Reflections from the first HandyShower testing phase in Peru.
What the heck is HandyShower?
After three intensive years spent studying and working in Paris, I decided to return to my native Poland. To leave it at the risk of sounding cliché, I was seeking to reconnect with like-minded colleagues working on issues that could match and challenge my own skills and passions, namely, how to devote myself to the benefit of other people and to make the world a better place. After two years of development studies of Latin America I wondered how to transcend a certain “neocolonial voice” in development projects. At the same time, the usual sense of duty attached to humanitarian-driven work became an obvious path to me. Moreover, my working experience allowed me to develop a set of necessary skills in the socially-demanding situations that I am now passionate about.
Back in Poland, I had the opportunity to meet the CEO of HandyShower during a conference about socially-responsible start-ups, a concept starting to gain urge and attention not only in Poland, but all over the world. Zdzislaw Iwanejko, the founder of the start-up, showered the audience with an inspiring speech about his new product and demonstrated his prototype of a 3-in-1 portable shower and toiletry kit, which has now been tested by astronauts and supplied to refugees in Syria. I fell in love with this project at first sight. Finally, I found something I wanted to dedicate my time to. After the conference, I approached Zdzislaw and said: “I studied development economics in Paris, I speak English, French, and Spanish. I believe in your project. I wanna help.” Indeed, I was sent to leave for the first Handy Shower testing phase in Latin America, the most unequal continent on the planet (distribution of income and wealth, GINI Index, 2017). I took my backpack filled with 5 portable showers and left for Lima, Peru.
Techo para mi País – why it is crucial to have a house?
104 million people in Latin America live in poverty, and 1 of 5 people live in classified slums, where there is often no canalisation and where people are forced to buy water from huge tanks. The price to receive a necessary supply of water is around 90 SOL/ month, which is a double what residents typically pay in wealthier districts.
Techo para mi País is the biggest NGO operating in almost all countries in Latin America. It is a non-profit organisation running mostly on the work of volunteers. The main action of Techo consists of construction programs focused on assisting vulnerable communities, for example, helping families relocate from provisory shelters to real households. Techo aims to provide families with a stable place of residence on the basis that the home, is a fundamental asset required to escape the vicious cycles of poverty. Once a family is accommodated in a permanent residence with an exact address, they can ascend out of the struggles of daily survival without permanent shelter, and members can look for jobs, send kids to school, and even qualify to receive regular forms of aid. The beneficiaries of the program construct the house with volunteers and engineers from the NGO, and later become an asset to the beneficiaries. The Community Manager, Daniel, explained to me that often families manage to overcome their financial problems thanks to this intervention. Families are then allowed to sell their house if they manage to find a decent job and want to move to a safer or more suitable area.
Access to water vs poverty
Most residents of modest-income districts in Lima have limited access to water, and due to frequent contamination, it often becomes a regular source of illness. Unfortunately, because parents cannot provide enough income for the whole family, many end up working in the “grey economy,” with no social security, and none of the benefits that we take for granted in Europe. When kids get sick due to lack of sufficient hygiene, they cannot go to school. During weekly workshops, Techo organises educational activities for children in 18 of the poorest districts of Lima. Those responsible for the coordination of volunteers and the design of the workshops monitor the attendance of the children at school.
My intervention in Lima lasted one week. Lima is a monstrous capital with some good districts and nightlife, but suffers mostly from heavy traffic, congestion, and lack of reliable public transport and high rates of delinquency. An average resident spends two hours getting to work. In the most disadvantaged and outlying districts, residents wake up the earliest and come home the latest. There is no social protection, and no guarantee to be paid for overtime work.
My brief experience was no exception to this case. A modest family that lived in the northern part of Lima hosted me, and I spent nearly two hours commuting to the center of the city in order to join the headquarters of Techo Peru. I spent two days in the office with a local community manager and other volunteers. Paradoxically, I suffered from food poisoning just two days before our main intervention with HandyShower was scheduled to take place. Luckily, before getting sick, I had the opportunity to discover how the NGO works, and to also feel the amazing atmosphere and vibrancy of the city. Everybody I met was cheerful and welcoming, even when most of the people work in difficult conditions with few financial and human resources.
Workshops and angry dogs
Daniel assigned me to collaborate with the community “Nueva Jerusalén” in the San Juan de Lurigancho district in the North of Lima. Over one million inhabitants of this underserved district have restricted access to water and sanitation systems. I was even warned by my host family that this district is considered extremely dangerous. Apart from my food poisoning, I couldn’t sleep the night before because of the Fiesta de la Virgen, a religious feast for the Virgin Mary, and the ensuing celebrations with incredibly loud reaggeton music that played until 5 a.m.!
A team of Techo Peru volunteers led by Jhon conducted the intervention the next day. I was with my Colombian friend, Natalia, who was very helpful and supporting as my guide. The intervention started early on Sunday morning (8:20 a.m.). I had to leave an hour and a half earlier because of the traffic, which never ceases to clear in this busy metropolis. We arrived around noon to conduct the workshop with HandyShower. We took a local bus from the meeting point. Then, we walked in total around fifteen minutes with the final climb up sandy stairs on a hill where our target community lived. The view is hard to describe; it seemed like an unlimited amount of similar provisional households in the hilly valley covered by smog. One has the impression that absolutely everything is grey, from the ground to sky.
The workshop was designed to cover the importance of hygiene and to teach the children about the HandyShower and its benefits. Finally, Jhon decided to conduct workshops with both Señoras (ladies, moms) and children (the oldest ones, around 10-11 years old). We ended up doing the workshops in open-air, next to a common canteen, where everyday one of Señoras cooks meals for the community. In this community there is no canalisation, no running tap, and no available sinks… Together with Natalia we went to look for water in order to show how the device worked. We had to pass through a dangerous and narrow path between wires, rubbish, and a slippery downslope. Some of the girls wanted to keep us company, and joyfully ran alongside, while Natalia and I were frightened.
Finally, we presented how the HandyShower works. Kids were excited to test the device, watering a few plants in the tiny garden next to the canteen. Suddenly, three stray dogs appeared and started to fight under the table where we were sitting. One of the ladies managed to calm them down, get rid of them and close the loophole. In the end, we gave away four HandyShowers to the community. A few weeks later, I received photos from the Señoras who installed the devices in their homes. They now use them as a shower or a tap to wash their dishes (see the picture below).
Looking for new partnerships
Our team takes into account all the feedback and collected experience of users, which leads us to the improvement of HandyShower. Field projects such as with Techo Perú, verify the best the needs of the community is meant to use it. It is essential for us to co-create HandyShower together with the target users. Señoras use our device as a proper shower, they will install a HandyShower in the public canteen as soon as we provide them a specially designed sink (stay tuned!). HandyShower is looking forward for cooperation with Techo para mi País in Perú and other countries in Latin America. We are willing to cooperate with Techo Perú and other humanitarian organisations. Do not hesitate to contact us in case you want to become a HandyShower tester!
 EN: Roof for my Country; each country has its own chair, e.g. Techo Perú