WellFound – Guinea Bissau

Gill Shaw’s Photographic Journey with WellFound to Guinea Bissau

Clean, fresh, disease-free running water is taken for granted by those people lucky enough to live in the world’s developed countries. Yet in many parts of the world, access to water of this quality is limited or non-existent. One of the organisations trying to change this situation is WellFound. It offers practical help to some of the world’s poorest people by installing wells, latrines and market gardens in their communities.

When photographer Gill Shaw was asked by the organisations founder, Howard Measham, to record its work, she agreed to go to Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. Over the past 25 years, Gill’s work has mainly involved shooting celebrities, royals, presidents, prime ministers, weddings, portraits and corporate images, but for this project she focused on documenting the charity’s work and the people it helps. Gill is also a trustee for the charity. “I believe everyone should have the right to fresh water,” she says, “no matter who you are, or where you live in the world.”

In her mission to help WellFound, Gill along with Howard Measham and Mary Perner headed for West Africa in April 2018. She was shocked by what she found when she arrived. “To see people drinking and washing in these dirty puddles of water was horrendous,” she says. “It breaks your heart. I’ve done stories on Africa before, but Guinea-Bissau seemed different. We’re all living on one Earth, but I felt I was on a different planet there. Whatever village you go to, there’s a funeral taking place every day. But they’re the most down-to-earth people you could ever meet. I just didn’t think it was fair that people should have to live like that.”

During the eight days she spent in the region, Gill did a tour of 15 villages in the area at breakneck speed. She travelled 40 miles on a speedboat to the Bijagos Islands, travelled for hours in an old 4×4 down unmade roads, rode on the back of a motorbike through jungle and walked miles from villages to the places where water was drawn. All this activity took place in searing temperatures. “It was completely and utterly the most exhausting eight days of my life,” she says.

Gill aimed to document the radical difference between villages that had been given wells and latrines and those that didn’t yet have them. “People in villages where we had worked with them to provide wells and latrines were so happy and bubbly,” she says. “They shook our hands and kept hugging us and saying, ‘Thank you.’” She also photographed the market gardens that have been created to help the villagers grow crops to eat and sell.

She says that some children would run and hide when they saw her because they had never seen a white woman before. However, people were generally happy to be photographed and some women in one village even did a celebratory dance to show their appreciation for the charity’s work.
Looking back on her experiences and the people she met, Gill says it has made her feel “very privileged to have been born a westernised woman” and has inspired her to do more to help those born into very different societies. “You know, I think a good photograph has the potential to make such a difference,” she says. “It can raise awareness, have an impact and raise much-needed funds for charities like WellFound.

“The differences between the villages where we haven’t installed wells and latrines to the ones where we have is absolutely massive. We have already given water to over 100,000 people in Africa. So I’m very passionate about what the charity can achieve and seeing change there.”
Award-winning photographer Gill Shaw, an Associate of the Master Photographers Association, London, has spent a lot of her photography life helping charities by producing two high profile books and numerous exhibitions in support of her chosen charities.

Trip Diary

23rd January 2018

Guinea-Bissau is one of the poorest countries in Africa, and indeed in the whole world. According to the CIA World Factbook the average life expectancy at birth is just over 60 years, and the infant and maternal mortality rates are high putting Guinea-Bissau amongst the 20 worst countries in the world. Guinea-Bissau’s history of political instability, a civil war, and several coups (the latest in 2012) have resulted in a fragile state with a weak economy, high unemployment, widespread poverty, and widespread drug and child trafficking.

This is a typical roadside scene on the outskirts of Bissau, the capital city of Guinea-Bissau. This was my very first morning and it reminded me of the Africa which I knew from previous visits: busy, noisy, sometimes chaotic, but filled with friendly, approachable people.

As we drove out of Bissau we saw a football match taking place. Football is a sport that enables the youth to have fun and elevate themselves through their own achievement without very much cost. The national team has some standing in Africa and some players have found employment in European teams.

There is very little infrastructure in large parts of the country. Typical roads are dirt tracks, which are often washed away in the rainy season. Walking is often the only option for getting around, and if something needs to be moved then carrying it is inevitable.

