“I’m not the panicking type”

2000 euros for a thesis

23-10-2013

MAASTRICHT. Sudan is located on the Nile and has lots of water resources – but that is not to say everyone there has clean drinking water. Far from it. This is what Isabel Mank, a German master’s student of Global Health, discovered in and around the capital of Khartoum. Although the research didn't go quite as planned, Mank’s thesis won the Catharina Pijls Prize, worth 2000 euros.

"I was pretty nervous", says Mank (23) of the award ceremony, which was held two weeks ago in the Maastrichtzaal (UNS 40). We speak over Skype because she now lives in Vienna, where she is following another master’s degree Environmental Technology and International Affairs. "I’ve never given a speech in front of so many people, including Princess Margriet (who attended as special chair of the advisory board of the master’s in Global Health –Ed.). I mean, how often do you have a royal listening to your speech?" Each year the Catharina Pijls Incentive Prize is granted for the best dissertation by a researcher and the best thesis by a student in the field of the Health Sciences.

Why water management and why Sudan? Mank was interested in waterborne diseases such as hookworm infection, schistosomiasis, and legionellosis, which are transmitted through unclean drinking water, a lack of basic sanitation facilities and missing knowledge on hygienic behavior. She wanted to explore these issues from the perspective of women. Various UM staff already had contacts in Sudan thanks to internships done by former Maastricht students. "I wasn’t afraid; instead I saw it as an opportunity to visit the country. You need an invitation to get a visa. And yes, sometimes tourists and UN personnel occasionally get threatened or kidnapped, but in advance I checked the news, demonstrations, the president’s movements … It was quiet."

Mank decided to focus on women who had fled to refugee camps from other parts of the country - they are called IDP camps (Internally Displaced People). "In Sudan, many people are on the move, especially from Darfur to Khartoum. But what are the living conditions of these women? Where and how often do they fetch the water? What do they use it for? Do they boil it before they drink it?"

IDP camps? They no longer exist, government employees told Mank (and three other UM students). It became clear that foreigners – but also members of local and international development organisations – would not be allowed to visit the 'slums'. Instead, with support of the Ahfad University for Women, Mank managed to survey ten women by way of a questionnaire. New problems arose: "The translator knew nothing about my project. Some questions were not answered; some answers were written in Arabic, so they weren’t very useful. It was frustrating. More than one week had passed, I only had three to go and I still had no data. I’m not the panicking type, but it was stressful. I was worried about my thesis. Would I be able to finish it?"

Then things took a turn for the better. Mank got the chance to interview employees from the Public Water Corporation in Khartoum. They explained to her who receives the drinking water, who is responsible for its distribution and where it is drawn from. She also got in touch with representatives of Unicef, the Sudanese Red Crescent (part of the Red Cross –Ed.) and the local NGO Almanar. "And with the help of a student assistant I met a second group of women of the suburban areas, whom I had interesting discussions with."

On the basis of her interviews, Mank concluded that Sudan does not have a shortage of drinking water as such, but lacks strong management and a feeling of accountability for the suburban areas on the side of the government, the private water providers and the NGO's. There is also a lack of knowledge about hygiene: "Women don't boil the water first, but just use it, which means their children suffer from diarrhoea most of the time."

Most "shocking" was Mank’s finding that the people living in the slums and suburban areas of Khartoum State are left to their fate. No international NGOs and foreigners are allowed in, nor are local NGOs. "They’re afraid of disputes with the government, while these people need the most help. They have hardly anything: no money, no education, no jobs."

Maurice Timmermans

“I’m not the panicking type”
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