Digging a Well By Hand

Travel allows one to see so much, experiences that allow an observant traveler to see a wider world. Different foods, different views of life, different ways of doing things. While much of this is subtle, the small experiences, some observations are dramatically different and memorable… At the school we were visiting an age old art was being practiced… Digging a well by hand deep into the earth to reach the water below.

Digging a well by hand
The winch frame stands over a hand dug well with the crew standing around

A simple wooden frame sits over the well, a hand cranked winch wound with just enough 5/8″ jute rope to reach the bottom. No bearings at the ends, the winch shaft just heavily greased where it passes through the wooden frame. Simple tubes over the handles allow the cranks to be easily spun by hand as the loads of soil are lifted from the earth below.

The well is being dug by a crew of four to five young men. One fellow deep in the shaft, a couple winching the loads up and down, and at times another preparing the materials… Loading bricks into buckets, mixing mortar, or resting in the shade.

According to the well crew this well was dug to about 115ft with water encountered about 10ft before the bottom. As this well was up on a hillside the depth is not a surprise.

Hand dug well
A hand dug well plunges deep in the earth

That 115ft is entirely packed sediment all the way down, soils and clays, no rock was encountered. Reportedly the going was slow for the first 20-30ft after which the digging became much easier in moist deeper soils.

Mixing mortar
Mixing mortar to line a hand dug well

At work one of my duties at work is safety officer, thus I am reasonably familiar with the various workplace safety regulations that are enforced in the US and Europe, but are of little concern in Uganda.

The sheer number of OSHA violations present on this worksite is at once fun and horrifying to consider… No personal protective gear, no fall protection, overhead suspended loads, no brake on the winch, exposed electrical connections, inadequate ventilation in a confined space… The list would fill volumes.

Students peer into the well
School students peer into the well being dug by hand

Over the days I visited the well several times to check on the progress. Early in the week the crew was still digging the well deeper to insure they were well below the water table. In the days before our departure they had reached final depth and begun to construct the liner. Loads of the locally made bricks and buckets of mortar were being lowered to the worker below, the circular wall just visible as it rose from the bottom.

To reach the final depth had taken two months of digging. This effort would be complete in a few more days of brick laying. After the liner a concrete cap would be installed and an electric pump lowered into the well to provide a steady supply of water to the growing school.

I think about the implications of digging a well like this… On one side is admiration for the hard work and skill it clearly takes to create something that will make lives better. On the other side is the realization that tradgedy will occur one day in such a risky occupation. Maybe not this well, but it is inevitable.

Author: Andrew

An electrical engineer, amateur astronomer, and diver, living and working on the island of Hawaiʻi.

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