We came across this lady as we travelled to where a boat was waiting to take us out to the islands where WellFound has been working.

This is Port Biombo with a boat waiting for us. No facilities like a landing jetty or a harbour wall. We had to wade out across the mud to get to the boat, and then we had a journey down a winding river with mangrove swamps on either side to reach the open sea.

We were on our way to the Bijagos archipelago, more than 100 low-lying, remote islands where the levels of poverty and deprivation are even greater.

We landed on the island of Galinha, a journey of about 35 miles across the open sea. We had the privilege of making the trip in a motorboat taking about two and a half hours. The journey was rough and very bumpy. We all ended up soaked. The local people make the journey in traditional wooden boats, carved from tree trunks, and often taking over six hours.

This is the village of Etinghaore, a village of 325 people. At the time of my visit WellFound had not worked here. WellFound will always select villages very carefully. Our ethos is to work in partnership with the local people. We want to help them to help themselves. In this way we can be confident that when WellFound moves on to other villages, the work will continue and be sustainable.

Whilst I was taking photographs, other members of the WellFound staff were carrying out a final assessment of whether to work with Etinghaore. We will only work if we are invited by the villagers, and we need to see their commitment to working with us.

At first sight these villagers seemed to be managing. These two lads are proudly selling fish they caught that morning. They were keen to see outsiders, and our visit caused great interest.

This girl was also carrying some of the results of the morning's fishing.

Fresh fish is the staple food for an island village like this one. Apart from fish the only other food is locally grown. Cassava is very common. The root of the cassava plant is starchy and edible and a source of carbohydrates. However the plant also contains cyanide and therefore must be prepared properly to avoid poisoning.

These people are happy, something that struck me almost everywhere I went in Guinea-Bissau. I hardly ever saw a child with a toy. An empty plastic bottle can become a plaything for a day, and yet still I was met by smiles and interest.

By now I was starting to wonder why WellFound would work in a village like this. Although life was clearly hard for them I was surprised by their positive attitude, and perhaps misled into thinking everything was all right.

That misconception was shattered when I was taken to see the water source for Etinghaore village.

This dirty pool is about 15 minutes walk from the village, a journey which the villagers would make several times a day to fetch water for drinking and cooking.

At a glance I could see the problem. The water was cloudy, dirty and looked to have green algae floating in it. The water would come from the torrential tropical storms, which sweep across Guinea-Bissau for three months every year in late summer. And then it would sit in pools and streams like this one during the hot dry season, gradually drying up. By late spring a pool like this would be dry and the villagers would need to walk further and further to find any water.

Diarrhea is very common in a village like Etinghaore through drinking contaminated water and the risk of cholera is never very far away. The World Health Organisation estimates waterborne diseases account for two million deaths worldwide each year, with the majority occurring in children under five. This is one of the factors leading to the high infant mortality rate in Guinea-Bissau.

On top of waterborne diseases, stagnant water, like this pool, is a breeding ground for mosquitoes and the inevitable malaria.

On our way back from the water hole we met a woman walking slowly out to collect water for her family.

Many estimates say that women and girls in developing countries walk an average of 6 kilometers (approximately 3.5 miles) a day, carrying 20 liters (approximately 42 pounds/20 kgs) of water.

This woman would return from the water hole carrying the large container full of water on her head and holding the bucket in her hand.

Back in the village I came across this women breastfeeding. The birth rate is high in Guinea-Bissau, the 13th highest in the world according to the CIA Fact book. Each woman will have five children on average although not all survive. Almost 45% of the entire population is under the age of 14.

We were very lucky to have a lift on this motorbike as the village was several miles from the shore through forest and on very uneven paths.

Finally, as we left Etinghaore, we presented the children with a football as a gift. Football is the national sport in Guinea-Bissau so the gift was very much appreciated.

Since I visited Etinghaore, WellFound has been working in partnership with the villagers. They now have a borehole and solar powered water pump. They have built family latrines for each house, and the women are starting work on a market garden. I saw Etinghaore at the very start of the transformation that will come about through clean, fresh water.

From Etinghaore, we travelled onto another village on the island of Galinha: Ambancana.

