NORMAN — Teachers, parents, children, speakers and international activists joined together to sing, “I believe children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way,” at the close of the 2013 OU International waTER Conference on Tuesday night.
Ada Oko-Williams, who won the 2013 OU International Water Prize for her work on sanitation and behavioral changes within communities, said the song always inspired her to follow her own path, and she hoped all of the conference participants would find similar inspiration.
The waTER Conference, which began Monday and will conclude today, brought together participants from multiple disciplines responding to the UN Millennium Development Goals of bringing water and sanitation to developing countries. David Sabatini, director of the OU waTER center, said the conference had about 200 participants from 20 countries and five continents.
Working in western Africa for the past 14 years, Oko-Williams, who is from Nigeria, said she had experience working directly with communities to bring them access to sanitation.
“Through my work, I’ve been able to bring inspiration to communities in very difficult situations and help them actually work on their problems,” she said.
Discussing some of her work in Benue, Oko-Williams said people there had never used a toilet, much less knew what a water facility looked like.
Her work focuses on sanitation, but Oko-Williams said building latrines can lead to the rallying of a community and the discussion of other issues.
“In Benue, the latrines lead to talks about money for school fees, hygiene for women and the community’s general well-being,” she said.
Some of the places where Oko-Williams has worked on brining sanitation have been in government turmoil. Sierra Leone was a particular challenge for Oko-Williams after it came out of six years of devastating war.
“There was no sense of government. We had to think about what we could do before the government got there,” Oko-Williams said. “My work there was beyond the output of the projects (constructed latrines).”
At the end of her work in Sierra Leone, Oko-Williams said people had started to address other community problems and the community was in repair.
Not only does clean water bring together communities, but it can give people a sense of purpose, she said.
While working in Ujol, Nigeria, Oko-Williams encountered an illiterate woman who helped educate her community in an attempt to stop open defecation. The woman told Oko-Williams that she could die happy because everywhere she went, people recognized her as a teacher.
“This is so much more than just putting a latrine in a town,” Oko-Williams said.
Oko-Williams said the waTER Conference had been beneficial to her work, especially in the areas of entrepreneurship and the technical side of obtaining physical access to water.
“I learned there is enough groundwater for people, and how to get it is actually the problem,” Oko-Williams said. “Fluoride in the water, this always seemed daunting, but ... I realize that it’s possible.”
Additionally, the waTER Conference encouraged communication and discussion between Norman school children with a poster contest.
Oko-Williams presented winners of the contest with a money prize. Students from Dimensions Academy, All Saints Catholic School, Alcott Middle School and Lincoln Elementary and one home-schooled student won prizes.
Gustav Ruiz, first-place winner of the 9-12 grade division, said he was inspired from his travels to Mexico, where he saw people get water out of a well.
“So many people don’t know clean water isn’t available to many; finding out is a big impact on you,” Ruiz said.
Second-place winner of the 9-12 division, Siarra Williams, agreed with Ruiz and said, “Learning so many facts, like the fact that flushing a toilet uses six liters of water, well, that really makes you want to help.”
Emily Rockers, 6-8 grade division second-place winner, said she knew clean water was important because everything living needs it. In response to such enthusiasm from students, Oko-Williams said she hoped many of them would work with her some day to achieve clean water for everyone.