What was it like digging wells in the late 1960's in "Upper Volta" -- what is now Burkina Faso? Read this first-hand account and instruction guide for future well diggers to find out.
The ostensible reason for going to Upper Volta in the first place was to be a puisatier, a digger of wells. More specifically , my job “was animating the local population to dig and cement large-diameter wells, and to educate the people on the health and agricultural benefits of a clean water supply”. And indeed, for two years I and my fellow well diggers organized our lives around the well digging season. My memories of the actual activity are sketchy, but somewhat refreshed by having lately gone through all of my letters home. In those letters, mostly covering the months January through June, the well digging season, I do make some effort to tell my mother about both the process and the challenges of carrying out my primary responsibility to the people of Upper Volta. Armed with that evidence I want to see if I can get to the reality of it.
First, it is important to note that in my COS documents provided by Peace Corps I am credited with "digging" 11 wells. As mentioned, my late middle aged brain has recollection of only a couple of specific wells, and those may in fact be composites of various wells, and the reality is that I dug none of them. Nevertheless, I attempt here to provide instructions, 50 years later, for future well diggers in the Sahel
How to build a well
Have the village locate a site. They may know from experience where there is likely to be water, and there will probably be village politics involved (near the chief’s compound is a likely location) and you definitely don’t want to get tangled up in them. If they want to use a dowser go ahead and pay for it, so if the well fails you cannot be blamed. Recognize that the chances of choosing a site that will hit granite at 15 feet are 50/50 and that nothing is more discouraging to the villagers than creating dry holes in the sahel- “ya wenam bala” (God’s will) only goes so far in keeping the village engaged in too many futile efforts.
Make sure that the village has identified where they will get sand and gravel for the concrete, and have them begin to amass a suitable pile of both before you begin digging. Promise the bigas candy and the women the used concrete sacks as incentives but let the chief or whomever he designates as the local leader hand them out. Remember that the sand and gravel are being swept up by hand and brought to the site in baskets on the heads of the women, and plan accordingly. You will need enough to build a mixing platform and set posts for a pulley system at the beginning of the project., and once you hit water...