WellFound have been working with the villagers of Ambancana since 2014. The work here is well established. The villagers here have a well, latrines and a thriving market garden.

As we approached the market garden the women met us and performed a traditional dance for us, accompanied by much drumming.

This is the market garden in Ambancana.

All the WellFound market gardens are 50m x 50m, surrounded with sturdy fencing to keep animals out.

The gardens are laid out in plots. Every woman who wants to participate, and most do, is responsible for several plots. Each woman also contributes to a savings fund which provides the money for buying seeds and tools.

This little lad was helping his mother with the watering, and enjoying every minute.

People often ask where the people get their clothes? This boy is wearing a Chelsea football shirt, although on closer inspection it is ripped and fraying, and Samsung stopped sponsoring Chelsea in 2015.

The answer is that this shirt would have been donated to a charity shop in England, and then found its way to a street-side market, probably in Bissau.

This is a view of tomatoes growing. Marcolino, a WellFound agricultural technician, taught the women to cover the tomato plants with dried grasses to provide shade from the hot sun.

Tomatoes grow very well in this climate, as do green pepper, onion, okra and lettuce. WellFound has also introduced new vegetables like cabbage and cucumbers, But everything needs watering at least twice a day, so there is a big commitment on behalf of the women to run a successful garden and a big requirement for water.

As we came back to the village of Ambancana I came across this mother washing one of her triplets whilst the other two waited patiently for their turn. It is so rare to see triplets and the mum was really proud to show them to me.

Life carried on even as the group of WellFound staff walked by.

My last view of Ambancana. The villagers here may not have much, but at least now thanks to WellFound they have clean water, latrines and hygiene, and fresh vegetables from their market garden.

The village has been looking after their facilities now since 2014, and that gives us great confidence they will continue even once WellFound has moved on.

That will make all the difference for the little children like this boy.

24th January 2018

Back to the boat, a quick discussion on our schedule, and onto the next island.

On the left of this picture is Howard Measham who founded WellFound in 2005. It is thanks to Howard's determination and drive that WellFound has now brought clean water to over 100,000 people. Next to him is Mary Perner who was the original inspiration and driving force to support the women in setting up market gardens in each of the villages where we work. Mary is now a patron of WellFound.

And on the right is Joao Le who leads the team in Guinea-Bissau. Joao was born and brought up in Canchungu, a village in Guinea-Bissau, and so knows the challenges of everyday life here first hand.

We landed on the island of Caravela, about 45 miles from the coast of the mainland and very remote.

This group of lads who posed for the photograph met us.

They looked stern, and only spoke their local language, but we managed to communicate with gestures. They had markings on their bodies which show the stages of coming-of-age ritual which they have been through. I asked them if they hurt when they were put there and they sheepishly nodded. They were lovely young guys who like all of us, wake up every morning with hopes and dreams…

As we started the long walk into the centre of the island we came across this pile of fish. It was coated with salt (made from evaporating seawater in the sun) to try to preserve it.

We were visiting the village of Kabua, another village without access to clean water where WellFound was considering working.

This was one of their existing water sources: shallow, dirty and liable to dry up in the dry season.

Villages which own cattle, which are valuable, have the additional challenge of finding water for their cattle to drink to keep them alive.

Often the cattle will share the same water source, churning up and contaminating the land around.

By now we were in the centre of Kabua. This was quite a sombre village. The villagers here are very remote in the centre of the island and find life a struggle.

The swollen stomach of the boy on the left is a telltale sign of malnutrition.

The girl in pink is holding a basic mobile phone. These are quite common. They are often used to listen to locally transmitted radio rather than making calls as the villagers do not have the money to pay for credit. Ironically, although the phone coverage is very patchy, it is much better than the coverage of clean water. It is particularly jarring to have a malnourished boy and a mobile phone in the same photograph.

Hair braiding is very common. Braid patterns can indicate a person’s tribe, community, age, marital status, social position, and religion.

The person who braids hair performs it as both a ritual and a social service. It is an art form taught by the older women to the younger ones.

Howard Measham spoke to some of the village elders of Kabua. Part of WellFound's approach is always to test whether we are really invited into a village and whether the elders wish to work with us.

