning of the project, we have been working with Jose. It has always been a great joy to work with him and his team. We played legendary soccer games, had go§od moments around the fire, and drank the occasional beer after work to evaluate and make jokes. It is interesting that when we first started to work with him, he was still working for a social enterprise. Later he became part of another team of technicians who split up, and now he is also working with his own team. When we asked him about the main challenges he encountered as a technician he explained to us:

We kept our collaboration with Jose alive and are now seeking to find a way for Jose and the Malagasy team to set up their own NGO.

Please wait. Page loading...