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Making a difference

Halifax resident inspires a local effort to improve sanitation at a hospital in Mali

Gretchen Snoeyenbos, a Silver Lake Regional High School graduate spending two years in Mali, is seeking to improve sanitation and access to clean drinking water in one of the country's regional hospitals, where dysentery and diarrhea are common ailments.

Clean water and good sanitation are major problems in Africa, especially in Mali, a sub-Saharan West African country in the rain-starved Sahel region. In Mali, a relentless "desertification" trend has threatened a largely rural population. A new sanitation system is the first priority for the hospital in Dioila, a large town comparable to a county seat, where Snoeyenbos is a Peace Corps volunteer.

Her stateside allies, seeking to raise $3,300 for a Peace Corps-approved sanitation system, are holding a "Dance for Dioila Fund-raising Concert" Sept. 1 in Kingston. Any money raised beyond that goal will go toward the next step, building new wells.

A Halifax resident, Snoeyenbos graduated from Silver Lake seven years ago, majored in history at Mount Holyoke College, and then volunteered for post-Katrina cleanup in Mississippi. The experience convinced her that she would be "brave enough" for the Peace Corps, according to her mother, Ellen Snoeyenbos.

The Peace Corps sent her to Mali, where last month "the dry, brown dusty earth burst forth into a riot of green," Gretchen Snoeyenbos wrote in a letter home.

"I could wax poetic about the beauty of the greenness and the fecundity of the earth but that would obscure the fact that the rains are a month late and too little," she wrote.

Regular droughts, a result of climate change, have made it impossible for much of the population to go on making a living through agriculture, undermining a traditional economy based on small cash crops, including cotton. Farmers have been debating, Snoeyenbos wrote, whether to gamble on planting cotton this year.

People continue to grow vegetables and raise goats for their food, but there isn't much to spare beyond subsistence, she said.

The drying up of the region has driven many people to the towns, adding pressure to an underdeveloped infrastructure. People come from a wide area to seek medical attention at the hospital in Dioila, and its sanitation system has broken down under the demand.

The Peace Corps' recommended sanitation system model is based on a rotating system of pit latrines. But excavation for permanent latrines is a challenge, requiring digging through rocky, clay-like soil. In the meanwhile, Snoeyenbos wrote, "The latrines are old and filling rapidly." And there are other complications, including the disposal of contaminated water and of the "cleanish water" that breeds malaria-infecting mosquitoes.

Snoeyenbos's next project is digging a new well to provide water for a community garden where local women can grow vegetables and sell them in the town's market. Success in the marketplace will put money in the hands of local women, an important step in improving life in the developing world.

Fund-raising, including contributions by Snoeyenbos's relatives and Plymouth Rotary members, has already raised most of the cost of the sanitation project. Rotary International has targeted the worldwide need for clean drinking water as a major goal, Ellen Snoeyenbos noted.

Mali, the home of the late world music legend Ali Farka Touré, has a rich cultural heritage, with an "Islamic overlay" on an earlier animist religious tradition. "Islam has a gentle touch on the country," said Ellen Snoeyenbos, who visited the country last winter.

Gretchen Snoeyenbos has been sharing her experience of living in a very different country with a fifth-grade class at Halifax Elementary School, serving as the classroom's "foreign correspondent" through e-mails and phone calls and receiving gifts from the students, including a DVD introducing themselves.

Next week's fund-raiser will feature music by the fittingly named Connection, a regional band with members from Pembroke, Plymouth, and Kingston. Led by vocalist Kate Sullivan, lead guitarist Pete Eldridge, and Tom Augello, who sings and improvises jazz riffs on saxophone, the band plays a rousing rock and blues repertoire.

The dance-concert is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at the Beal House on Main Street, Kingston, the function hall of the Kingston Unitarian Universalist church. The suggested donation is $10 ($5 for seniors and children). All ages are welcome.

Robert Knox can be contacted at