Howard Measham spoke to some of the village elders of Kabua. Part of WellFound's approach is always to test whether we are really invited into a village and whether the elders wish to work with us.

As we prepared to visit the existing water source for Kabua, we were joined by a group of excited children who were curious as to what we were doing.

After 15 minutes walk we came to this hole in the ground. The villagers had dug down to find cloudy water. There was no fence around the hole to keep animals, or children, out. We were told the story of when a goat fell into a hole and died and contaminated the water supply. We were also told that snakes are often found in the holes, but the villagers just clean them out and carry on using the water.

Further on we came across another water hole where the girl with freshly braided hair was drawing water. Once again there was no protection around the deep hole.

We were told that these holes will collapse in the wet season due to the torrential rain, and the process of digging will need to start again.

Back to Kabua, and Howard Measham took the opportunity to talk to the villagers with Joao translating. Howard's message was very simple, and one that we convey to all villages before we start work: "We are not here to give money. We are here to work together in partnership. WellFound will provide the resources and raw materials; the villagers will provide the labour; and together we provide clean water, latrines and a market garden. If the villagers don't want to work with us, that's fine. We will simply walk away and go to another village that do want us. But if the villagers work with us, then together we will succeed."

Back to the beach and our boat, deep in thought at what we had seen. The villagers had told us that other charities had visited and promised help but had not come back due to the distance and the cost.

Since my visit, in January 2019, WellFound started work in Kabua and very soon these boys will have access to a fresh start in life.

As we left I noticed the children playing together, using a broken piece of plastic that had perhaps floated in on the tide. Another example of almost anything being used as a plaything and a source of entertainment.

We moved onto the village of Bitelhe, also on the island of Caravela. WellFound has been working here since 2014 so their market garden is very well established. Mary Perner took the opportunity to talk to the women and inspect their crop of green peppers.

The monument in the background, topped with a rusting sphere of metal, is a remnant of the old Portuguese administration. Guinea-Bissau was a colony of Portugal until it gained independence in 1973.

This was a happy group of women. They knew we were coming and had worn traditional grass skirts. They presented Howard Measham with a traditional wrap worn by the men.

Looking after the garden is hard work. Apart from twice daily watering, the women weed regularly and check the crops for disease. The women use the leaves of the native neem tree to prevent and control common diseases. WellFound provides a trained agricultural technician, usually a local young man or woman, who works in the gardens to give help and advice. One of the important areas of advice is preparing the ground at the start of the season to give the plants the best possible chance. The agricultural technicians train the women in how to compost animal waste.

Looking after the garden is hard work. Apart from twice daily watering, the women weed regularly and check the crops for disease. The women use the leaves of the native neem tree to prevent and control common diseases. WellFound provides a trained agricultural technician, usually a local young man or woman, who works in the gardens to give help and advice. One of the important areas of advice is preparing the ground at the start of the season to give the plants the best possible chance. The agricultural technicians train the women in how to compost animal waste.

The women of Bitelhe were delighted to show us their crops. This was a very good garden in that all the plots were used and looked after. Before the garden is constructed, WellFound will encourage the women of a village to form their own management committee. The women will elect their own leader and other members of the committee. The committee will then oversee the garden and ensure it runs smoothly. If any woman neglects her plots, then she will be encouraged to put that right, and if she doesn’t then her plots will be taken away by the committee and reallocated. Each woman will also contribute a small amount each month to a garden savings scheme, and this money will then be used to buy tools and seeds for the next growing season.

A final view of Bitelhe at the end of long, busy and exhausting day. I could leave on the boat, but these villagers will be there, even today.At least the work they did with WellFound has given them access to clean water, and the chance to improve their lives.

25th January 2018

Another day, another island.This is the village of Binte on the island of Carache, another very remote island.WellFound has been working here since 2015 so this village also has clean water, latrines and a market garden. This is a typical sight across Africa: a young mother carrying her baby slung low on her back as she goes about her daily work.

The market garden for Binte is quite far from the village. We always ask the women where they would like to build the garden and the well. We only specify that it should be built on common ground so that no landowner can charge the women for their usage.

In this case the women chose to build their garden away from the village. We find that the gardens have wider benefits on top of the access to fresh produce. They provide a place for the women to meet socially and safely, and the fact that the women are taking all the decisions improves their status in the village.

Once again the women had been expecting us, and so they wore their traditional dresses and treated us to a display of dancing.

Very rhythmical clapping and drumming and singing accompany the dancing.

This is the pump in the market garden at Binte. The water is cool and clear, and very sweet to drink.

You and I can drink this with no ill effects. The well underneath the pump is about 15m deep and was dug by hand.

Once again the women were delighted to show us their crops, which were only a few weeks from being ready to harvest.

Most of the produce is consumed by the villagers and is very beneficial for their diet.

There is also the opportunity for the women to sell their crops and make some money to reinvest in the garden.

For these women in Binte the local market is a small fishing lodge on one of the nearby islands, which welcomes hardy visitors from Europe and further afield. There is very little tourism on the Bijagos islands; just some fishing, some eco-tourism, and some determined backpackers.

We had arrived at morning watering time. The garden was a hive of activity both for working on the plants and for social interaction.

Mary Perner is well known to the women in the gardens, as she has been involved from the very start.

“Through the market gardens the hard work of the women has resulted in new self esteem and empowerment.”

Mary Perner.

After their morning duties are complete the women walk back to the village of Binte. Although they also have a good well in the village itself, they don't waste any of the water they have pumped in the garden and they carry it back with them.

Back in the village of Binte itself, I met these children at the village well.

I heard a surprising story about the influence of WellFound. Back in 2015, just as work had started, the WellFound staff came across a women in labour and in great difficulty. They managed to get her to the mainland and the baby was born safely. In honour of Joao (John) Le, the WellFound team-leader, the baby was named John WellFound. He is still well and healthy and living in Binte.

This old man in Binte was delightful. Such character, and a natural to be photographed.

My final photograph from Binte. This lady was shelling cashew nuts. Guinea-Bissau is one of the main cashew nut producing countries in the world. The cashew trees grow wild everywhere and are a source of food and, sometimes, limited income for the people.

A single nut grows within a double shell, which is itself attached to a cashew "apple". The apple is also edible but doesn't travel well which is why we don't see them in Europe. Getting the nut out of the double shell is a messy and painful business as the shell contains an acid, which is a potent skin irritant.

26th January 2018

My final photograph from Binte. This lady was shelling cashew nuts. Guinea-Bissau is one of the main cashew nut producing countries in the world. The cashew trees grow wild everywhere and are a source of food and, sometimes, limited income for the people.

A single nut grows within a double shell, which is itself attached to a cashew "apple". The apple is also edible but doesn't travel well which is why we don't see them in Europe. Getting the nut out of the double shell is a messy and painful business as the shell contains an acid, which is a potent skin irritant.

Cali is about 2 1/2 hours drive from the capital Bissau, and the last mile is down a dirt track.

As we travelled down to the village we were met by an excited crowd of villagers who were coming to greet us.

This is the solar system in Cali. The system consist of a borehole down to the water level, a solar powered pump feeding a large storage tank, and then a system of pipes and taps to distribute the water.

This was the first solar system we installed in 2017. Now, having learnt lessons and gained experience, we aim to provide a solar system in all the villages, where we work.

The costs are more for a solar system, but the benefits are much more water available, and the convenience of pipes and taps to distribute the water to where it's needed. Our wonderful, inspirational Founder Howard Measham without whom none of this would have been possible.

This is one of the taps in Cali, with ample running water.

The borehole in Cali is the deepest we have drilled so far and goes down 45m. On the mainland we can get access with a drilling rig mounted on the back of a lorry (whereas in the islands everything is by hand).

This borehole had to be drilled twice. The water we found in the first location was contaminated by iron giving it a very unpleasant taste. Fortunately we found clean water on the second attempt.

The market gardens on the mainland were slightly behind those on the islands due to the slightly different climate, but this is still a flourishing and well-looked after garden.

Once again the women knew and greeted Mary Perner who had the original vision for market gardens next to the new sources of water.

Howard also took the opportunity to inspect the crops as the women worked.

He is wearing a tie because that day we were travelling with a cameraman and reporter from the Guinea-Bissau state television. That evening WellFound was on national TV back in the capital.

The solar system in Cali also feeds reservoirs in the market garden. This significantly reduces the workload for watering, as water is readily available at several points across the garden - another benefit of the solar system.

A general view of the solar system and the market garden in Cali.

I asked to see where they used to get water before they started work with WellFound.

I was taken to this muddy pool fed by a small natural spring.

There is “cleanish” water within the cast concrete rings and the villagers still use this sometimes for washing.

However their health has been measurably improved by using the new water source for drinking.

Back at the market garden the women showed me their freshly harvested onions. Some of these will be going to market in a town about an hour's walk away. Some of the proceeds from the sale will be reinvested in the garden to buy more seeds and tools.

The next village was Wapte, another mainland village with a population of about 350.

We were met by a welcoming party at the start of the dirt track up to the village.

The girls in red shirts and shorts are the Wapte Women's Football Team. After WellFound had been working with local villages for a few months, we asked how they wanted to celebrate International Women's Day in March 2018. They replied they wanted a women's football tournament between four nearby villages. This was a significant sign of the new gender equality. We don't think the women would have asked for this before, as football was exclusively a man's game. WellFound was able to provide the kit for four teams, and they organised the tournament.

After the welcome we all moved off together up the dirt track to the village.

This village was sponsored by a very generous donor who asked for the well to be named "The Garnet Well".

As we made our way towards Wapte we were met by the solitary figure of the village chief who walked slowly out to meet us. An imposing figure. The chief knew Howard and had come to meet him.

The chief greeted us and it was party time.

The chief showed off his fine costume of animal skins, and Howard joined in the dancing. Then it was off towards Wapte again.

Finally, in the village itself, Howard spoke, thanking the villagers for their partnership so far and encouraging them to continue working hard to build a better future.

Our final village for the day: Paile where WellFound has been working since 2017.

Access to clean water, hygiene and fresh vegetables has motivated the villagers here to build their own school and to start to give an education to their children.

WellFound is always delighted when access to the basic necessities of life liberates the people to start to look after themselves.

At the village well the Paile women's football team came out to show off their orange kit.

Once again the market garden was very busy.

Finally in Paile, I asked to see the original water source which they used before WellFound arrived on the scene.

This dirty pool was a good 20 minutes walk from the village. I was warned there were crocodiles around. Not the sort of thing you want to contend with when fetching water.

I disturbed these two ladies who had come out to the disused water hole for a private wash.

27th January 2018

We were due to spend the next day in Bissau, the capital, but we received an unexpected phone call.

George Hodgson, the British Ambassador to Senegal and Guinea-Bissau, was in the area. He had heard of WellFound and wished to visit us.

We invited him back to Cali for the day.

From the left: Howard Measham, George Hodgson, Oliveira (chief of Cali) and Joao Le (leader of the WellFound team in Guinea-Bissau)

The ambassador took great interest in the work which the village was doing with WellFound. After his visit he said, “It was a pleasure to spend time with Howard, Mary, Joao and Gill, getting to see what WellFound does to support some of the poorest communities in Guinea Bissau, thanks to funding from the UK's Department for International Development. In the absence of government institutions able consistently to deliver the basic services needed across the country, community-led initiatives like those supported by WellFound are all the more important.

A big thanks from all the people of Cali, including their own women's football team in black.

28th January 2018

Guinea Bissau under 21 National Football Team

29th January 2018

WellFound provide trained agricultural technicians to work in the villages to support the women and their market gardens. This is a class of students being trained in agriculture.

Whilst we were visiting the college, Hertumisa, who is the nurse employed by WellFound, kindly offered to cook lunch for the students.

Towards the end of my visit we went to the Lino Correia Stadium in Bissau. This was a match between two womens teams, UDIB and Benfica de Bissau.

On my final day in Guinea-Bissau I met the women from Cali, Paile and Wapte again in the market town of Binar. They would have walked several miles to get here, carrying their produce. It would all be sold as fresh vegetables are in demand, and the money raised would be a welcome benefit for the women.